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Nancy Ahern

is a freelance writer and columnist in Arizona.

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    The Fundmentals of Art Funding
    by Nancy Ahern

    November 30, 2002

    Don't get me wrong. I find art and artistic expression to be fundamentally important to something that is humanly innate. Artistic expression and creativity, along with appreciation for same, are elements that separate us from the lower life forms. So long as we are living, it is good to surround ourselves with created beauty as well as natural beauty. Further, the ironic observation that writing -- an activity in which I routinely engage -- is a form of creative expression does not escape me.

    Nevertheless, when I pop "arts funding" into my favorite Internet search engine and come up with a site that lists 22 -- twenty-two! different government agencies that provide explicit funding for artistic projects, my mind begins to boggle at the potential for excess. To save you the effort of searching, the URL for the National Endowment for the Arts' laundry list of government ops is You'll find such patrons of the arts as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (I have heard of cows that paint), the Department of Defense (for those tastefully decorated tanks and aircraft carriers), the Department of Justice (African print Judges robes are going to be all the rage next year), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (a nouveau-art design for the next generation space shuttle is in the works, I hear tell).


    It's well understood that art is not self-sustaining. Some popular works pay for themselves, of course, presuming they catch the eye of the populace sufficiently. Proper promotion takes dollars and it's rare when successful sleepers in the art world awaken. Since part of the government's legitimate business is to build and maintain the infrastructure that is necessary for the running of this country -- and that includes buildings and roadways -- then it makes sense to incorporate into building and maintaining sufficient funds to ensure these things contain beauty. Without patronage of some official sort, the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel would have been painted in Navajo White latex. This thinking, however, leads too merrily down the stream of assumption that funding must come from the government, lest we suffer solely a deluge of mindless sitcoms, trashy novels and the sort of decor paintings one sees hanging in furniture store displays.

    Artistic Considerations

    It's important to understand the fundamentals of art funding, and from whence art springs. Understand that Man indulged in art long before the NEA arose. Consider:

    * In recent years, government funding for the arts has decreased. Each time a decrease is discussed or enacted, those arts organizations who have most benefited from such funding have raised the hue and cry. As a result, private contributions from philanthropists, corporations, and individuals has dramatically increased. In fact, private contributions make up the majority of art funding.

    * We have seen many of the world's greatest masterpieces produced by commercial artists -- Shakespeare, Verdi, Dickens, Kubrick, and Mozart. These artists played to a popular audience. Corporate art does not have to be bad art.

    * We have seen some rather questionable -- and in my opinion useless -- artistic efforts funded in whole and in part by a government bent on ensuring political correctness. Hence, a jar filled with human urine is artwork as soon as the "artist" tosses a religious emblem into it and sets it up as a protest piece in a publicly funded display. Gray concrete walls along a state freeway are adorned with publicly funded giant broken teapots and dinnerware. Thirsty museum patrons get to tramp on national symbols in order to drink from the public fountains, and this "living work" is considered "art" and is funded. Is that all not the same at heart as burbling family sitcoms and slasher movies? Pandering to a low common denominator within the human heart?

    * Ask any opera aficionado if he or she is ready to fund a pro wrestling match. Gauge their reaction. Ask that person why pro wrestling fans ought to fund opera. Is it not a matter of taste? Someone who prefers the beautiful glissandos of their favorite mezzo does not need to appreciate the humor and glitz that makes up pro wrestling, but a pro wrestling fan ought not be required to fund Carmen's Biggest Fan.

    * The marketplace has proven on many occasion to provide niche outlets for some amazing crafts., Borders and eBay all give the struggling artist opportunities to hawk their wares. Shops that pander to the art lover and home decorator pop up all over the nation, and the crafts of diverse cultures are enjoying an enormous upswing in popularity as people seek the new, the unusual, and the beautiful.

    * Lastly, it's established that when the government gets its nose into funding affairs, it can't be long before the entire elephantine carcass comes blundering after. Ask a private school or college that unwisely accepted government grants or funding and suddenly found themselves required to adhere to nonsensical rules regulating how they went about their business, and you'll understand how artists will find themselves required to toe a line. Thus a play that depicts Christ as a gay man having sex with his apostles may be celebrated by the government, but try to encourage artwork that is respectful of that same religion and the screech of "Separation of Church and State" shalt be heard yea, throughout the land.

    Funding for the arts comes from the private sector in plenty. It comes from the commercial sector in plenty. It comes from the public sector in the form of paying the bill for infrastructure and adornment of same in plenty, or even in education. I am at a loss to understand why the DoD needs to fund the creation of a movie lot on a closed military base.

    © 2002 Tocqevillian Magazine