Do you have any art in your home? Most people do. We own two nicely framed prints purchased in the early days of our marriage. While those two are the most expensive pieces of art we have, we do have many other smaller pieces that brighten up the place. Why do I bring this up? We purchased our art with our own money; I did not put a gun to your head and demand that you buy these art pieces for us. But there are people who are doing this. No, you normally will not see a gun pressed against your head, but you should have noticed the hand of government taking money from your wallet. Just try withholding taxes because you disagree with the government taking your money, and it will come down on you like the proverbial ton of bricks. If you continue to resist, you will see a gun pointed at your head. That is the nature of government and taxes.
So the next time you want the government to do something for you, think of some government agent holding a gun against your grandmother’s head and demanding that she fork over the money for your pet project. Some things the government does actually pass what P.J. O’Rourke calls the “Grandma Test.” If the U.S. needs some more tanks to fight a war, then it’s time for Granny to cough up her share of the dough. But I cannot say the same thing for the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA is spending about $115 million of our tax money to fund artists this year. Yet is it the responsibility of the federal government to fund art and artists? I don’t think so, and neither did the Founding Fathers. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution outlines all the responsibilities of the Congress. As many times as I have challenged people to look carefully through this list of duties and tell me which one gives Congress the responsibility to fund the arts, not one person has been able to justify the NEA’s funding of artists based on something in the Constitution.
“We need artists,” I hear people cry. Sure, we need artists–our world would be very drab and depressing without them–but do we need the government to pay people to be artists? If I were a mechanic, could I demand that the government take money from you and others and give it to me? No, that would be silly. But you will hear this same argument for artists. After all, if we don’t pay artists to be artists, then they would be forced to do something else besides art, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy? In some cases, perhaps it would be. But I think our society will survive without spray-painted shoes stuffed with potatoes. If people think highly of that project, they are free to fund it, but this is not something the federal government should be doing. I do not believe that Karen Finley’s “performance art” of smearing herself with chocolate passes the “Grandma Test,” and regardless of its quality, neither does the artwork of other artists funded by the NEA.
If I wanted to be a mechanic, I could not go to you and demand that you put me through a technical school just so I could be trained. That would be my responsibility. Likewise, if I wanted to become a painter, I would need to pony up my own cash or beg, borrow, or steal the money needed for training and supplies. But what if I were unable to support myself and my family by selling my paintings? Do I have a claim on your money simply because I am a struggling artist? No, no more than I would have a claim on your money if I were a struggling mechanic. If I were not good enough or well-known and trusted enough to support my family as a mechanic, this would not grant me liberty to take your own hard-earned cash, nor would I be justified in using the government as my personal collection agency. I should take the responsibility to either work harder at improving the bottom line of my business, or find another line of work that pays the bills. This holds just as true for artists as it does for mechanics.
I have been told that we must fund the arts, since if the federal government withheld funding, nobody else would step forward to do it. For a moment, let’s pretend that every dime of NEA-earmarked money has been returned to the taxpayers who must deal with the financial burden of this federal fleecing. Would this spell the end of the arts as we know them in the United States? Certainly not. The overwhelming majority of art projects are privately funded to begin with. So what is the big deal about a few million dollars being spent by the government? After all, the entire NEA budget would not be enough to buy the toys we provide for the military. But there is one major problem with this argument: national defense is delineated in the Constitution as a responsibility of government. Funding the arts, noble though it may be, is not.
I have heard someone argue that if the German government had funded an aspiring young painter named Adolf Hitler, he would never have gone into politics or plunged the world into war. This sounds like a powerful emotional argument–but if we can use this “what if” thinking for Hitler, let’s try considering the opposite side of the coin. What if a young Karen Finley and her chocolate syrup performance art were not funded by the NEA? Perhaps she might have pursued another profession, become a world-class scientist, and discovered a cure for AIDS. Which path would you prefer Karen Finley to have taken? The point is, I don’t mind what she does; I do mind that she felt fully justified to perform her “art” on the taxpayer’s nickel. If Karen couldn’t find enough people to pay for her chocolate-covered peep show, perhaps she should think about other career paths and stop demanding that the government hold a gun to Grandma’s head to buy chocolate syrup for the next performance.