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NEA's chilling effect

"NEA's chilling effect" Continued...

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

Under the NEA, artists and arts groups submit their grant proposals for "peer review." Funding decisions are thus made by fellow artists and by critics ensconced in "the art world." Instead of creating work for an audience, artists create for each other. This system of artistic inbreeding, similar to that of the genetic kind, often gives birth to monstrosities-esoteric game-playing, academic experimentation, aesthetic-free fashion mongering, and schemes to shock or ridicule the outside world. The impact of the NEA goes far beyond its limited budget. Corporations and other patrons take NEA recognition as "a seal of approval" for their own funding and have set up peer review panels of their own, multiplying the damage.

This system insulates artists from the culture as a whole. Ordinary human beings can no longer understand the art they are unwittingly patronizing. This impoverishes both ordinary life, as it becomes more and more aesthetically drained, and the art world, which cuts itself off from cultural relevance. Now, due to congressional pressure, the NEA-whose funding was approved again by a House panel on the very day the court handed down its decency decision-no longer gives grants to individual artists, only organizations such as museums and symphonies, which are then free to pass on money to individual artists.

But subsidies are still harmful for the arts. Music lovers have been lamenting the decline of European orchestras. The same stale repertoire, half-hearted performances, and musicians who no longer practice have become hallmarks of heavily subsidized state orchestras. In America, since NEA funding has tightened, orchestras are coming alive, performing fresh, rarely heard compositions, featuring exciting new performers, and making an effort to reach out to their audiences.

Just as the competitive laws of the marketplace result in better automobiles, they result in better art. Conversely, industries and arts groups sheltered from the marketplace by the heavy hand of the government can only decline in quality. Perhaps the most farcical example of how government support can wreck a nation's art can be found in the Netherlands. The government actually buys the work of its artists. But as a result, government warehouses are filled to the brim with artworks no one knows what to do with.

Since the artists have to turn in so many paintings per year to receive their check, they give the government their most unsellable work, including minimalistic jokes-such as a table top with an X painted on it-showing their contempt for the system they are exploiting.

Now the Dutch government is facing the problem of what to do with all this art. The law forbids selling it, since that would depress the art market. Nor can it be given away, which would drive down prices even further. One partial solution is to let the paintings be checked out at public libraries, but not that many Hollanders are interested. It looks like the paintings will have to be destroyed.

Just as the welfare system harms the very people it intends to help-breeding dependency, squelching individual initiative, and institutionalizing poverty-welfare for artists saps their creativity, dragging down American art to the level of Karen Finley smearing chocolate on herself.

The art world needs to recover beauty, meaning, and the potential of art to elevate the culture. If this can happen, the art world will no longer be the subject of ridicule and contempt, and genuine artists will have all the audiences and financial support they need.

So, art lovers and all Americans who yearn for cultural renewal should indeed rally to the defense of the arts. The first step toward recovering America's artistic greatness? Abolish the NEA.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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