The Art of Picking Taxpayers' Pockets

I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine than a small body of enlightened and responsible men administering public funds. --John Updike

Passions have been inflamed over the issue of government funding of the arts--and rightfully so. Those in the clique who have been the beneficiaries of the taxpayers' largesse feel threatened and have reacted accordingly. On the other side, disbelief has turned to outrage from people who are being told that their tax dollars must fund so-called art projects that attack strongly held religious convictions or are indistinguishable from hard-core pornography.

Then, of course, there are those supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts who fear that what they see as a source of cultural enrichment may be severed amid an ongoing political donnybrook.

Believe it or not, I have sympathy with those who want to be artists, but unless they are creating something valued by others, they do not have the right to force the rest of us to subsidize their chosen career. Artists are not the only ones who struggle to establish themselves. The "Catch-22" of the NEA is that artists like John Updike do not need federal grants; others who cannot sell their goods because no one values their work shouldn't be encouraged to continue wasting their time and the taxpayers dollars.

It is the use of tax dollars and not the nature of the art that is the fundamental issue in this controversy. NEA supporters have done their best to obfuscate the issue, yet any honest observer must admit that the right of artists to create and display anything they darn well please, as long as it is done with their own money, has been stressed time and again. Thus we are talking about standards for public sponsorship, not censorship.

If there has been censorship, it is lack of support shown by the NEA for more classical, traditional and, yes, religious art. This tilt is made even more exasperating when one sees the scores of weird, nonsensical and sexually graphic works on which federal subsidies have been bestowed.

It would be better just to get the government out of the business of making art decisions in the first place. Overlooked in the furor of this debate has been my oft-repeated proposal for beefed-up tax incentives that would result in more money for the arts than currently is channeled to the special few by the NEA. Although this would be financially beneficial to the arts and would virtually eliminate federal content controls, the arts community has not been responsive.

Freedom of expression, especially artistic expression, is a vital force in American culture. I believe in it. As long as tax dollars are being used, the American people have the right to expect them not to be spent for works they believe to be immoral or works that attack their religion, whether it is urinating on Jesus or defecating on a Star of David. The best thing we can do for the arts and for artistic freedom, is to provide incentives for the American people to increase their contributions to the arts and then get the government out.

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