Monday, November 17, 2008

Government Funding?

Does the federal government have a role in promoting the arts? Yes and No. This is a no-win situation for the government. If they give artists blank checks for freedom of expression, it’s almost guaranteed that some portion of the population will be offended by the final product. On the flip-side, if the government gives money with many conditions, it looks like censorship.

There are some programs that are really easy for the general population to accept. For example, the NEA is promoting a program right now to encourage high school students to memorize and perform “great” poems. Sounds good, except the students are required to choose a poem from a pre-approved collection of poems. Very quickly the government is setting the standard for what is allowed in the program. In another program, the NEA is promoting the writing of war-time experiences by soldiers coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan. On the surface it sounds like an important program to help soldiers deal with their war experience and also to preserve that experience for future generations. But what if the soldier writes something the government deems “inappropriate?” Once again, the federal government will have the final say.

It’s hard to imagine our lives without the images provided by the WPA, one of the most famous federally funded arts program. Those photographs, paintings and murals of people searching for food or work have become national treasures. But you have to accept government funding for what it is, funding for the kind of art that everyone agrees is art. It’s not just “federal” money – it’s your money, your neighbor’s, your aunt’s who lives across the country. Are all of you going to have similar ideas about art? Additionally, government funding is rarely a blank check. It’s like taking money from your parents -- if you accept their money you’re going to have to listen to their unsolicited advice on how to spend it. It’s not all bad, it’s just not really that good either.

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