The potential demise of the National Endowment for the Arts is a 3-dimensional problem, but only one of the three matters.
Having worked there for several years that were critical to individual visual artists, it became apparent to me that there are two different but related worlds at stake. One is the “professional” world. The other is the “cultural” world. Being successful in one is not at all an indicator nor predictor of being successful in the other. More importantly, the possibility of doing individual artwork INDEPENDENTLY OF the pressures of cultural and commercial marketing is, WITHOUT taxpayer funding, almost exclusively the opportunity of people who (said carefully) believe they have nothing to lose by concentrating on it. Those people generally have more than enough disposable income to afford the time spent on artistic R&D, or they have no other competing reasonable earnings opportunity.
A different issue is about why having inventive creativity supported is not an optional component of education and mental health. The before-vs-after experience of artistic expressiveness is literally mind-altering and is comparable mainly to the difference between the self awareness one has as an adult versus the self-awareness one has as a child. When you already have an adult self-awareness, you will not give it up to revert to a child’s. When you’re a child, you do not know the difference, so you don’t place value on the difference. You need help to get there. In America, that help rarely comes in a sustained, broadly available way without public funding. Yet in an adult world, childishness is not an educated and mentally healthy state to be in.
And thirdly, in a poly-cultural society, art is the most reliable way for differing peoples to recognize each other’s humanity, other than the disaster recovery phase of catastrophes. Tough choice? No.
I’ve said that only one of the three “matters”… and here is what I mean…
World-wide access to art of many cultures is now available 24×7, thanks to media-on-the-internet. The only blocker there is attitudes (which CAN of course mean governments but is mainly about individuals).
And independent artistic research occurs regardless of public funding at the levels sustained *by the NEA*. A constellation of alternative institutions and private sector donors can easily make up for the funding deficit that will occur immediately upon NEA shutting its doors. The blocker here is mainly accountability to sponsors.
But understanding the role of art in making societies coherent and civilizations resilient is mired in the politicization of free speech and the politicization of elite academia — both of which are aggravated symptoms of social and educational immaturity. Policy decisions like eliminating the *endowment* for arts and humanities systemically suppress maturation, institutionalizing the deficiency. COMPARED to that, access and independent invention are just not serious problems.
The arts and humanities are not scary. Fear of them is scary and is excellent fuel for manipulators whose power depends on exploiting ignorance and on removing the intrinsic means of authority that enable free people to be autonomously and intentionally free. A free people should strive to invest in their future, not shop for it.
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Originally published at Medium on March 9, 2017.