Rethinking the NEA.

A street grate in SF. Art is everywhere.

A few weekends ago I got into a debate with my sister-in-law about the NEA. Fueled by a little wine and more than a little rudeness (she was a guest and makes her living in the arts), I stridently pointed out that the NEA is an organization that takes money by threat of force and gives it to artists, thereby putting the government in the role of determining what is and what is not art.

A bit over the top, I admit, but fundamentally true as the NEA is funded by taxes. I pontificated further to say I did not believe the government had any role in something so subjective as art and that if NEA funding were cut off the arts would hardly suffer for it, while society as a whole would probably benefit.


In thinking about it more in the days that followed I came to a different conclusion. I think pursuing art with no commercial intent is like basic research in that its primary value lies in the pursuit not the outcome. In other words, the pursuit of art for art's sake is valuable. But who can afford to do that, especially folks who are no longer in their teens and early twenties? No one. And that's where the NEA comes in. It allows people to pursue art in a society that would otherwise deny them. Yes, they could work day jobs and do their art at night, but so could basic researchers and if I'm going to fund someone I'd like him to be no more sleep deprived than necessary.

As I hit "save and publish" for this post, I admit, I have doubts. My favorite artists all did their thing without NEA money. Big picture, though? I just think we're a better society to support the arts with a little government money than to not do anything at all.