Friday, January 30, 2004

Unprincipled Conservatism and NEA Funding

Over at NRO, Roger Kimball demonstrates a major difference between libertarians and conservatives when it comes to public funding for the arts: libertarians don't believe in publicly funded art, whatever its merits, while conservatives think its just fine and dandy, as long as it supports their values.

Under normal circumstances, the White House announcement that the president was seeking a big budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts might have been grounds for dismay. Pronounce the acronym "NEA," and most people think Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs of crucifixes floating in urine, and performance artists prancing about naked, smeared with chocolate, and skirling about the evils of patriarchy.

Thanks, but no thanks.

But things have changed, and changed for the better at the NEA. The reason can be summed up in two trochees: Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet and critic who is the Endowment's new chairman.

Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent "transgressive" freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night's Dream in a concentration camp.

Mr. Gioia is moving on other fronts as well. He has hired a number of able deputies who care about art and understand that what the public wants is more access to good art — opera, poetry, theater, literature — not greater exposure to social pathology dressed up as art. After a couple of decades of cultural schizophrenia, the NEA has become a clear-sighted, robust institution intent on bringing important art to the American people.

What a load of horse manure. How is this any different in principle from the state-directed art of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany? Stalin had his Socialist Realism, Hitler had his Arno Breker and Albert Speer, while for American conservatives the important thing is supporting "real" Shakespeare instead of repellent "transgressive" freaks - a phrase redolent of Nazi complaints about "degenerate art".

I love the arts, I love classical music, painting, sculpture and architecture, I think my life would not be as complete without such things in it, but nevertheless, I refuse to endorse the notion of state-sponsored art. The state simply has no business deciding what constitutes "innovation" or "beauty" in the arts, whether that means praising Shakespeare or Chris Ofili's latest dung-piece. Mr. Kimball may think it self-evident that traditional renditions of Shakespeare's plays are "obviously" better than those set in concentration camps, and he might believe it equally obvious that everyone knows what "good art" is, but I don't see why taxpayer funds have to go to subsidizing his particular aesthetic conceptions as opposed to anyone else's.

The truth is that in aesthetic matters, more than anywhere else, "De gustibus non disputandum est." Shakespeare's art, as celebrated as it is today, was a purely commercial offspring of its own time, full of ribaldry and slapstick of a sort the Roger Kimballs of the day would no doubt have lambasted as "repellent" and "freakish"; the notion that Shakespeare's work would be fetishised in the manner conservatives do today would have struck Elizabethans as the height of absurdity, as ridiculous a notion as some future generation venerating Seinfeld scripts would strike us in our own time. Taxpayer money shouldn't be used to subsidize any art, whether or not it accords with the sensibilities of middlebrow "conservatives" like Roger Kimball.