Every now and then, since the Reagan administration, the National Endowment for the Arts has garnered national attention as a target for elimination, a glaring example of excess in government, and a symbol of the arrogance of liberal cultural elitists. Yet the NEA’s sister agency, the National Endowment for Humanities, gets almost no attention from opponents of big government.
The NEH has been less publicly controversial, but the arguments for defunding it are just as valid.
The NEH wasn’t as sexy of a topic for 20th-century culture warriors, who attacked the NEA in 1989 over its use of taxpayer money to fund a display of the Piss Christ, Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine, as well as an exhibit of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Understandably, conservative and Christian critics of the NEA wondered whether the state should be extracting tax dollars from them to fund art they found morally repugnant and blasphemous.
Then as now, the NEH’s reputation among even its opponents was that of a more benign sibling—an unconstitutional waste of money, to be sure, but not one worth raising a stink about.
But now that the Trump administration is rumored to be planning to kill both agencies (along with privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and making “dramatic cuts” to Commerce, Energy, Justice, State and Transportation), perhaps it’s worth making the case.
Justifying NEH Grants
Created in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s Great Society program, the NEA and NEH were set up to distribute tax dollars to art and humanities programs, respectively, in the states.
The backlash against the Piss Christ-era NEA remains in the public memory, providing fertile ground for criticism from opponents. The NEH has been less publicly controversial, but the arguments for defunding it are just as valid.
Where the NEA awards artists and institutions with tax-funded grants with the intention of spurring artistic achievement, the NEH awards schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations and humanities projects with the intention of spurring cultural knowledge and interest.
The subsidies aren’t truly fair unless they equally benefit everyone who bears the cost of funding them.
A December 2016 round of NEH grants totaling $16.3 million included funding for faculty research and fellowships, “outstanding” cultural programs for young people and minority communities, digital projects and video games that “significantly contribute” to public engagement with humanities, and staff training at cultural institutions so that they’ll better understand how to preserve and care for their humanities collections—books, photographs, film and audio recordings, artifacts, furniture, textiles and more.
Just how does the government decide which cultural programs are “outstanding” or which smartphone apps “significantly contribute” to engagement with the humanities? After an individual or organization applies for a grant, a hand-selected peer review panel advises the NEH about the merits of the project. A National Council on the Humanities meets to review recommended applications, but the NEH chairman makes the final decision.
There’s a lot of room in that process for bias and arbitrary decision-making. Whatever the philosophical merits of the state funding cultural projects in general, the business of the NEH involves private and public individuals making personal judgments about which projects are worthy of taxpayer funding and which are not. It’s hard to imagine a principled justification for such a process. If you don’t see what the problem is, imagine a former KKK grand wizard as the NEH chairman, the guy who decides whether to approve funding for research at a historically black college.
Fair and Equitable?
It is a big mistake to moralize about big government, but then excuse subsidies for science.
Defenders of these subsidies point out that NEH and NEA grants go to every state, as if that makes them fairer. Even taking that for granted, however, the subsidies aren’t truly fair unless they equally benefit everyone who bears the cost of funding them.
A $100,000 grant from November 2016 went to develop a new religious studies minor at California State University, East Bay. Another $100,000 went to Fontbonne University in St. Louis to keep an online record of the Bosnian genocide. And another $100,000 went to the Boston-based Walking Cinema: Museum of the Hidden City, a “combination pop-up museum, mobile app, and documentary film” exploring the history of affordable housing in San Francisco.
These all sound like worthwhile projects, but are they fair and equitable?
It would be hard to prove that rural West Virginians benefit from an interactive documentary about San Francisco’s affordable housing experiment. It would be even harder to show that rural West Virginians benefit from the documentary as much as city-dwelling Californians. And if this can’t be proven, then any definition of fair isn’t objective—and therefore fails to make a good case for the NEH.
Oh, The Humanities!
A free society doesn’t need the de facto Ministry of Culture that is the National Endowments.
Pro-NEH and NEA advocates have also claimed that attempts to abolish the National Endowments are just a mask for a sinister motive: conservative attempts to suppress the arts and culture. Conservatives don’t help their case when they argue for government aid to STEM programs while cutting the humanities. It is a big mistake to moralize about big government subsidizing culture, but then excuse government subsidies for science.
The creation of NEH and NEA actually provide a cautionary tale for that crowd. As the NEH website tells us, President Johnson’s government justified the creation of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities by citing the existing national science funding. The 1964 report of the Commission on the Humanities lamented the “imbalance” that they claimed, plausibly, had been created by government funding of the natural sciences.
There are two ways to correct such an imbalance: pull the plug on science funding or increase funding elsewhere in the interest of fairness. The problem with this and other government attempts to achieve fairness, however, is that they’re perpetually self-justifying.
No matter how “fair” or “balanced” it gets, advocates of government funding can always point to some statistical or social trend that rationalizes continued, new, or increased funding. But the government can’t and shouldn’t try to fund everything. A free society doesn’t need a centrally managed Ministry of Science, nor does it need the de facto Ministry of Culture that is the National Endowments.
Critics reacting to the rumor of abolishing the NEH and NEA like to point out how little they cost compared to the many other programs the federal government spends our money on. True, abolishing the NEH and NEA won’t fix the debt, nor will the other rumored cuts. But there is no constitutional authority for these agencies, and considering how rare it is for the federal government to cut anything—it’s been growing nonstop for over a century—the small cost is actually a great argument for eliminating them.
The eliminations of the NEH and NEA, if they come to pass, will be about as painless as cuts get. Americans gave $17.07 billion for arts, culture and the humanities in 2015, a 7 percent increase over the previous year’s charitable giving. That dwarfs the $151 million each the endowments will enjoy in FY 2017.
Even if humanities projects require government intervention in the form of taxes, why must the federal government be involved? Federal funding is more distant, an invitation to wider conflict, and unconstitutional. Better to allow states, individuals, and institutions to decide whether or not to fund these important projects.