By Christopher Ames
8:00 AM EST, January 22, 2012
With the primaries in full swing, the cowboy poetry festival and Big Bird have returned to the news.
The Nevada festival is the most recent whipping boy for those who oppose government funding of the arts. Mitt Romney joined this chorus by suggesting that, in his administration, "Big Bird is going to have advertisements," meaning that he would advocate using advertising revenue to replace government funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Similarly, Mr. Romney suggested that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities seek private philanthropy to replace their government funding.
From the left, Bill Maher has joined in, arguing that liberals should stop making a cause of government arts funding because there is no reason for the government to support some kinds of artistic ventures over others (he compared ballet with professional wrestling).
Those who oppose government funding for the arts typically seize on a project that will epitomize government waste. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, played into their hands by holding up the cowboy poetry festival as an example of the good accomplished by government arts funding.
But the cowboy poetry festival is an intriguing example. It represents a successful local effort to preserve a vanishing folk culture. It does not regularly receive government funding. But two small NEA grants 27 years ago enabled the Western Folklife Center to locate cowboy poets and begin the festival. A quarter of a century later, the festival brings 6,000 to 8,000 tourists to Elko, Nev., annually and functions without any continuing federal support. The project well illustrates the ways in which the arts can invigorate small towns (as well as fading downtowns in cities), how grants can preserve cultural material in danger of vanishing; and how seed grants can kick-start community ventures that become self-sustaining.
The real issue isn't cowboy poetry; it's the legitimate question about what social good is served by government support of the arts. Why not, as Bill Maher advocates, let the marketplace determine what forms of art prosper and survive? There is a good deal of commercially viable music, literature, theater, dance and art in our society. No one thinks that Bruce Springsteen or Stephen King should be grant-supported.
Most democratic societies provide more support for the arts than the United States does. But the tiny amount of U.S. government support (the NEA and NEH combined cost the average taxpayer $1.07 per year) accomplishes a great deal. Government support of the arts increases the diversity of the art and entertainment world, increases access to the arts, and helps live performance survive in an era in which digitally reproducible material has a tremendous economic advantage.
Limiting art to what is commercially viable results in cultural narrowness. Some great art proves to be commercially viable in the artist's lifetime, but we know, historically, that art that becomes revered and valuable in future eras is often underappreciated in its own time. Van Gogh and Keats are among the most famous examples of artists now revered who were unable to support themselves in their brief lifetimes. Shakespeare was a populist who wrote plays that filled a large London theater, but his career was enhanced by royal patronage under King James. Listening to masterworks in a classical concert today, we frequently enjoy music that was written by composers supported from royal treasuries.
By providing government support for art that is not commercially viable, we broaden the range of cultural expression. In the process, a lot of work will emerge that has little lasting effect; most artwork ultimately proves mediocre. But a diverse cultural environment reminds us that our country is made of many streams — not just the mainstream. And it reflects the fact that contemporary popularity is often not a reliable judge of enduring value.
Artwork that depends on live performance is particularly endangered by relying on commercial viability. We know why a ticket to a play costs more than a ticket to a movie. And we know that the experience of live performance is fundamentally different from watching a video or listening to a recording. Supporting the live arts often has a multiplier effect, as downtown areas are invigorated by community theaters. For a town like Elko, a vibrant annual festival can be the difference between success and failure for small businesses.
Yes, there's good stuff playing at the suburban multiplexes — but a little government help can level the playing field and build a healthier community. We invest in ourselves and the future when we pay that $1.07 each.
Christopher Ames is special assistant to the president of Washington College and a professor of English. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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