It’s no big secret that arts organizations in the United States skew incredibly leftist in comparison with the general citizenry’s ideas and attitudes. It is almost axiomatic that our theater companies and museums are operated by and support the art of people with left-leaning politics and social views. It is something we just take for granted, as if artists by their very nature will always tend to be leftists.
But leftist hegemony over the arts is not merely the product of some genetic feature of artistic types that makes them prefer Democrats to Republicans. Another significant reason for this is the not-for-profit funding model used by the majority of country’s arts organizations. In most cases the successful arts organization is not the one that reaches out to audiences and generates the most earned income, but the ones that can keep the free donated money rolling in.
There are a number of reasons why a not-for-profit model will tend to make organizations leftist. The first is that the very nature of asking for money, rather than simply selling tickets, suggests some higher purpose for the arts than mere entertainment. At one point in time, this higher purpose was viewed to be the edification of citizens, providing them with a well-rounded understanding of culture. But increasingly that higher purpose has come to be activism, especially leftist activism. That leads conservative donors to a question: Should they be funding the arts?
Let’s take the example of Jubilee 2020, a project originally organized within the theater commons Howlround. The original concept behind the Jubilee was that for one year all of the theater produced on American stages would be written by women, people of color, the disabled, LGBT — well, it’s easier just to say anybody except straight, white, non-trans men.
The current website is a bit more coy about what exactly is intended, likely a result of accurate complaints that the Jubilee is engaging in discrimination, but the original intent still shines through. The essay defining the Jubilee has this polite little section telling white dudes to shut up: “This is also a time for straight, white men to rejoice, to witness, to listen, and to be fed for one year by the stories they’ve also been denied.”
Thus far, about 80 theater companies nationwide as well as some universities and even secondary schools have signed the pledge to produce only works written by the supposedly marginalized. Among these theaters are some of the nation’s best-known and most important, including HERE arts center in New York City, The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in Pennsylvania, Arena Stage in Washington DC, and the Marin Shakespeare Company in California. These are not outliers. In fact, they are a fairly representative cross-section of the not-for-profit arts world. That is to say, this level of political correctness is fairly uniform across the arts.
In addition to direct government grants to these companies, which is a whole other story, as 501(c)3 corporations they receive millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations. Now if one is a conservative who believes that people should be treated as individuals, not representatives of their race, sex, or any other identity, if one believes in equal opportunity rather than redistributed opportunity, if one believes that human beings ought not be defined by their demographic proximity to historical oppression, but rather by their unique experiences and abilities, then how can one give money to organizations dedicated to the exact opposite?
Now, I know the receptions are nice. And celebrities come out and you get to mingle with them. They tolerate you for a few minutes to help the theater company or arts space they are shilling for. That’s fun, and nice. You get photos to put on Instagram. I get it. But maybe you should stop. Because every dollar you give them feeds a fecund and fierce hatred of basic American values.
And it isn’t just identity politics. Non-profit arts organizations often create content in support of gun control and abortion. They create versions of Julius Caesar in which Donald Trump is stabbed to death on stage. Theatre Communications Group, the leading industry organization of non-profit theater companies, has as part of its mission “activism,” which it describes as a “fight for effective cultural and economic policies.”
Arts organizations do all of this based on the support of taxpayers and donors. When conservatives pull out their checkbooks, thinking, “My, how wonderful and important it is to support the arts,” they should think twice. Not only are they very likely giving to organizations that actively promote a political and cultural agenda they oppose, they are also funding the development of artists who will go on to write our television shows and movies, who will help to enact progressive cultural change without any significant input from the American people.
Some argue that without this funding the arts will simply disappear, that conservatives should hold their nose and give because no art is worse than art that supports a progressive agenda. But this is a stupid argument. Art is one of the oldest and most fundamentally human phenomenon that exists. There will never be a time when there is no art. Even when governments actively try to suppress art, people make art.
Would moving the arts to a free-market model change them? Yes, absolutely. It would look and feel different, but art is a living thing. It is meant to change. Would moving the arts to a free model help break up the leftist hegemony? Here again the answer is likely yes.
There is one art form we can look to that is relatively untouched by the non-profit movement. Stand-up comedy exists almost entirely in the free market, and it is more or less the only art form that dares to mock the leftist shibboleths of identity politics and political correctness. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle regularly challenge the taboos of the left. The universe of stand up has room for the “unfunny” woke comedy of a Hannah Gadsby, but it also has Bill Burr taking aim at progressives.
The rest of our art, our plays, operas, ballets, and museum exhibits should reflect the wide range of American political and social views that stand-up does. Right now that is not the case. The best thing that conservatives can do to fix it is to stop giving. Stop feeding a system that we can blatantly see is a breeding ground for leftist ideologies. Let a new system emerge to create art that better reflects what America truly is.