An opinion article in The Baltimore Sun last week criticized President Donald Trump’s record of musicians and other artists he’s invited to perform at the White House. It’s apparently zero.
The article commits a number of digressions and blunders: It engages in remote psychology by speculating on Trump possibly having “musical anhedonia”; its closing charge seems to confound refinement with some degree of moral virtue; and the author grounds the meaningfulness of music in its service of “evolutionary goals.” How sublime.
But its central and most significant error is its treatment of spending taxpayer dollars for creative ends. The author, Steven G. Kellman, recounts how, “For three consecutive years, Mr. Trump’s proposed budget has eliminated any funding at all for the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency that provides crucial grants to orchestras, choral ensembles, songwriters, jazz artists, chamber groups and folk musicians in every part of the United States.”
In other words, Kellman writes, “Can we expect anything but discord from a man who not only has no music in himself but would deny it to others?” (emphasis mine) This man, and all with similar sympathies, need to be reminded of a basic fact: Every dollar the government spends on anything, it first took from someone else in the form of a tax.
Obviously there exist proper uses for those confiscated funds, especially among services the government is constituted uniquely to provide — police, armed forces, etc. But do arts fall under that heading?
Who Should Decide How to Spend Your Money?
By implying the arts can’t succeed unless they have government funding means creative content becomes the choice of a privileged few in the halls of power. What authorizes those men to wield everyone else’s money and spend it to fit their tastes? However the decision-making works — a commissioner appointed by an elected president, life-tenured cultural czars, artists with a long leash to create while on retainer, contracts awarded by referendum or lottery — everyone’s money is being spent against the will of many.
What’s so great about that arrangement? Why does this scenario even call for collective action? The unique matters of government (war and the like) require it to override the wills of some people. But that’s not the case with art, which exists independent of government largesse. America had an artistic legacy before 1966, and our greatest achievements these days don’t owe their success to taxes.
Refraining from taking people’s money for a purpose such as this is a principle of genuine liberal democracy. It is to leave the power with the people to endorse and fund the creativity they deem fit. Maybe that means seeing “Avengers: Endgame” three times. Perhaps it means commissioning a hand-drawn sketch of your infant daughter. Or maybe it just means subscribing to Netflix.
But those decisions do not belong to lawmakers or anyone else besides the individuals involved. Artistic ability should not begin with grant-writing, and concentrated halls of power cannot confer it. If anything, Trump’s presence in the White House should remind all Americans that these decisions about spending our own money are not only ours by natural right but a plain good idea.
The Point Isn’t How Much NEA Spends
Some “generous” politicians would probably object that siphoning my funds to this particular cause is imperceptible and that striking the NEA entirely would fail to make a noticeable dent in our national spending problem. But both of these concerns are easily invalidated.
The problem with the first objection is that death by a thousand cuts is still death. Once the government crosses the bright line and starts spending in realms it has no unique role in, it is difficult to make the argument against spending on any individual line item.
For instance, in 2012, Neil deGrasse Tyson testified before Congress that, “right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that — a penny on a dollar — we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.” (I won’t pretend to understand what he means by that.)
Similarly, one artist has noted that, “in one single auction, wealthy collectors bought almost a billion dollars in contemporary art at Christie’s in New York. … If you had a 2% tax just on the auctions in New York, you could probably double the NEA budget in two nights.” Such examples abound.
As far as this particular spending relating to the debt problem, yes. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid dominate our federal expenditures. Those programs are the types of legislatively mandated spending that require more legislation to rein in.
Fixating on the Short Term
But this isn’t a point worth making to save those pennies in the debt; it’s a matter of humanity. Partly, humanity for the ordinary man — anyone arguing taxes are necessary to fund good art probably has a low opinion of the typical American. This is also partly about humanity for conservatives.
“Can we expect anything but discord from a man who not only has no music in himself but would deny it to others?” Kellman asked. Hemming the dreaded might of government into its necessary functions is a good thing. But Kellman has zeroed in on the obvious short-term: the presence or absence of jazz bands and orchestra concerts.
This comes at the expense of the past (where that funding came from) and the long-term future (the prospective increased freedom and autonomy of the American people). With such a narrow time horizon, the only characterization of the president’s proposed cuts is that he is denying art to others, and the only explanation for that is some depraved “savagery” in President Trump’s soul.
Perhaps Kellman is accurate to cast Trump in this light and is being fair in his analysis of the cuts. Then again, Kellman cites Ronald Reagan as one who admirably invited artistic legends to the White House — the same Reagan who famously attempted to dismantle the NEA. So maybe, once again, the only relevant information is the short-term: that President Trump is the Republican in power and therefore deserves the criticism coming his way.
In which case, every conservative can expect to receive the same accusations of “discord” and “savagery” when fielding this type of opinion. So we need to be prepared to argue, frankly and unashamedly, that collectivist confiscation and spending is a drag on our creative culture. Everyone deserves to spend their own money on the art they want.