These days I think of the National Endowment for the Arts—when I think of it at all—as the National Endowment for Lip-Service to the Arts. It’s the mechanism by which the United States officially undergoes an annual ritual of pretending that the arts are of any consequence at all. As a federal agency the N.E.A. has a significant history, and sometimes it still manages to do worthwhile work. But it has been so hobbled for so long as to make Fantine look positively robust.
It’s time to overhaul the place, recreating it on the general model of the National Science Foundation. That independent federal agency was likewise created by a Cold War Congress (in 1950)—one fixated on Uncle Joe Stalin, Soviet Bear, as competitive bogeyman, rather than on remorse over the murder of President Kennedy, as the N.E.A. was. Founding both required a broad interpretation of the Constitution’s mandate “to promote the general welfare.” Today the N.S.F. oversees bottom-up funding for about 20 percent of all non-medical scientific research—mostly outside the commercial marketplace, through universities. A re-envisioned N.E.A. could do something similar, utilizing peer-reviewed talents gleaned from the roughly 40,000 arts, culture, and humanities nonprofits scattered throughout the U.S.
What would it cost? A lot more than it does now. For fiscal year 2013, the National Science Foundation is seeking more than $7 billion from the federal budget, a few billion more than has been allocated to the N.E.A. in its entire 46-year history. The N.S.F. request represents an increase of $340 million over its allocation last year—a step-up that, all by its lonesome, is more than twice the roughly $154 million that the National Endowment for Lip-Service to the Arts is begging for this year. Demolition of the N.E.A. several decades ago came with the rise of a crude supply-side doctrine of privatization, which aided the art market’s ascendancy. A market, which many like to wank on about, is fine by me; it’s a cultural problem primarily because of the deafening volume of its roar. Today the supply-side doctrine lies in smoldering ruin, but nothing has replaced its private, money-driven cult of celebrity as the measure of artistic success. Since art has always gone where the money is, a modest, countervailing public megaphone could come from a National Foundation for the Arts, administered through nonprofits. And don’t tell me we can’t afford it because of ballooning federal debt. If G.E. started paying its taxes, imagine the social benefits that might suddenly accrue.
Los Angeles Times art critic CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.