More Proof We Don’t Need the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities
In an article I posted on Forbes in July, I lamented the fact that the National Endowment for the Humanities had funded the research for Professor Nancy MacLean’s hatchet job of a book entitled Democracy in Chains.
I was sure that the government’s largesse was not limited to just this nasty book and therefore was not surprised when I came across this article by Christine Roe, “From Cactus Theater to the Met, US Government Pours Hundreds of Millions Into Well-Heeled Arts.” Based on a new report from that invaluable organization, Open the Books, Roe highlighted numerous cases where federal money had gone to support arts and cultural organizations.
Thanks to Open the Books, we know that in the last fiscal year, the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities ladled out $441 million to more than 3,100 entities. Who gets money from Uncle Sam? The Metropolitan Museum of Art does. So does the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and Robert Redford’s famous Sundance Institute in Utah. All are quite capable of raising money from voluntary sources, but apparently they just can’t resist the urge to top off with some cash the IRS has squeezed out of American taxpayers.
Whether an organization is able to raise the money it wants voluntarily is really beside the point, however. That’s because the federal government has no business at all in subsidizing the arts and humanities. The purposes for which Congress may spend money are enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and such subsidies are not among them. Besides the money flowing into the coffers of those well-known organizations, the funding for an extremely obscure one caught my eye: Borderlands Theater located in Tucson, Arizona. I have visited the Tucson area many times and love the desert and mountains there.
According to Christine Roe, “The theater’s ‘site-responsive performances’ celebrate the treelike (saguaro) cactus, which can grow to 70 feet tall. The idea is that guests pay to spend one hour in the Sonoran Desert with the cactus, then share their experience on social media.”
The “experience” of being out in the desert with the saguaros also came to the attention of Roger Kimball (author of many books, most famously his 1991 Tenured Radicals), who wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “It Costs Taxpayers a Bundle, but Is It Art?” Kimball poked fun at the notion that spending an hour in proximity to a saguaro could “teach” the patrons of Borderlands Theater anything.
Several weeks later, Kimi Eisele, Director of “Standing with Saguaros” replied with a letter that the Wall Street Journal published. She wrote, “Perfunctory digs on such work will always be a conservative pastime. But had Mr. Kimball bothered to investigate the ‘inane’ saguaro project, which I directed, he might have discovered the depth of its public value.”
All right, just what is that “public value”?
“The work’s introductory act,” she writes, “invited people to stand with a saguaro (for up to an hour). Nearly 300 people did that, reporting experiences of connectedness, resilience and peace.”
Of course, people who choose to go out into the desert at night to stand with a saguaro are going to report deep thoughts. They’re a self-selected group who love nature and find some spiritual fulfillment in spending their time this way.
What Ms. Eisele is so enthused about is not public value, but private value to those 300 people. If they had each forked over an additional $33 or so, that would have covered the $10,000 grant from the feds. But you have to wonder if feelings of connectedness, resilience and peace would have been worth that much to them.
Eisele closes with this shot at Kimball: “Perhaps (he) might suggest fewer presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago as a way to trim government spending.” Sure, but that’s the fallacy of the false alternative. The country can and should economize both on presidential travel and on NEA subsidies for all kinds of art and research grants like the $50,000 wasted on Professor MacLean’s book.
But more to the point, the profligacy of the NEA and NEH suffers from a fatal defect at the first dollar – it is unconstitutional. The federal government has no authority to dispense such subsidies.
The ten grand Borderlands Theater wheedled out of some gullible bureaucrats in Washington is a tiny symptom of a gigantic national problem, namely the complete breakdown of the Constitution’s restraints on federal spending. Restoring them would give me feelings of resilience and peace.
Originally published on Forbes.
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