The NEA's Political Context


January 18, 2001

John Ashcroft has recently made the populist remark that opera is for the Mercedes crowd and does not interest folks who drive pick-ups:

"Now, the opera gets a subsidy from the NEA, but by and large, Willie
Nelson and Garth Brooks don't. Those of us that drive our pickups to
those concerts don't get a subsidy; but the people who drive their
Mercedes to the opera get a subsidy."

Is there more behind this statement than meets the eye? Ashcroft has worked to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, even though the funding it provides is already very small. The federal government spends about 100 million dollars annually on the NEA, which amounts to only 36 cents a year for every American citizen. No other government of an industrialized country spends so little on the arts. (Vienna's three State Theaters, for example, receive one third more funding than the entire NEA.)

Mr. Ashcroft has attempted to justify his stance through rhetoric which portrays the working class as uninterested in opera and other forms of "high culture." Such polemic is not only divisive, it is partially misleading. The Santa Fe Opera provides a case in point. New Mexico is the 49th poorest state in the nation, and yet many of its people, including the working class, recognize the value of the Santa Fe Opera (a high quality regional house that is something of an anomaly in America.) Even if they can't attend, the state's citizens know the opera lends the state prestige, that it brings the region many economic advantages, and that its presentations are valuable in themselves. Many working class families in New Mexico would jump at the chance to take their children to the opera if they could afford it (which most can't.) Like people everywhere, they want their children to have the better things in life, and they see the arts as part of those opportunities. 

In reality, Mr. Ashcroft's "Mercedes crowd" frequents opera because they are often the only ones that can afford it, and even more, because there are hardly any significant opera houses at all in America outside of a few major metropolitan areas. Astoundingly, the Met is the only full season, year round opera in America. Even San Francisco, which is presumably one of the world's most cultured cities, only has a half time opera. In the heartland of America, the usual fare consists of occasional slap-dash, semi-professional productions performed in and with improvised, rental facilities. 

International comparisons provide troubling perspectives. In most European countries, public access to the performing arts is considered essential, something like public schools and libraries. In Germany, many cities with only 100,000 people have a full time, year round opera house and symphony orchestra. Due to state funding, the average price of an opera ticket in Germany is about thirty dollars. That's not cheap, but families can afford it on occasion. I examined the price list and seating plan of the Met and roughly estimated that the average price of a ticket is about 150 dollars, or five times higher than the average opera ticket in Germany. Due to America's plutocratic system of "private" funding for the arts, the Met and many other cultural institutions have the character and ethos of exclusive cultural country clubs. By denying funding for the arts, politicians like Ashcroft create a form of cultural plutocracy, and then turn around and criticize the arts for being elitist. 

Normally, America's policy of arts funding is thought of as a particular aspect of its highly libertarian ideology of free enterprise. But this might only detract from a more problematic issue. The Federal Government does not hesitate to allocate trillions for scientific research. In many respects, the science departments of research universities are merely extensions of uncountable billions of government funding. In the case of science, there is little talk of "free enterprise" or "governmental interference" -- something that apparently applies only to the arts.

So why the seemingly arbitrary double standard?

Many politicians, such as Jessie Helms or John Ashcroft, do not even attempt to disguise that they reject public funding for the arts because they do not like the art world's "Leftist" and "immoral" tendencies. Seen as such, the US government's paltry funding for the arts is not only an economic philosophy, but also a somewhat less than subtle form of political censorship. If artists do not present what these politicians like, funding is reduced or even eliminated. (These same politicians have directed similar forms of intimidation toward NPR and PBS, and even demanded they "reform" their programming.) 

Many feel that America's policy for the arts has had a devastating effect on it's cultural and social identity that extends well beyond silencing "Leftist" or progressive views. What is 36 cents a year compared to the sums people spend on mindless Hollywood movies and videos? How does 36 cents compare to the billions spent on advertisements supporting commercial television's endless banalities? 

Over the long term, America's policies for funding the arts effect a form a cultural repression that degrades and demeans the identity of people and their society.

The way Helms and Ashcroft castigate and economically confine artistic expression, suggests that the American government's negligible funding for the arts is not merely based on conservative economic philosophy, but also represents an ethos that functions something like a subtle, anti-Leftist extension of McCarthyistic repression. 

William Osborne
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