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Question 199: Should morality limit public funding of the arts?

I am a congressman representing a heavily blue-collar district. My constituents strongly support both traditional values and the interests of working people, including those with low incomes. Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is considered by one of the committees I serve on. Some of my constituents belong to an organization that opposes pornography and is demanding tighter regulations to exclude funding of morally offensive garbage posing as art. I agree with them as a matter of principle and, for once, see no political problem in pushing hard for what I think should be done.

As you certainly know, any restraints are sure to be condemned as a violation of free speech. In my view, freedom of speech is not at issue in this case. When the government pays the bill, the people are paying the bill, and most of them find much of this so-called art outrageous. There is no infringement on the free speech of these so-called artists by not buying their work. They are free to produce whatever they want, but the public is equally free to refuse to pay for it. Governments and the Church always have patronized the arts, but never paid artists to produce whatever they pleased. Rather, patrons always told artists what to produce, and setting some limits to NEA funding is far less restrictive than that, since it is merely a matter of telling those who want government money that there are a few things the public will not pay for.

I think I can tell the difference between what is pornographic and what is not. However, it is one thing to know what is pornographic, and another to draft legislation excluding it. How would you draw the line on projects that may be funded by the NEA?


Since pornography is constituted by intending something’s use for an immoral purpose, purported objects of art are not easily identified as pornographic. However, this question implicitly calls for the articulation of legislative options that might serve the common good. Screening of applications by a representative panel probably would not be satisfactory or effective. Another possible approach would be to allow the NEA to subsidize only specified sorts of organizations in displaying or performing works created before a certain date. A third approach would be to abolish the NEA and limit government funding of the arts to instances in which art is used in educational programs or the government is a consumer of works of art—for example, in the construction and furnishing of public buildings and monuments.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your question is not only difficult but perhaps even impossible to answer. Pornography is not simply a set of things, but an abuse of things, especially of the human body. An abuse is a use, and any use presupposes an intended purpose. That is why items created for legitimate purposes often can serve as pornography, and well-made items originally meant to be pornographic occasionally can serve a legitimate purpose. To identify something as pornographic is to see it as intended for an immoral use, namely, to arouse and/or satisfy illicit sexual desires. Those who wish to use something as pornography can pick out what they are looking for by its effect on themselves, but modest observers can identify pornography only by considering a set of clues in a particular context indicating the abusive intention of those involved. People who produce or display something they claim to be a work of art by that very fact deny that their intention is abusive. Thus, though it is easy to recognize instances of pornography offered for sale as such, those of the kind in which you are interested never will be so readily identifiable. Therefore, while there might be some way to define pornography so that you can draft legislation prohibiting its funding by the NEA, I do not know how to do that. Moreover, it is likely that some of the projects your constituents find highly repugnant are not pornographic but objectionable on other grounds—as blasphemous, sacrilegious, unpatriotic, or otherwise shocking.

Is there some other way to draw a line and deal with the problem?

One possible alternative would be to create a panel composed of a cross section of citizens to evaluate projects proposed for funding. Its work could supplement, rather than replace, the existing selection process. Like you, most people believe they can recognize pornography when they see it. The panel’s mandate could be to screen all applications and reject those regarded as morally unacceptable by a certain proportion of panelists. Applications deemed acceptable by enough of them could then be evaluated by people more knowledgeable about the arts.

Even so, your constituents might not be satisfied with the result, while many proponents of funding probably would regard the screening as oppressive censorship. Moreover, the NEA funds proposed projects. So, though such a panel would prevent funding some things proposed, it would not be able to control what applicants do with the money they receive, and public funds still would pay for some things most panelists would have rejected.

The NEA grants that have provoked public outrage have been either to individuals, or for the display or performance of new or recent works, or both. A second alternative would be to specify the mission of the NEA so that it would no longer make such grants. Its sole mission would be to subsidize selected schools, museums, libraries, opera companies, orchestras, theater groups, dance troupes, and so on in displaying or performing works created before a certain date specified in the legislation. Other conditions for the eligibility of institutions and works also would be specified. By making the cut-off date remote enough—say, fifty years prior to the subsidized display or performance—the public would avoid subsidizing not only many mediocre works appealing only to passing tastes but the use of art to express partisan opinions on current political issues and to propagandize on behalf of various pressure groups: radical feminists, homosexual activists, and so on.

Another alternative would be to abolish the NEA.432 As you pointed out, the U.S. government, like every government and the Church, necessarily funds the arts by paying artists for their work when it is required for some social purpose, such as a public building, monument, or celebration. In all such cases, the source of funding chooses the project and pays for it, and has every right to exclude not only pornography but anything that offends the sensibility of any significant segment of the sponsoring community. Even if Congress cannot control funding of the arts to keep public money from being used for projects morally repugnant to many citizens, it can radically limit such funding by restricting it to instances in which the public is the consumer of artists’ works, exercising every consumer’s right to specify what is to be purchased.

The U.S. and most state and local governments also fund the arts for use in education, again choosing some works and excluding others, as in all other cases in which the government is the consumer. If the NEA were abolished, at least part of its funding could be redirected to the states to expand their educational programs in the fine arts. Though not entirely free of problems, such programs are likely to be more responsive to local standards and interests.

Arguments for continuing the NEA should confront a single issue: For whom is the art the U.S. government subsidizes intended? The nation’s common good is the only principle that can justify any appropriation. How does this subsidy promote this common good? Attempts to answer this question must not beg it by supposing that the satisfaction of every group’s legitimate interests pertains to the nation’s common good, which includes only the satisfaction of those legitimate interests that are both widely shared and best satisfied by cooperation at the national level (see LCL, 846–51).

If the nation’s common good is recognized as the decisive principle and its limits are borne in mind, those who support funding the NEA face a dilemma. The projects it supports either do or do not contribute to the nation’s common good by meeting the cultural needs of a substantial portion of the population. If they do, they will be popular enough to be profitable, and so will be promoted and distributed commercially, and will need no public subsidy. But if they do not meet the cultural needs of a substantial portion of the population, they are useful only to various minorities, many of whom are wealthy enough to subsidize such things. Since such projects contribute little or nothing to the nation’s common good, they deserve no public subsidy beyond the matching grant they enjoy by virtue of the exemption from income taxation of donations to nonprofit educational and cultural organizations.

The proponent of funding will object that unless there is popular art that is not profitable, commercial interests will dominate the nation’s taste. I concede. But such domination of taste by commercial interests is not prevented by public subsidies to artists whose work lacks wide appeal. In times past, popular art that was not commercial often was created by people using simple tools and inexpensive materials to make good and beautiful things, which they and their families used and enjoyed, or gave to others as presents. Popular taste now is dominated by commercial interests partly because most people are passive consumers.

Someone might point out that, in many instances in the past, governments and the Church went beyond purchasing art—such as buildings, monuments, and celebrations—for public or ecclesial purposes, and patronized artists for the arts’ own sake. For the arts’ own sake here, however, really means for the sake of those who desired the artists’ works and enjoyed them, namely, the group controlling governmental or Church funds and the people who shared their tastes and opportunities to gratify them.

When emperors and princes, popes and bishops, used public or ecclesiastical resources in ways serving no properly public or ecclesial purpose, they abused their authority. Resources that should have been used to promote the common good of state or Church were diverted to the satisfaction of those in office and their friends. Therefore, the historical patronage of the arts by governments and the Church provides no sound model for funding the NEA. For the projects funded either served some public or ecclesial purpose—governmental buildings and civic monuments, cathedrals and monasteries—and so were unlike those funded by the NEA or, like those it funds, diverted communal resources to serve private cultural interests.

The proponent of subsidizing the arts might point out that many priceless works we still enjoy would never have been created if governments and the Church had not done more in subsidizing the arts than was necessary for public and ecclesial purposes. But some emperors and princes, popes and bishops also fathered illegitimate offspring who became outstanding people and even saints, and in neither case is what they did justified by its consequences. Then too, in neither case were the consequences always so good. Moreover, in both cases, even better consequences might well have followed had they not indulged themselves but devoted the money, energy, and time they abused to serving state or Church.

Some say that they advocate public funding of the arts, not to subsidize the tastes of the wealthy, but to relieve the ugliness of poverty-stricken inner cities by means of murals and community arts centers, which also would build up community. This argument is hardly cogent. Though the poorest of the poor surely enjoy a normal share of esthetic sensibility, they seldom are consulted about such programs. And very poor people rarely receive grants from these programs, even if these effect some cosmetic improvement in their depressing surroundings. Moreover, one suspects that attempts to deal with inner-city blight in this way are more appealing to suburbanites and artists than to typical residents of inner cities, who probably would prefer that the money be used for better schools and police protection, more regular garbage collection and street cleaning, repair of park and playground equipment, and so forth.

Some argue that subsidizing what initially appeals only to a few is necessary to foster a wide variety of creative initiatives that will elevate popular taste and tomorrow serve the multitude. Whether the funded work elevates anyone’s taste is arguable, but even supposing it does, can this indirect contribution to the common good justify the subsidy? Moreover, while some creative efforts that initially appeal to few eventually serve the masses, most do not, and it is hardly possible to show that public funding of some portion of art work is necessary for future cultural development. There are other needs calling for public funding, and some, plainly more pressing than this—for example, better basic education for the very poor—will surely put it to fruitful uses. One cannot justify spending for a dim and uncertain result when there are many urgent and promising alternatives.433

Some argue that public funding is necessary because some people have great and rare gifts that, due to lack of a market, otherwise will be fruitless. That many people have great and unusual gifts of various sorts undoubtedly is true. But the common good of political society is limited. It is not the proper role of the U.S. government to pursue all human goods in every possible way, and therefore not its business to subsidize every gift that otherwise will be fruitless.

Some argue that subsidies to the arts are necessary to promote innovation and dialogue among diverse points of view, so that groups that want to use the fine arts to challenge the status quo and advocate their unpopular world views and lifestyles can have a forum. However, while the common good requires tolerating the expression of unpopular points of view, the very fact that most people do not share them suggests that the common good may not be served by supporting their expression. Even if it is, the government has no more business providing subsidies for such purposes than for spreading traditional forms of religion. Indeed, many unpopular world views and lifestyles are at odds with traditional theism, and subsidizing them while not subsidizing theism would give the former an unfair advantage. People who think the expression of an unpopular viewpoint desirable should subsidize it themselves just as religious believers should support their churches and missionary activities.434

432. For excerpts from a U.S. House of Representatives debate, see “Pros and Cons: ‘Should the Congress Reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts?’” Congressional Digest, 70:1 (Jan. 1991): 12–31.

433. See Harry Brighouse, “Neutrality, Publicity, and State Funding of the Arts,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24 (1995): 47–56.

434. On the prevalence of politically motivated projects in the work funded by the NEA, see Joseph Epstein, “What to Do about the Arts,” Commentary, 99:4 (Apr. 1995): 23–30; on the virtual impossibility of neutrality in governmental funding of the arts, see Brighouse, op. cit., 35–63.