Why Does the Government Pay for Art?


Is art a public good? This question seems to pop up from time to
time when budgets are being considered and slashed. But it’s usually framed around the idea
of “why is the government even paying for art?” Specific stories enrage or galvanize people
even more. Like, the NEA 4 — a group of 4 artists who
in 1993 had their funding from the National Endowment for the Arts rejected for issues
of “decency.” Well today I want to get to the bottom of
when the government got into the business of commissioning art and why. So I’ll be tackling the history of how the
US government got into the art game, and how arts funding went from being a work relief
program to supporting innovative new work and international diplomacy efforts. In its earliest inception, organized government
funding for art in the U.S. was less about the quality of the works themselves and more
about providing funding and living wages for artists in the 20th century. Although patronizing the arts wasn’t a new
concept entirely (think presidential portraits or works that hang in government buildings). The first public agency in the US that spent
federal dollars on artworks came in the form of the Public Works of Art Project, or PWAP,
in 1933. With unemployment during the peak of the Great
Depression hovering somewhere between 20% and 25%, the government looked for ways to
provide relief to out of work citizens. And that’s when the debate about who could
be considered a laborer turned its attention to out of work artists. FDR’s appointee in charge of work relief,
Harry Hopkins, supposedly once said of artists, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other
people!” Which is probably the most plainly stated
argument in favor of government spending that I’ve come across in my time doing Origin. This early government initiative was a precursor
to other more well known New Deal era programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Since PWAP was geared towards giving employment
to artists, rather than supporting the creation of bold new works, the scope of the projects
were somewhat narrow. Artists had to prove they were in need of
financial assistance and then they were chunked into 3 categories: Level 1, Level 2, and Laborer. With guidelines to paint images of the “American
Scene” they made works that were eventually displayed in government buildings across the
country. The Works Progress Administration followed
a similar model of sending artists out to work. But they cast a wider net than PWAP to include
journalists, musicians, writers, ethnographers and historians among others. Also started by President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, the WPA spanned from 1935 to 1943. In that relatively short amount of time the
WPA employed approximately 8.5 million people to provide services that ranged from opening
and operating community art centers, recording American folk music traditions, taking ethnographies
of rural communities, and painting public murals. The WPA provided funding to some of the most
influential artists of the 20th century, including painters Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, and Willem
de Kooning. They also gave money to a completely unknown
artist…by the name of Jackson Pollock. And under separate umbrellas for writers,
actors and musicians the WPA also supported luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph
Ellison, Orson Welles, May Swenson, Studs Terkel, Alan Lomax, and John Steinbeck (who
actually worked for the agency). They even employed a number of teenagers to
get in on the act. But the goal of these 1930s and 40s projects
was to use art to document American life and create new jobs. The creative process, in many ways, was secondary
to this mission. This documentation served to keep certain
art forms in the forefront of the public consciousness, like folk stories and jazz music, in addition
to creating a national identity. The question of “what is distinctly American
art?” was tied to the question of “what does it mean to be American?” In the WPA era, artists recorded oral histories
of the last living Americans who had been born into enslavement and the folk music of
the rural south. Artists depicted cityscapes, ball games, and
field hands at work. Although some of the work now may seem less
avant garde or edgy, the capturing of quaint and depoliticized versions of colloquial American
life was the driving force of the projects that received support. But the WPA wasn’t all music and feel good
murals. It also drew split opinions from the public. A 1939 Gallup poll found that when asked what
they liked most and least about the New Deal, the WPA was the number one response to both
questions. So societally we’re drawn to art but also
have conflicted opinions about who should be paying for it. After the end of the WPA, another President
with lots of social plans and a three letter acronym (JFK) started to look again to ways
that the government could support the creation of new art. But this time, the initiative focused less
on the labor of the artists and more on the artistic merit of the works. The National Endowment for the Arts was eventually
created under President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress in 1965, but discussion for the
project had already been underway during the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline
Kennedy were invested in highlighting the arts and culture of the US. Their combined support for the arts also elevated
artists of all genres and mediums to the forefront of the international scene. For example: President Kennedy was the first
US president to appoint an inaugural poet during his swearing in ceremony: Robert Frost
in 1961. And JFK envisioned that the arts programs
and agencies established wouldn’t be temporary work relief programs, like their New Deal
predecessors. Rather he looked to provide long term support
to art of high merit. To that end he appointed August Heckscher
as a “special consultant on the arts” to lead the new initiative. JFK and Heckscher aimed to extend President
Eisenhower’s National Cultural Center Act of 1958. Heckscher’s 1963 report “The Arts and
the National Government” outlined some of his ideas for how the new arts program would
operate and how the government could pay for these initiatives. After completing this task, Heckscher resigned
and Kennedy established the “President’s Advisory Council on the Arts.” In his preface to the report, Senator Claiborne
Pell wrote, “It is supremely important that we fulfill our Nation’s destiny in making
the most complete and most effective use of our creative and artistic capabilities, both
to assure our national well-being and to enhance the appreciation of our culture abroad.” With these ideals in mind, it’s unsurprising
that Heckscher opened his report on the arts with an appeal to what supporting art meant
to the image of the nation, rather than centering the struggles of individual artists to make
a living like FDR’s programs had done. Heckscher wrote: “…there has been a growing awareness that
the United States will be judged–and its place in history ultimately assessed–not
alone by its military or economic power, but by the quality of its civilization. The evident desirability of sending the best
examples of America’s artistic achievements abroad has led to our looking within, to asking
whether we have in fact cultivated deeply enough the fields of creativity.” The earlier iterations of federal government
sanctioned support for the arts looked to give unemployed artists a chance to make work
that was circulated largely internally. This new phase in art funding looked to shuttling
forms of American cultural production into international waters. Both Pell and Heckscher reference international
audiences and controlling the perceptions of what the US’ contributions were to the
world outside of military conflict. In this iteration of arts funding, art became
a vehicle for the kind of soft diplomacy and cultural exchange that politicians and lawmakers
were invested in during the Cold War. Historian Penny von Eschen outlines an example
of the government using art to influence opinions abroad in her book. von Eschen details how from 1956 to the late
1970s, black jazz musicians were dispatched to mostly newly independent nations in Africa,
the Middle East, and Asia. They went to promote an idealized version
of American democracy and to diminish international criticism of American racism. The musicians included Dizzy Gillespie, Louis
Armstrong, Duke Ellington. Von Eschen notes: “The glaring contradiction in this strategy
was that the U.S. promoted black artists as goodwill ambassadors–symbols of the triumph
of American democracy–when America was still a Jim Crow nation.” So FDR’s art agenda was to give Americans
hopeful images of themselves in order to control the narrative of despair that surrounded the
economic downturn. Whereas the arts initiatives of the 1960s
sought to give the world a more favorable view of Cold War, segregationist America in
light of worldwide liberation struggles during the post colonial era. But establishing the NEA made art part of
the long term political and public agenda in a way that other, more temporary attempts
to fund art did not. And in its history the NEA went from a relatively
small project to a much larger organization. In 1966 it spent almost $3 million. But in 2019 the agency is set to spend $155
million. Which seems like a big number…but actually
works out to about 50 cents per person. I’m not covering every iteration of how
and when the government spends money on art. But the narrative of when and why spending
money on art began does tell us something about the shaping of national history and
how art has played a role in that story. Although most debates around federal or state
spending on the arts center largely on dollars and cents, the inclusion of art as part of
the national and international agenda is often more to do with the ideologies of nation building
than it is purely “art for arts sake.” The question of the NEA often seems like it
boils down to “who is this art for?” Especially in the wake of conflict around
federal dollars either surrounding to artists who create controversial works, like Robert
Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, or the NEA four’s Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and
John Fleck. Because in many cases public outrage or support
is centered on the fact that arts agencies are spending government money on works that
are (in theory) supposed to be part of the lifeblood of American cultural identity. And perhaps some of the kickback stems from
the subject matter. But I’d speculate that some of it also centers
on a feeling that art that lives inside of galleries and museums isn’t always reflective of
so many people’s lived experiences. And some of our conflict around this idea
stems from the fact that the lived experiences of many of us don’t neatly overlap and often
even contradict each other. But I can’t help but remember the original
dictate from New Deal Era arts programs that said a suitable topic for government sponsored
art would be the “American scene.” And in some ways, contradiction, debates over
identity and history, concerns about foreign engagement and diplomacy are all a part of
the “American scene.” So outside of considerations about the merits
of art within a society, the decision of when and how to create it is also a form of tracing larger historical movements and government policies.

41 thoughts on “Why Does the Government Pay for Art?

  1. People can give thousands of dollars for the repair of Notre Dame but not for hungry, poor,homeless people

  2. Thank you for the new video..! Please can you make one on the history of swimwear? 🙏
    I found an old bikini from the 60s, apparently back then there were people sewing their own swimsuits from regular cotton or rayon fabric.

  3. Hey Hey Originauts! I'm signing on here for the next hour or so to answer questions and respond to comments on the video. So let's hear 'em, since I know plenty of folks are only here for the comments section. Andddd…..GO!
    -Danielle

  4. We had our election here in South Africa today and it went without a hitch for me but I counted the parties I had to choose from and it was 48! I have seen many comments suggesting that you cover places outside of the us so here's a question to start with. Why do you have 2 parties and we have 48?

  5. This got me thinking back to my Renaissance art class in college, and how wealthy families used art as a way to bolster pride in the various Italian city-states. Also, art as both political theatre and a labor provider is a very old concept: The building of the pyramids provided work for citizens during the Nile's flood season, and the finished structures broadcasted power like nobody's business!

  6. As an artist art should b for everyone! Also art is a reflection society fliter therw the arist. Same reason there should b no censorship on art

  7. Wow. This is one of the best videos I've seen from this channel. I found it so incredibly fascinating and the discussion of what being American is is well reflected in both reality and the art, and how art is in a twisted way sometimes, a reflection of reality

  8. All your videos are so thoughts provoking and engaging, I wish there were more channels like this around

  9. Another great one, as always, Doc. This triggered a memory of mine from the 50s and 60s of listening to my father’s tapes of Alan Lomax’s recordings. I think it established my love for folk and Jazz music. Was he part of the WPA’s programs and how much effect did this have on people’s (the world’s) discovery of Jazz?

  10. 1:23 "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people!" When logic and decency find one another 💓

  11. 3:48 one of my ancestor's brother was interviewed about his childhood as a slave.

  12. My former agency, the US General Services Administration, is a prime repository of New Deal art. It works with law enforcement agencies to recover misplaced or stolen art and to house and/or display these works.

    Here's a page to start with. Perhaps you could interview someone there about their efforts. https://www.gsa.gov/real-estate/design-construction/art-in-architecture-fine-arts/fine-arts/new-deal-artwork-gsas-inventory-project

  13. Love your videos Danielle, thanks as ever. 🌹⭐️☮️❤️
    In Quebec since 1961, the provincial government and most cities like especially Montreal have had a policy that all infrastructure projects should include 1% of its budget for artwork. It’s given us one of the most beautiful metro systems, with critically acclaimed art and architecture.
    I’m from a family of artists so of course I was fed from it. 😄
    Public art funding makes us all better people. If you’re totally capitalist you could say it makes a happier, better educated and so more productive workforce. It encourages matching funding from the private sector. The return on investment is not easily measured but huge.
    Oscar Wilde said art is useless, but of course he would especially say that it’s priceless. For a small nation like Quebec it’s helped us thrive.

  14. It's queer when you compare this stuff to the bloated military budget. The complaint of course is never that it's too expensive, it's that it's "unnecessary". If you meditate on the tense relationship between art and fascism it all kinda makes sense. Look at the kind of art that the Nazi party endorsed and it's all the same pastoral landscapes and tame, inoffensive folk music.

  15. I think Art can be used to repair our international image. Comedians around the world on a WTF apology tour.☺

  16. 9:29 British protest used to represent American public outrage. Thought you'd get away with it, didn't you(!) Not while I, Captain Pedant, am in the comments(!)

  17. Thank you for this video! I really need to read more about the WPA, as everything I have has been fascinating. Support for the arts is one of the most important things we as a country should provide, but just like every other social program designed to help, they are gutted at every turn.

    Also, people should check out the 1999 movie The Cradle Will Rock. It's about the making of the play, as well as some other WPA works going on in New York at the time. It's really a lot of fun. 🙂

  18. Pardon my asking, but what's with the dot overlay on the artwork? It distracts from the original composition.

  19. So thoroughly enjoyable hearing your take on this, Danielle. More art-related coverage on Origin, please!

  20. $155 million may not be very much money for the U.S. budget, but that just goes to show how ridiculously huge the budget has gotten over the years. A few million here, and few million there, and pretty soon you're talking absurd amounts of money! Also, that's still more money than I, personally, will ever have in my life.

  21. My interest plummets when the topics are US specific… you have an international audience here!

  22. "I need life-saving surgery."
    US government:

    "I need a statue of a contemplative kangaroo."
    US government: "Here's a load of money!"

  23. Very interesting! Never knew about jazz musicians being actual cultural ambassadors.

  24. A great explanation. And well done navigating what seems like an even thicker alphabet soup of acronyms in this video

  25. The promotion of American Abstract Expressionism in Europe after WW2 was to show the freedom of expression available to those in the Free world. It was the antithesis of Soviet sponsored Social Realism.

  26. I think a key thing is that people don't seem to realize that artists literally create the world around them. Someone had to design your chair, someone had to choose the visually appealing layout of the webpage you are watching this video on, and someone had to design the clothes you are (hopefully) wearing right now. Not all art serves a functional purpose, but they're still culturally significant. Looking back at history, a lot of what we know comes from the art that was left behind. We regard art and artists as being so unnecessary, yet we love and cherish their creations all the same. It is nice that there is government recognition for this reality. It may not be as important as health care or military, but it is still a crucial and underappreciated part of our society. 🙂

  27. Art should NEVER be a profit project or something bought and sold. That undermines the very point of art, and devoids it of all meaning.

    Illegal street art>>>
    Tax funded government sponsored nationalistic propaganda.

    End capitalism. Don't expand it.
    Revolutionary lumpenproles, unite! Fight gentrification, fight encroachment, fight working for someone else's profit, fight cultural appropriation, fight private property, and fight regulation on expression!

    Viva la revolucion!

  28. “For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince – except that it acted secretly – the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

    The connection is improbable. This was a period, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art – President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: "If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot." As for the artists themselves, many were ex- communists barely acceptable in the America of the McCarthyite era, and certainly not the sort of people normally likely to receive US government backing.”
    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html%3Famp

  29. The government PAYS for art because "exposure" doesn't pay the rent.

  30. Hey, I know you sometimes take requests for origin topics. Would you consider the origin and development of special education. I have a learning disability and I've found the intellectual world does not have a clear understanding of us or how our lives work. They consider issues I struggle with to be a sign that one has a lack of intelligence even though most people with learning disabilities have above average IQs. Always love your show, and always look forward to what you teach.

  31. Art is cultural identity and cultural identity is propaganda.

  32. I swear, the USA never stops surprising me. How is this a question, you guys

  33. Just discovered all the new PBS Channels! I LOVED the Infinity Series channel so much and this is so cool. I love this! I can't believe this is PUBLIC Broadcasting System. It's amazing how great they've taken to the digital media. Well done, PBS! I stan for PBS, like always.

  34. 6:36 to me, this is the most convincing argument for publicly-funded art in the video. But securing a "place in history" has to take a back seat to securing opportunity for the underprivileged–which, ultimately, this public works money could be redirected toward.

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