Art: Too Cool for Politics

"Water, Please" by Don Merkt near St. John's Bridge in Portland. Should our taxes be paying for this?

Former Mackinac Center President, Lawrence R. Reed, stated in 2003, “art is too important to be dependent upon politicians” (Reed). When I first read Reed’s statement I was surprised – the government funds art?

Apparently yes, about $160 million in grants for public art every year, totaling $4 billion worth of grants between 1965 and 2008 (Wikipedia).

In 2009, a bill was proposed that would increase health care subsidies. Cost? $100 million (Karl). Government funds are limited, and that $160 million going towards public art could have gone towards better health care, helping people in need. Why should the federal government be spending money on art that could be spent to give aid? Maybe a better question is: should we trust the government to fund the arts, leaving our cultural heritage up to the whims of politics?

Politics and art mixing together is not a new thing; during the Renaissance, governments or corporations displayed their power through art (McKay 421). In Florence in the early 1400s, a statue of David was installed in the town hall. David symbolized the triumph of Florence over the Duke of Milan (Renaissance people were big on symbolism), how the “good and virtuous” Florence could defeat any enemy because they had God on their side, like David (Drogin).

There was another powerful group the Florentines had to beat, though: The Medici family. Florence lost this battle, and the Medici family took over power of the republic in 1434. To symbolize their rise to power (what did I tell you about symbolism in the Renaissance?), they commissioned a similar statue of David to be placed in their palace courtyard, making it clear to the public that they were now the rulers of the city. When the Medici family was eventually expelled from Florence in the late 1400s, Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt yet another statue of David (seriously, guys? 3 statues of David?) to show the reinstatement of its power (Drogin). During the Renaissance, public art proved a powerful tool of propaganda and representation of power (McKay 421), but today, public art funded by the government is more used as a way to improve our “cultural heritage and legacy”, cultural legacy being yet another aspect of global competition (Young).

Should we leave our cultural legacy up to our government? If our government really just wants to get ahead, and doesn’t care as much about personal expression and interpretation (the real purpose of art), should we be entrusting public art to them?

Art and politics intertwined shows a conflict of interest: The government wants to maintain good public relations, and so the National Endowment for Arts (the organization that selects artists for the government to fund projects of) must carefully plan what art should be displayed, taking into account how the art will affect people’s view of the government, and in the end not necessarily choosing the best art (Young). Art is subjective, so how, then, can the government make sure that the pieces it chooses for public art will not send any unwanted messages to the piece’s viewers?

Short answer: it can’t. In the late 80s/early 90s, a few specific pieces of art were especially controversial: Piss Christ (which can be viewed here), by Andres Serrano, which was a photograph of a small crucifix figurine in the artist’s urine (kinda gross), and Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cinncinnati, which included pieces depicting “openly homosexual material” (Net Industries and its Licensors). Piss Christ was said to be anti-Christian, while Mapplethorpe’s pieces were said to encourage homosexuality, as well as obscenity (Net Industries and its Licensors). I looked at a picture of Piss Chist online and, honestly, felt a little uncomfortable looking at it – it looked, if not anti-Christian, insensitive to Christianity. I definitely think that people should have artistic freedom – that’s what the First Amendment is all about, right? – but that the government funded something that could be so easily viewed as anti-Christian was a little disturbing; the government is supposed to stand for “free exercise of religion” (Wikipedia), after all.

I don’t think our government should pay for public art because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a conflict of interest, and because people waste too much energy arguing about these controversial government-funded pieces of art. Many Republican senators have launched political attacks on the NEA – our very own primary candidate Newt Gingrich called for the NEA to be eliminated (Wikipedia). The Heritage Foundation for Public Policy is against the NEA because it believes the NEA will “continue to fund pornography” (Heritage Foundation). Clearly, art is subjective, and government funding raises too many controversies. While the private patron doesn’t have to worry as much about what messages s/he is portraying through their art, the government must appear to remain unbiased.

I think that art is a very important aspect of how America identifies itself, and public art should have a place in our society. I love seeing all the public art in Portland (here are some cool pictures of some Portland art!). It adds personality to our city. Culture shouldn’t take the backseat even in our bad economic situation; we just need to explore other alternatives to government funding of public art. Lawrence Reed states that a lack of government funding would encourage other people to step up and become patrons of the arts. Art historian and British Museum Director, Neil MacGregor, states that “culture gives us our place in the world; it reminds us of what we are and what we could be” (Szanto).

Works Cited

City of New York. New York City. Department of Cultural Affairs. Percent for Art. New York: New York, 2012. Web. <>.

Don Merkt. Water, Please. 1997. Sculpture. Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland. Web. 1 Mar 2012. <>.

Drogin, David, perf. “Patronage: A Case Study (David).” Dir. Beth Harris. 1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy & the North. Smarthistory: Radio. <>.

Heritage Foundation. “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.” Heritage Foundation: Research. Heritage Foundation: Leadership for America, 29 Apr 1997. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <>.

Karl, Jonathan. “The $100 Million Health Care Vote?.”ABC News. ABC News, 19 Noc 2009. Web. 1 Mar 2012. <>

Net Industries and its Licentsors. “Mapplethorpe Obscenity Trial: 1990 – Obscenity or Art?, Suggestions for Further Reading.” (2012): n.pag.Law Library – American Law and Legal Information. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.

Quigley, Margaret. “The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy.” Political Research Associates: Researching the Right for Progressive Changemakers. Political Research Associates, 2010. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.

Reed, Lawrence W. “What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts?.” Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Mackinac Center Online Network, 05 Jun 2003. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <>.

Szanto, Andras. “Funding: the state of the art.” Art Newspaper 08 Jun 2010, n. pag. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. <>.

Wikipedia. “National Endowment for the Arts.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Jan 2012. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>

Wikipedia. “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Jan 2012. Web. 29 Feb 2012. <>

Young, John T. “Who pays for this stuff?!.” You Call That Art?!. You Call That Art?!, 18 Oct 2010. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.



  1. matthewthemadscientist

    Great post!
    Do you think people like Newt Gingrich will actually have a lasting impact on government policy? He was forced to resign from congress by his own part after all.

    • becca0906

      Thanks for the question! Since the NEA is still around, obviously our friend Newt didn’t succeed in his proposals to shut it down, but I think there are a lot of people still in office that would agree with his opinion that the government shouldn’t fund art. Funding for the NEA declined pretty significantly during Gingrich’s (and other Republicans’) attacks on the NEA in the late 80s/early 90s (it was cut from $160-180 million/yr to less than $100 million/yr in 1996), but has since increased to almost the same annual amount that was awarded to the NEA before the Republican attacks (Wikipedia). So Newt’s efforts had a significant short-term effect, but not any real lasting impact on policy regarding funding for the arts.
      Thanks for the question!

  2. natalie518

    Hey Becca, nice blog post!
    You say that in the Renaissance, art was used as propaganda, whereas today public art acts more as a display of cultural heritage. Do you think that art today is ever used as propaganda (particularly public art)? Because, as you said, there have certainly been controversial art pieces, so do you think that government-commisioned art pieces could display the agenda of the government? Or perhaps the government is worried that privately funded public art might have anti-government sentiment.
    What do you think?
    Thanks again for the great post!

    • becca0906

      Hey Natalie! Thanks for the questions! I’m really glad you brought this question up because I didn’t have enough room to include it in my blog post. The NEA was actually accused of promoting President Obama’s domestic agenda in 2009 by instructing artists to pick a topic relating to health care, child nutrition, education, the environment, etc (Wikipedia). As the NEA is typically more endorsed by Democrats, I think if it was to display government agendas it would more promote Democratic ideas and movements (such as Obama’s). There is always a danger that art not funded by the government will have anti-government sentiment, and that might be part of the reason the government doesn’t want to let art rely completely on private patrons, but since art is already partially privately funded, I’m not sure if this is a huge concern of the government. Hope this (kind of) answered your question!
      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  3. erinwritesagain

    Hi Becca,
    I really liked your post! I thought it was very impassioned and had a clear point. I’m very interested to find out more. How do you think we should fund art? I wonder if the money the government spends on public art is necessary to getting large projects in place. What do you think would happen if this money went away? Who would pay for the art instead?

    • becca0906

      Hey Erin! Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center actually writes that the arts would actually receive more funding if the government didn’t provide funding; he believes that private patrons would more than make up for the loss of funding – people often don’t think of donating to the arts because they think the government is taking care of it, but they would step up if government support fell through. He states that “lots of things are critically important in life and sometimes all we do is endanger or trivialize them when we turn them over to the government” (Reed). I’m not sure I’m as completely optimistic as Reed – I’m definitely not sure that funding for the arts would increase if government support for the arts stopped – but many private patrons already donate to the arts, and I think that if the government stopped supporting the arts, wealthy people would see more of a need to support the arts, and the number of private patrons would increase. I think taking away government funding would require more work on the part of artists and those who believe in the value of culture to get people to donate money – i.e., increasing awareness of the need for arts funding – but maybe increasing awareness would help people across the nation see the value in culture, and therefore wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
      Thanks for the questions!

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