Feeding at the Public Trough

This summer many Americans, especially Christians, were outraged to learn that taxpayer money had gone to fund a California arts center showcasing explicitly homoerotic performances by lesbian comics and gay teenagers. This latest in the long series of affronts to decency had led to more impassioned calls to cut the budget of the National Endowment to the Arts (NEA), which has been debated this year by Congress. Taxpayer money clearly should not be financing such offensive activities. But I think there's a deeper question: should the government be in the business of funding artists at all? In fact, the NEA may be doing more harm than good in paying artists up front to be creative. A very insightful columnist named Jonathan Yardley recently addressed this issue in the Washington Post. Yardley argued that the concept of the government as patron of the arts tends to subvert the relationship between the artist and his audience. We have created a generation of artists who, according to Yardley, exhibit an "obsession with self, an indifference to the workaday world, and a deep hostility to many institutions and convictions essential to the American character." The result—quite simply—is bad art. That's because paying artists before they create something the pressure to produce work that is aesthetically pleasing to their audience. The problem isn't patronage per se—but rather accountability. After all, many great artists had patrons who supported their work. Hayden's patron, Prince Esterhazy, encouraged the artists his court supported to explore their gifts. However, unlike today's subsidized artist, Hayden was directly responsible to his sponsor to produce music that had aesthetic value. This exchange between the artist and audience is a reflection of the imago dei—the image of God—in us. Just as God created man in order to share His life with us, so too the artist shares his "creation" with others. Our creative work should be an act of self-giving, not self-indulgence. Art that exists for its own sake—that is, without regard for its aesthetic appeal to the audience—is an exercise in self-indulgence. It's an assertion of the artist's desire to be free of all constraints. In other words, it's the artist's rebellion against the God who made him. This doesn't mean that pleasing the public must be the artist's sole or even chief concern. On the contrary, art that challenges us can also touch our souls and tell us things about ourselves we didn't know before. However, this requires that the artist acknowledge his audience. So don't be misled by the noisy critics who accuse Christians of being opposed to art. We're not anti-art. We're simply opposed to government funding, both because it produces blasphemous art—that's a pretty good reason by itself—and because it creates bad art. Christians, of all people, cannot be accused of being anti-art. For we, of all people, know that good art ennobles human beings and in a very real sense, therefore, reflects the image of God Himself.


Chuck Colson


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