Some time ago I attended an event at a local art gallery. The evening started with a play reading made from the writings of people involved in the W.P.A., Roosevelt’s attempt to publicly fund the arts. The W.P.A. was considerably pushed by Roosevelt’s liberal wife, Eleanor, and was halted only by a backlash from Congress.
The play reading was not bad for performances of its kind, and the gallery hostess announced the second part of the event, which was a discussion on public funding for the arts. As I was then trying to figure out how to fund an arts project, I sat through this discussion. But the woman who was to lead the discussion sent her excuses, and the discussion never got around to how actually a person or organization could get funding.
The discussion was lengthier than the play. The woman who sat as leader praised the W.P.A. for giving women and people of color opportunities they would not otherwise have been given. After criticizing the local symphony for what she considered its mediocre performances, she went on to say that people long hurt by prejudice, namely, minorities, women and gays, should be given public funding for their art work.
The discussion opened up into comments from audience members. From the audience, a woman who described herself as a person of many artistic gifts spoke of a dream she had had.
“In my dream, people were slaughtered,” she said. “And I think this is symbolic for what is happening with the arts.”
At this point, many audience members fled the gallery, and the discussion came to a halt.
While some of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic policies were questionable, his legacy is still with us. Certainly the Civilian Conservation Corp, which built highways and bridges, left its mark A few miles from my house is the Green Lakes State Park, where young men in the C.C.C. built most of the structures that still stand.
The W.P.A.’s legacy is different. Some famous writers got their start with the W.P.A. These include a few novelists and the playwrights Arthur Miller and William Gibson. But the W.P.A. left little in the way of art works expressly written for that project. In his autobiography, Timebends, Arthur Miller said that he read through stacks of plays financed by the W.P.A., most of which were not even competent.
I have always looked with hostility at the right-wing politicians who attacked public funding for the arts. This includes Newt Gingrich, who, as Speaker of the House, helped to slash the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget. Such people are, for all intents and purposes, barbarians.
My ideal has always been the Italian Renaissance. Here great art was encouraged, and vigorous thought was appreciated. Here the popes and princes funded the works of Michaelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. To nurture creativity is to achieve civilization.
But a large gap in quality lies between Renaissance Italy and the W.P.A. Public funding of the arts should be a meritocracy. Only the works of arts having considerable imagination and skill should be funded. Artists from groups traditionally the victims of bias should be funded when their work is excellent.
To have an arts funding system based on merit would raise public respect for the arts. And serious art, as opposed to merely commercial art, would be strengthened by this newfound respect.