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The need for conservative and libertarian arts funding

By Thomas M. Sipos
web posted May 19, 2003

If conservatives and libertarians hope to make advances in the culture war, they need to devote more private resources to arts funding; to establish a grant-making infrastructure to fund and connect like-minded writers, actors, musicians, and filmmakers.

Conservatives ignore the arts at their peril. No matter who is elected to steer the ship of state, a captain can only push so far against the cultural currents, which flow in the direction of whoever writes our shared stories. Popular prejudices, shaped by culture, circumscribe an elected official's policies. A politician can only cut taxes so much if the beneficiaries are perceived as snotty bluebloods. Popular entertainment spins our hopes and dreams and nightmares, our heroes and villains. It is the prism through which the populace interprets all it sees.

In 2000, without knowing anything about him, many voters recoiled upon seeing Bush. In their subconscious lurked thousands of film & TV images of drunken fratboy, Southern-accented, Bible-thumping, country-club Republican bigots. Stereotypes as false as any other -- but dry facts and statistics are a poor defense against the vague "gut feelings" created by media stereotypes. (For more on the subject of TV stereotypes, see Ben Stein's excellent 1979 book, The View From Sunset Boulevard)

The Dixie Chicks: Did the fact you refused to buy their latest album stop them from smiling?
The Dixie Chicks: Did the fact you refused to buy their latest album stop them from smiling?

Conservatives have long complained about their portrayal in the media and the lack of conservative artists, but their only solution seems to be to initiate boycotts. They don't realize that Hollywood largely regards conservative consumers as a nonviable market, irrelevant to their business plans. (The Dixie Chicks remained unscathed.) Even were it otherwise, Hollywood won't relent to boycotts by "bigots," which is how conservatives are perceived.

Besides which, boycotts are a loser's game. Americans demand entertainment, and you can't fight something with nothing. The best way to get someone to stop buying X is not to boycott X, but to offer a more attractive Y.

But how to develop a more attractive Y?

Conservatives and libertarians expect their artists to be supported by the market, but that attitude ill serves the creation of a conservative or libertarian culture. Artists must be nurtured as they master their craft. Supporting artists before they create something marketable isn't necessary, but it helps. Money is the mothers milk of both politics and future artists. Liberals understand this, and have built an arts funding infrastructure composed of private foundations, government arts councils, the small press, and university presses. They provide a safety net to artists via teaching posts, fellowships, and nonprofit foundation jobs.

Conservatives and libertarians have influenced the culture via blogs, talk radio, and opinion journals, but they still fall short in the arts, especially in music and film. A privately-financed, arts funding infrastructure would help.

It should have three goals: Identify, Assist, Integrate.

(1) Identify like-minded artists. Seek them via the internet. Place notices on film school bulletin boards, music clubs, organizational newsletters.

(2) Assist however possible. Ask every artist: "How can we help?" Networking and promotion is cheap. If a foundation can't fund an entire project, it might offer seed money, matching funds, completion funds, something to move projects to "the next level." Maybe a band has recorded a tape, but needs a $1000 to press some CDs. Or a play is set to go, but can use a $100 for advertising.

(3) No artist wants to remain in a political ghetto. The goal should be to integrate these artists into the mainstream (as is done with ethnic minorities), such as by promoting them on TV and radio, and at film festivals, etc. The goal should be to help artists create, build a career, and then, hopefully, they'll "give back" to those who helped.

Such a foundation should not be ideologically narrow (demanding a specific message for its grant money), nor look over the shoulders of artists like a Stalinist commissar. That would stifle individual creativity. Rather, once an artist has been approved for funding, the foundation must let go so that "a 100 flowers may bloom." Some disappointing work will result, but that is the nature of freedom, the nature of art. You must allow for some "bad investments" so the good ones will grow.

The money is there. William Bennett's gambling losses alone could have provided much conservative arts funding. Yes, yes, I agree, Bennett's private property is his to fritter away however he pleases. Even so, what a waste... (Ironically, while wealthier conservative groups largely ignore the arts -- apart from boycotting them -- I know one student filmmaker who received a small completion grant from the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies.)

Regrettably, the idea of offering grant money ("money for nothing") to artists, and afterward to allow artists to follow their own visions (no accountability) goes against the instincts of both conservatives and libertarians. Plus, boycotts, although creating nothing (and you can't fight something with nothing), are more fun for bloggers and webzines, and bring higher ratings for radio and cable TV pundits.

Years from now, I expect conservatives will still be organizing new boycotts, even as the Dixie Chicks and Susan Sarandon complete new projects.

Thomas M. Sipos's satirical novels include Manhattan Sharks and Vampire Nation. His website can be found at http://www.CommunistVampires.com.

Buy Ben Stein's The View from Sunset Boulevard: America as Brought to You by the People Who Make Television at Amazon.com

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Why we fight! Using government to sell America by Bruce Walker (November 5, 2001)
    Bruce Walker calls on the federal government to engage in some old-fashioned pro-America propaganda
  • Closest to God? by Steven Martinovich (December 20, 1999)
    Liberals want all art funded. Conservatives only want moral art funded. What's the right answer? Neither, says Steve Martinovich
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