It's reliably reported that the Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, which is to present its findings to President Reagan this week, will recommend that the activities of the endowments continue without substantial alteration. A draft of the report is said to contend that "there should be federal funding for the arts and the humanities" and, elsewhere, that "our federal government does indeed bear a responsibility for encouraging and protecting the arts and the humanities."
This of course will come as jolly good news to the arts lobby, which earlier this year descended on Washington en masse to present its case. A small army of worthies orchestrated a major display of rhetorical teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, the import of which was that ours would be a bankrupt nation should the government cease pouring money into the bank accounts of writers and artists favored by the endowments. One woman was so taken with the righteousness of her cause that she burst forth in song, thereby brightening the day for all in attendance.
That demonstration, like the Writers' Congress just concluded in New York, was a vivid and instructive reminder that nothing gets the arts and crafts crowd quite so worked up as its very own income, or lack of same. Writers and artists often appear to feel that the world owes them a living. As a community they tend rather sharply to the left of center on the political and social issues about which they are from time to time pleased to address the nation; but when it comes to cold cash, they reveal a striking appetite for the fruits of capitalism -- even if those fruits take the form of the state-sponsored dole presided over by the endowments.
It is true of course that, by and large, writers and artists have a tough time of it. A survey released a couple of months ago showed that the average writer in the United States can look forward to an annual income in the neighborhood of $5,000 from writing; which helps explain why so many flock to the creative writing departments and other academic sinecures in order to finance their endeavors. The painter, the dancer, the composer, the actor, the sculptor -- all have trouble making ends meet. A serious writer or artist who can make a decent living from his or her work -- William Styron, George C. Scott, Leontyne Price, Georgia O'Keeffe -- is the exception to the rule; for most folks who believe there are novels within them screaming to be written, or who have unusual talent for the piano or the dance, it's a hard life. It should be added that it is also one they follow by choice.
It was back in the '60s and '70s, when we thought that government should and could solve everybody's problems, that endowments were established to make it less onerous financially to be an artist or a writer in America. Good intentions were everywhere. Not merely were grants sent forth to local symphonies, community theaters and the like; so too were grants established for individual writers and artists for works in progress, or pies in the sky, or both. Committees of experts were assembled to pass judgment on their plans and to hand out the money; among writers at least, the word was that it paid to have a friend in court. If a writer had in hand an advance from a publisher, that was no deterrent to his receiving further emolument from Uncle Sam.
This, apparently, is what the task force would have the government continue, though presumably under Reaganomics at a less lavish level. It will be interesting to hear why. At a time when job-training programs for the poor are being eliminated right and left, when federally financed school lunches are losing their nutritional value, when eligibility for food stamps is being tightened -- at a time when so many impoverished Americans are on the scrap heap, why should we hand over tax dollars to men and women who have voluntarily chosen careers that offer limited financial prospects? Of course it helps that they are articulate and surprisingly well-organized, which by and large the poor are not; but what real claim do they have on government patronage in these trying times?
For that matter, what claim do they have even in the best of times? Why should the government underwrite a poet whose work may be read by perhaps a thousand people in the little magazine that publishes it -- a magazine that may itself be underwritten by the government -- when it turns a cold shoulder to that contemptible "welfare mother" who's merely trying to feed herself and a couple of kids? Hasn't it occurred to anybody that this is a scam -- one perpetrated by the educated and privileged?
Apparently it hasn't. Our heartstrings have been plucked by the bow of Art. Even though we steadfastly refuse to support serious writing or art in the marketplace (in a nation of 230 million, the average serious first novel sells 5,000 copies or less), we are suckers for the old culture pitch. You know, the one that goes on about the soul of a nation being its works of art, the one that conjures up dire visions of the artist starving in his garret as the next "Guernica" expires with him, the one that says, as the task force puts it, that "our federal government does indeed bear a responsibility for encouraging and protecting the arts and the humanities."
Yes: for encouraging them; no doubt great things could be accomplished by a congressional resolution authorizing three cheers for the arts and three more for the humanities. But financing them is another matter altogether, and financing them is what we are talking about.
Like it or not, the way things are supposed to work in this country is that financing of private endeavors is undertaken by the marketplace. This is as true for writers and painters and mezzo sopranos as it is for bricklayers and bank tellers and bus drivers. You are rewarded according to the value and quality of your work. Good work by writers and artists usually is recognized and rewarded, even if in some cases the process of recognition is long and painful -- and even sometimes posthumous. But isn't that a risk inherent in writing or art? Art is not easy; it is the result of enormous commitment and expenditure of intellectual and creative resources. You don't need to starve in a garret to be an artist, but you do need sufficient commitment to your vision to pursue it no matter what the consequences.
A case in point. For approximately a quarter of a century William Faulkner pursued his vision at tremendous sacrifice. His novels did not sell. He spent much of his time in Hollywood doing hack work, earning the money that would enable him to return to Mississippi for a few months and get back to the creation of the world he called Yoknapatawpha. He complained constantly about lack of money and lack of recognition, but he didn't quit writing those novels. Neither government nor Guggenheim was necessary to the writing of "Light in August."
Ditto for Charles Ives and his symphonies; while he wrote them, he earned his living as an insurance executive. For e.e. cummings and his poems; he lived his entire life on the edge. For Edward Hopper and his paintings; he did magazine illustrations to help pay the rent. For Henry Fonda and his acting; he lived through a decade of struggle, in the midst of the Depression, before he was at last discovered.
To these people art came first, money second. They were willing to make the sacrifice. They were willing to do work they did not want to do in order to earn the money to support their real work; they did not ask Uncle Sam to pamper them. By contrast, many people who call themselves writers and artists now feel that they are owed public support for work that has not performed and may prove to have no value. They -- and the task force -- are wrong.