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Defunding the SC Arts Commission: The Iconoclasm of Nikki Haley

Unless you have been locked alone in a black box theater somewhere, you have probably heard that Gov. Haley’s first veto of the new state budget eliminated the funding for the SC Arts Commission. This veto has drawn the ire of the arts bureaucracy who claim that without this agency, the arts would be destroyed in our state.

Her veto is iconoclastic. Not because it will destroy the arts, but because it challenges the dogma of how government spends tax money and how government controls what we see and how we think.

The debate over tax money and artistic control began with the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. Included with Lyndon Johnson’s other Great Society legislation, the NEA uses federal tax dollars to fund local artists and arts programs. When Johnson signed the NEA legislation into law, he commented, “We fully recognize that no government can call artistic excellence into existence…Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his own goals in his own way.”

One of the NEA’s first acts was to fund arts bureaucracies in each state. As a result, the SC Arts Commission was formed in 1967 and remains a partner with the NEA.

The NEA has faced controversy over the years. Back during the 1980’s, it funded a number of artists who produced images objectionable to certain groups. The images included anti-Christian and sexual related art. Some may remember one particular photograph by Andres Serrano that featured a crucifix suspended in the artist’s urine. Politicians objected, including Ronald Reagan who promised to abolish the NEA. He failed.

Congress finally passed legislation in 1989 that restricted the content of art available for grants. At that point, the politicians were mollified but artistic independence was compromised. Johnson was proved wrong. Contrary to what he claimed, the government will restrict the artist.

In her veto, Gov. Haley focused on the fiscal impact of funding bureaucracies that are outside the core functions of government. She points out that 30% of the funds allocated to the SC Arts Commission are dedicated to operating expenses – well above what private charities spend on overhead. She avoided the larger philosophical questions of artistic independence and the compromising effect of tax dollars on artistic endeavors.

Supporters of the arts bureaucracy counter by pointing to the positive economic impact of arts event in local communities. Judging by the success of Spoleto in Charleston and Artisphere in Greenville, those cities are reaping the economic benefits of the grant money flowing from the commission. Which begs the question – if the grant turns a profit, should not the grant be paid back?

Supporters of the arts bureaucracy also avoid the philosophical questions. Though they claim to be defending the arts, they are actually defending what the government has defined as the arts. They seem only concerned about the funding, not about the restriction of artistic freedom that comes with the money. They have reacted like any other bureaucracy when a conservative politician throws a brick through the stained glass window of their big government program.

Speaking of reactions, this particular veto has generated an unusually high number of caustic emails from out-of-state people. Though they claim to be supporters of the arts, they have obviously never studied the Art of Manners. Maybe reading a little Flannery O’Connor or watching Jane Austen on ETV would help in that regard. The few emails from constituents, on both sides of the issue, have been very civil.

Many citizens across the state believe that government support of the arts should continue, in spite of the fiscal and philosophical questions. We should not be surprised that people enjoy attending their local theaters, art shows and symphonies. If nothing else, these events offer them a welcome diversion from having to think about our ballooning national debt caused by such spending.

A study of history should also comfort the commission’s supporters. The General Assembly has overridden this type of veto several times before, even during the budget crises of 2009 and 2010. They will override it this time. Not because of any understanding of the arts, but because the SC Arts Commission enables the state to spend federal tax dollars with few questions asked. Lyndon Johnson may have been clueless about artistic control, but he sure knew how to control state legislatures.