Surprise! Bill DeBlasio Will Tie NYC Arts Funding to “Diversity” Without Defining “Diversity” | The Weekly Standard

Surprise! Bill DeBlasio Will Tie NYC Arts Funding to "Diversity" Without Defining "Diversity" | The Weekly Standard.

Last month, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the city’s first-ever “cultural plan.” Although the details are murky, he hopes to tie funding for arts organizations to the “diversity” of their staffs and boards of directors. The city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, explained the plan this way: “Today’s announcement requiring diversity reporting from city-funded groups is the next step, building on everything we’ve learned to date to work toward a cultural sector that is fairer, more equitable, and looks like the city it serves.”

The plan, titled CreateNYC, doesn’t explain who will decide which institutions are sufficiently diverse or

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Who knew? ‘Saving’ requires government funds. Photo credit: NEWSCOM
Last month, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the city’s first-ever “cultural plan.” Although the details are murky, he hopes to tie funding for arts organizations to the “diversity” of their staffs and boards of directors. The city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, explained the plan this way: “Today’s announcement requiring diversity reporting from city-funded groups is the next step, building on everything we’ve learned to date to work toward a cultural sector that is fairer, more equitable, and looks like the city it serves.”

The plan, titled CreateNYC, doesn’t explain who will decide which institutions are sufficiently diverse or by what criteria such a thing could be discerned. The section on “implementation” mentions “increased funding for cultural programming in low-income communities,” “increasing support for people with disabilities as audience members, artists, and workers at cultural organizations,” and so on, but the mayoral arts czars steer well clear of any explanation of “diversity.” If a board member at one of the city’s museums has a Norwegian mother and a Cambodian father, for example, would he count as white or a “person of color,” in the mayor’s opinion?

Of course, the plan isn’t cultural but political. De Blasio—by sharp contrast with his immediate predecessors, the arts philanthropist Michael Bloomberg and the opera fanatic Rudolph Giuliani—is not known for artistic and cultural sensibilities. He is better known for skipping high-profile cultural events than attending them. His proposal to make cultural production subservient to identity politics is a fine instance of the way in which cultural funding in the absence of any firm definition of culture—or any attempt at definition at all—is political advocacy under a fancier name.

You would think New York City’s arts scene was already pretty diverse, but evidently you would be wrong. It’s too white and too male. The mayor’s announcement, as the New York Times noted, “puts pressure on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History and other pre-eminent institutions that are led largely by white male executives and power brokers from Wall Street, real estate and other industries.” Cultural institutions are not self-supporting; their boards are filled with the people able to write big checks, more often than not older white men. The battle shaping up between the city’s arts bureaucracy and its preeminent institutions won’t be easily resolved.

One obvious question: Why should institutions run and governed by wealthy people need help from government? New York’s city council doles out millions every year to a vast array of cultural programs and institutions, many of which maintain sizable budgets apart from any public aid. In 2015 (the most recent year for which information is available), the Metropolitan Opera received $754,000 from the city to pay for its fly-rigging system, which allows the raising and lowering of sets and curtains on-stage. The Met’s budget that year was $310 million—not enough to fund as many performances as its board would like, no doubt, but a pretty nice sum all the same. Any organization that can raise $310 million can raise another $754 grand without taking it from roads and bridges and subway systems used by millions of people who don’t care about opera.

But the most important question raised by the de Blasio plan is this: Why does the government give money to the arts at all? Lots of things in life are edifying and worthy, but it’s advisable for government to fund only such things as are likely to produce definable positive outcomes. Proponents of arts funding articulate lots of different societal benefits supposedly brought about by artists and arts organizations, but their arguments rarely hold up under scrutiny. A recent academic study published in Britain by the Arts and Humanities Research Council considered an array of common claims made for the arts—that they help to produce engaged citizens, that they encourage reflectiveness and empathy, that they foster community, that they promote economic vitality, and so on—and found them all to varying degrees either unprovable or disprovable.

Even assuming “the arts,” however we define the term, really do foster community and encourage empathy, and even assuming government funding actually advances the arts in the long run—both highly problematic assumptions—how could we prove such things with empirical data? Of course, we couldn’t. Which is why local and state governments as well as the federal government have been funding cultural and artistic endeavors without any empirical justification or clear criteria for doing so. Mayor de Blasio’s “diversity” criterion may be laughably unworkable and a plain attempt to further radical political aims, but at least it is a criterion. Ordinarily there is none.

This state of affairs hasn’t changed at all in the 27 years since Samuel Lipman published “Backward & Downward with the Arts” in Commentary magazine. Lipman was writing just after controversy erupted over funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for exhibits featuring the still highly offensive photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. On the one hand, Lipman argued, the United States has no cultural policy; politicians and policymakers have no definable or compelling aim in appropriating money to arts organizations and cultural institutions. On the other, the United States very much does have a cultural policy, though an unstated one; and that policy, he wrote, “is based on three elements: affirmative action, that is, the preferential hiring of women and minorities to fill both administrative and non-administrative positions in the humanities and, especially, the arts; a bias toward ‘multiculturalism’; and, finally, public advocacy and financial support of so-called cutting-edge art.”

With de Blasio’s new diversity-driven guidelines on arts funding, we’re witnessing the unstated policy Lipman described in 1990 become explicit. The new policy isn’t new, and it isn’t about “art” or “the arts”; it’s an old policy, more candidly executed.

This is what happens when government funds a thing without a clear sense of what it is or what makes it valuable. Such a common understanding has existed in the past—say, in ancient Athens or in European societies of the 18th and 19th centuries, although for much of that time wealthy patrons did the work government would arrogate in the 20th. A common or at least commoner understanding of art and culture existed in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, when American culture was far more consolidated than it is today. This was all swept away by the counterculture of the late ’60s and the ’70s. But cities, states, and the federal government persist in funding artistic endeavors today as though we’re all more or less agreed on the nature of beauty and the definition of art.

The problem with public-arts funding is roughly analogous to that of publicly funded higher education. Obvious differences aside (higher education has the advantage that people need degrees for practical reasons and are therefore willing to pay thousands of dollars to public institutions in order to get those degrees), the two correspond in one important way: that no one knows what the overarching purpose is. The stated aims are vague to the point of meaningless, and so both enterprises have become vehicles for radical politics.

The political hue of present-day arts funding is impossible to miss. Searching the NEA’s grant database for 2016, one finds a $10,000 grant for an LGBT chorus festival in Denver; a $10,000 grant for an “interdisciplinary arts festival” in Iowa City that “explore[s] diversity in literature along lines of gender, sexuality, race, nationality, class, ability/disability”; a $25,000 grant for a “national fellowship program for social practice artists”; and a $15,000 grant for a tour of The Missing Generation, “an evening-length production” that “give[s] voice to the early survivors of the AIDS epidemic and explore[s] the contemporary impact of the loss of much of an entire generation of gay and transgender people to AIDS in the 1980s.” The far less egregious National Endowment for the Humanities, in the same year, allotted $4,128 for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia; $5,860 for a project called “Speaking Out: Preserving the LGBT History of the U.S. Midwest”; and $50,400 for a “book-length study on the employment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual people in the U.S.’s late 20th-century work force.” No one outside the confines of today’s “arts community” would assume these and many similar efforts to be the sorts of things the U.S. government ought to finance.

The United States still has no avowed cultural policy because the country doesn’t have the kind of consolidated, self-assured culture such a policy requires. Some Americans might think an LGBT chorus festival sounds like a worthy recipient of public money, but many, probably a majority, will think it sounds like a trivial indulgence in identity-obsession or maybe just a lame attempt to épater les bourgeois. The former might be right, but the latter can’t fairly be asked to pay for it.

Instead of a consolidated culture and coherent views on public arts funding, we have an unacknowledged Kulturkampf—a slow bureaucratic insurgency in which one cultural faction gets access to government largesse simply by claiming to promote “the arts” or “the humanities.”

President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 advised eliminating both the NEA and the NEH, but the spending bill that cleared the House Appropriations Committee in late July had $145 million each, only a slight decrease from 2017. The president’s proposal was the right one, but not because we can’t afford to fund art (although we can’t) or because these agencies fund a lot of garbage (although they do). The reason to eliminate “arts” and “humanities” agencies is not political but definitional: These terms have lost their meaning.

Barton Swaim is the opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

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