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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Professionally Clever (I Don’t Want Your Waiter’s Money)

You may be alarmed to discover that sequestration affects not only sequestration leads to the involuntary fiscal liposuction of our federal budget, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) will tighten its belt by $7.3 million. That reduction will leave the NEA with an anemic $139.7 million to distribute grants among creative people like me who, apparently, are unable to persuade people to pay them for their services.

Public funding of the arts is contentious. You may recall that in the last presidential election Mitt Romney caught a lot of flak when he told Jim Lehrer that he intended to line up Big Bird and the rest of Sesame Street against a wall and have them summarily executed. Of course he didn't actually say that; he made the crazy claim that he himself liked PBS programs but didn't feel other people should be taxed to finance them.

This statement alarmed many folks who enjoy watching PBS but apparently do not want to pay for it themselves. If we privatized Sesame Street, wouldn’t all of the fuzzy educational puppets become homeless and live in garbage cans? (Oscar the Grouch has yet to recover from the Reagan administration.) And what about NPR? Will Melissa Block be on the chopping block?

Presumably there are enough NPR listeners (myself included) who would shekel out a fiver to keep the organization afloat. The idea’s worked before with other outlets, like the Weather Channel.

The NEA doesn’t bother with a model where people give their own money for things they actually enjoy. Instead, it gets a share of what the government takes from everyone else and forks it over to artists, dancers, opera singers, and writers who can’t sell any books. Usually it has about $150 million to dish out.

I’m a standup comedian. I’ve written novels for 10 years, and am only now getting something published (coming this summer). So I sympathize with other unknown creative geniuses eating cat food. We’re doing what we love—wasn’t the money supposed to follow? Why should we have to wait tables or convince rich people to marry us? Many artsy types fancy the notion that society has an obligation to support folks like me.

It’s an intriguing thought: I do not wish to wait tables, but I’m okay with taxing waiters to support my novel writing so that I don’t have to wait tables. Because said waiters, thus far, haven’t wanted to buy my books voluntarily.

No doubt the NEA funds some real gems. It also supports some more questionable uses of tax dollars. The most controversial, you may recall, is Piss Christ, a photograph by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix plopped into a jar of his own urine. Not surprisingly, this objet d’art offended many Christians (even otherwise laid-back Episcopalians). They felt Andres Serrano ought to finance the exhibit himself, or at least through patrons, rather than through public coffers. Personally, I’m not so much offended by his iconoclasm as curious as to why pickling religious artifacts in pee should be a federally funded activity. (And if it is, shouldn’t the EPA handle it?)

A more elevated use of our money is awarding grants to opera companies or folk dancers. The problem the NEA must tackle is that only rich people like to go to operas, because operas are boring and rarely feature William Shatner or swimsuit models. Folk dancing, likewise, has a humbler consumer base as compared to Pixar movies and Cirque du Soleil. Limited patronage networks can only support a handful of companies, which can afford to hire only a handful of portly singers, spritely dancers, and so forth.

To solve the problem, we tax everyone to support forms of art most people do not actually want. This works out very well for rich people, because it means they do not have to pay as much to sit in a balcony while sleeping through a Wagner performance. It works out well for endowment recipients of all stripes, because they receive more goodies. Obtaining grants is always easier than appealing to people who like monster truck rallies.

You might enjoy folk art, or experimental photography, or musical theater. Hopefully you like standup comedy and science fiction novels as well, because someday I hope to earn a full-time living off of both.

Until I reach my goal of being professionally clever, I may well resort to jobs less grandiose than those envisioned in my high school graduation’s commencement speech. But don’t tax your waiter on my behalf. I really don’t want to subsidize my career choices at his expense.