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Theatre and the State

April 13, 2004

Recently I took part in a debate between theatre professionals about what political ideology was best suited for theatre: (left) liberalism or (right) conservatism. Neither has worked all that well in the real world, I pointed out, so why would they work in the world of theatre?

Most participating in the debate, of course, concluded left liberalism was best suited for the theatre and the arts in general. When President Bush announced an $18 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts, these same people were thrown for a loop. After all, a conservative's ideas of literature and art are more likely to be Tom Clancy and Norman Rockwell and less likely to be the artistic endeavors typically supported by the NEA.

How can we account for the sudden increase in funding? The state has a strong interest in being perceived as the benefactor of the arts. It is good public relations, and it has an impact on the culture. Such funding can strongly affect the content and message of art. It makes it more likely to result in political dogma rather than art. Also, funding tends to socialize artists into accepting state domination and to either politicize them or pacify them in their attitudes toward government.

"The artist who accepts the honors and emoluments of state becomes a 'state man'," writes Bill Kauffmann. "He has sold his birthrights—freedom and independence—for a mess of pottage." He is surely right that "The Founding Fathers never envisioned sponsorship of the arts; notes of the constitutional conventions of 1787 do not even mention the possibility of such aid."

Elected officials and bureaucrats have used arts funding to forge a new feudalism in which artists pledge fealty for fief. The evidence of regime loyalty is all around. In the most recent edition of the Dramatists' Sourcebook under the rubric of "Social-Political Theatre," (pp. 307–08) a quick scan reveals numerous calls for submissions dealing with: "plays that explore, gay and bisexual relationships," "feminist issues," "gender issues," and "multicultural themes" –-multicultural theatre being an issue of such importance it warrants its own rubric for theaters who have "Multicultural Theatre" (pp. 303–04) as part of their mandate. Lacking are calls for play submissions dealing with the right to bear arms, the rights of the unborn, limited government, and other "conservative" issues.

When did the arts in this country develop such a political bias? In 1935, the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt administered the first arts subsidies via the Federal Art, Music, Theater, and Writers projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). As Bill Kauffman writes, "Although sold as a Depression palliative, the WPA'S creative projects had an ancillary purpose; the co-opting of artists."

As one of the conceivers of the Federal Arts Project, Audrey McMahon, noted: "Artists, men of talent and of highly sensitive natures, men who form part of a large group which might easily, under adverse and difficult conditions, become a distinct social problem, have not only been kept from final distress, but their gifts have been directed into the channel of public benefit."

The Federal Arts Project went on to produce pro-New Deal propaganda under the guise of art and was eventually shut down in 1939 after protest from opposing members of congress.

In 1948, The Department of Culture was established under Truman. "Art to the progressives had political utility; if cosseted and fed artists could be of great use to the powers that be."[†] Many artists and arts entities such as The American Artists Professional League, the National Sculpture Society, and the American Symphony Orchestra League opposed the creation of a federal arts agency and were concerned artists would become utilities of the state in the perpetuation of its creed.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy called for "a federal advisory agency to assist in the evaluation, development, and expansion of cultural resources." As Gore Vidal stated: "He [Kennedy] knows the propaganda value of artists and he has . . . tried to win them over."[‡]

With the assassination of Kennedy, arts funding was suspended temporarily. LBJ did not share Kennedy's enthusiasm regarding arts funding, however, Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. convinced Johnson to weigh seriously the various ways subsidies "can strengthen the connections between the Administration and the intellectual and artistic community."  

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson created the National Council of the Arts and a year later the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities which encompassed the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

From it's inception to the present, the NEA'S budget has fared rather well under both Republican and Democratic presidents. In 1982 and 1983, the Reagan administration cut arts funding by 10 percent. During the Clinton years—though it's often overlooked by liberals—the NEA'S budget was reduced by nearly $62.8 million from 1995 to 1996 and a Republican congress enacted modest rescissions in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

With the presidency of George W. Bush, the era of Big Government Conservatism has arrived. Some conservatives have advised "small-government activists to grow up and make peace with the welfare state." George Will has argued "that big government can be used to advance conservative social goals." George W. Bush has launched the biggest expansion of the Great Society in over 30 years and many conservatives are quick to embrace this as "strategy;" a way of stealing the Democrats' thunder.

Accordingly, we should not be surprised when the Bush Administration turns its attention to the arts—not to promote art as such but to enlist art in the promotion of the Bush administration and the government generally. The idea might be to wean the arts community from its ideological connection from the other party and toward the GOP and its ideology. Whether it will work is immaterial because there is no cost to the Republicans for trying since they are, after all, spending other people's money.

Theatre does best when left to its own devices, free from the influence and entanglements of the state. As with all the arts, theatre thrives best when it is left alone, buffeted neither left nor right by changing patterns of political opinion. Theatre has always included a political dimension but it should be one chosen, not bought by taxes. Theatre is an instrument of civilization and much too important to be left to politicians and bureaucrats desirous of vassals in the ongoing war for our minds.


Hans Frank teaches theatre at St. Mary's University and NorthwestVistaCollege, both in San Antonio, Texas. He is active in the Austin theatre scene where his one man show LONELY HIGHWAY was awarded an

Austin Circle
of Theaters Critic's Award.

[†] Quoted in Helen Townsend, "The Social Origins of the Federal Art Project," in Art, Ideology, and Politics, ed. Judith H. Balfe and Margaret Jane Wyszomirski (New York: Praeger. 1985), p. 276.

[‡] Gore Vidal, "Writers and the World," in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952–1972 (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 215.

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