Waxing Theoretical Part 4: The neocons

This is the fourth in my series exploring the roots of arguments that oppose government funding for the arts.  It is excerpted from a longer exploratory essay on the topic and is essentially a thought exercise.  My goal is to assist the arts advocacy community in developing effective tools to support that funding, so I was driven to explore, in some depth, the arguments in opposition. I was planning to discontinue the series due to lack of interest, but if you are one of the five or so people who have been following it, in this installment, I look at neoconservative arguments based in moral absolutism.  If you’ve been following this series, you know that the discourse here is somewhat more academic than the typical blog post, but hopefully useful.  At the end of the series, I will post the full list of references.

When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency

– Representative Eric Cantor on the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek Exhibit, November 30, 2010


Screen shot from David Wojnarowicz' "A Fire in My Belly"

Neoconservatism and morality

Representative Cantor, like his late colleague Senator Helms two decades earlier, uses a public decency argument to suggest that funding should be contingent on artistic production upholding some kind of commonly held definition of decency.  It is an argument that is typical of neoconservative thinking about social issues.  The neoconservative movement that arguably reached its apogee in the 1980s during the Reagan presidency and just after had its roots in the anti-communist movement that followed World War II (Ehrman, 1995).   Unlike the liberal notion of a limited government, those neoconservatives that follow the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and others felt that government needed to provide not only constitutional but moral restraint on what would naturally devolve into an uncivil society.  Neoconservatives are less concerned about the scope of government than (small “l”) liberals, while still being leery of its inefficiencies (Bowman, 2004).  Although focusing its strengths and talents primarily in the foreign policy arena during the Reagan years (e.g. Judis, 1995), neoconservative thinking pervades contemporary arguments against government funding for the arts and other social programs.

In addition to its anti-communist roots, neoconservatism or the “New Right” can be characterized by libertarianism on the one hand and “a traditionalism struggling to reestablish the importance of religion, shared values, and social constraints in the face of what it perceived as a secular, atomized, mass society” (Himmelstein & Zald, 1984, p. 4) on the other.  The latter view developed in the late 1960s in part as reaction against the perceived radicalism and permissiveness of that decade. Homolar-Reichman  (2009) describes the development of the movement, “original neoconservatism began during the 1960s and 1970s as an intellectual protest against what they regarded as the radicalism of the New Left and the social experiments of the federal government, which failed to discriminate between ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ social behaviour” (p. 180).  It is this branch of the neoconservative movement concerned with social behavior and public morality, rather than that primarily concerned with foreign policy personified by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Paul Wolfowitz, and others, that is of interest here.

Two of the most impactful concepts of neoconservative thinking on arts and culture policy are a belief in moral absolutism and faith in the power of religion to provide social order  (Mattson, 2006).  These concepts are of course related to one another as religious belief can form the basis for the morality that neoconservatives hold to be absolute.  Mattson credits Leo Strauss with articulating the key principles that structure neoconservative thinking in these areas. Strauss asserts that liberalism (in the classical sense) is in a crisis “due to the fact that liberalism has abandoned its absolutist basis and is trying to become entirely relativistic (Strauss, 1961, p. 140). Moral relativism has no place in Strauss’s version of a civil society.   Reagan and Bush appointees Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Leon Kass can be considered Strauss’s intellectual descendents, as can Francis Fukuyama, and William Kristol (Mattson 2006).  Fukuyama (1996) wrote, prior to his break with the neoconservative movement, “Given the close relationship between religion and community in American history, Americans need to be more tolerant of religion and its social benefits” (p. 319) Fukuyama asserts that the Hobbesian liberalism of the founders does not go far enough in establishing community, arguing that family ties and religion were important to the founders, even those who were non-believers. They “believed that a vigorous religious life, with its belief in divine rewards and punishments was important to the success of American democracy” (p.  351).   One could argue, although Fukuyama does not, that the founders’ views on this matter are pragmatic; the majority of colonial residents were religious and their religion provided a framework for thinking about the consequences of wrong behavior that could conceivably be transferred to adherence to the rules of the new state.  For non-believing and believing founders alike, the situation called for support for religious practice and belief.

Neoconservatism and the arts

The moral absolutism of neoconservatism does not in itself imply that the state should have no involvement in the arts.  Rather, the implication is that state activity in the arts and culture sector should be limited to its support for the shared values of the American people.  Given the heterogeneity of “the American people,” the shared values construct becomes problematic and, according to education theorist M.W. Apple (2004), is largely constructed as an “imagined national past that is at least partly mythologized” (p. 16).

The neoconservative views on values and decency found voice and cause during what has been termed “The Culture Wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Concern about the content of publicly funded arts termed “obscene” in a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Museum of Art and elsewhere, catalyzed a policy shift at the federal, state, and local levels away from focus on artistic excellence as determined by expert peer review toward increasing audience access to the arts (Shockley & McNeely, 2009).   The peer review process for government grant-making in place at the time was designed to enhance quality control by putting subjective decisions in the hands of experts.  Doing so, however, placed an emphasis on “artistic freedom over democratic accountability” (Lewis & Brooks, 2005,  p. 9) although there were mechanisms for oversight that even at that time involved citizen participation in the review process.

Also in the late 1980s, neoconservative cultural critic and activist David Horowitz founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, now the David Horowitz Freedom Center.   The center published books and papers and convened symposia to disseminate Horowitz’s neoconservative cultural policy perspective, summed up in his description of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities as “stricken with…intellectual, moral, and structural ailments” (Horowitz , 1994, p. xii).   The stronger voices of opposition to state intervention in the arts on moral grounds, especially at the federal level, came from congress itself when the House of Representatives voted to completely defund the NEA in 1997 following histrionic rhetoric from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who said “The American people…are disgusted with the idea of giving the taxpayers’ money to artists who promote homosexuality insidiously and deliberately, who desecrate crucifixes by immersing them in urine, and others who will engage in whatever perversion it takes to win acclaim as an artist on the ‘offending edge’ and therefore entitled to taxpayer funding” (in Quigley, 2010) .

Rationality and reason have been poor weapons for the arts policy sector in a battle of words based on moral absolutism.  Yudice (1999) argues that neoconservative moral absolutism has nothing to do with opposition to arts and culture policy.  Rather, these events are part of “a restructuring of governmentality, giving rise to a new way to channel conduct and enable action; both this restructuring and channeling of conduct require new legitimation narratives for the arts and culture” (p. 18).  These new narratives arose in reaction not to neoconservative arguments for moral righteousness but rather in response to neoliberal philosophy opposed to state involvement in the arts and culture sector on market grounds – the topic of the next two installments.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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2 Responses to Waxing Theoretical Part 4: The neocons

  1. Blake Wilson says:


    I’ve enjoyed reading your postings!

    I think you’ve hit on a key question pertaining to arts advocacy. How do artists appeal to those who view society (and by extension, the arts) in moralistic or absolutist terms…or for that matter, in economic terms?

    While there is much evidence to support the economic benefits of the arts, as an artist, I find those arguments unsatisfying. How do we get beyond measuring the value of the arts in terms of tourist dollars spent, hotel rooms booked, or restaurant reservations made? Or, in educational settings, how can we get beyond saying “arts classes will boost your test scores”?

    I think much of the opposition to government support of the arts IS rooted in these ideas that you mentioned.

    Although I wonder if it’s even simpler than that in this economic climate. How much of the opposition is simply “I don’t go to the theatre or the museums, so why should I support them with my tax dollars?”…..which, of course, begs the questions “Why DON’T they go?”

    • lindaessig says:

      There have been a couple of studies that measure “willingness to pay” that indicate that for the regions studied, average willingness to pay for cultural institutions exceeds the per capita government funding to those institutions. One study was of copenhagen, so it may not apply, but the other was here in the US (Denver, I think).

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