In their own quiet way, arts activities are as vigorous in the Midwest as anywhere else, a fact that few seem to realize—including Midwesterners.
A year ago I was privileged to escort an emigre lecturer around my state for a week. At one evening’s talk he impetuously introduced me as “not one of your long-haired Greenwich Village poets” but one who “edits and publishes a famous poetry magazine.” Now “famous” is a relative term, and my relatives have always been generous with their support, so what could I do but blush and signal to the man to get on with it?
After the lecture, a woman rushed up to me and breathlessly started in about poetry: how she’d written it since she was this high, had been published in some impressive places, had been looking for a magazine just like mine—and would I read some of her poems? “Glad to,” I began, and had to stop her almost bodily from running off to her apartment to haul the trunk (apparently) back to me. Pleading with her to mail it—the deathless plea of all editors—I scribbled my box number on a scrap of paper.
She allowed me to lay the treasure in the palm of her hand—then looked at it and then up at me in polite but obvious dismay.
“Oh, you’re not out of New York?” she asked this North Dakota native, affecting nonchalance.
“Nope. Bismarck,” I affirmed, swelling with pride.
“Mmmmmmm. Neat,” said she, backing away. Later I saw her crumple up something white and drop it into a Ficus benjamina.
I would rather live here than anywhere else, but we Midwesterners are sometimes disadvantaged, underprivileged, discriminated against. (Where z’s the Supreme Court when we need it?) Take arts grants: We don’t get our share. Our state legislatures haven’t enough of a population at their disposal to tax for large sums of money. And there just aren’t many gay Hispanic left-handed Vietnam veterans publishing quarterly journals in this neck of the woods, so most Federal money goes to New York and Berkeley. I write this as a one-time recipient of $500 from the Coordinating Council on Literary Magazines, which got the money from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant came when my fledgling journal needed it most, and was unique in that even “for profit” publications were eligible. I was, and am, grateful. Still, when I look at the list of journals granted CCLM funds this year, I get the feeling that I’m just not kinky enough, that the CCLM banked on my journal’s turning sharply, weirdly left, was disappointed, and has moved on to ideologically greener pastures.
And about profit: Technically my journal is a sole proprietorship, “for profit,” so I can’t apply for most grants. I pay tax on the journal’s income, struggle from issue to issue, turn every cent back into the publication, and pay myself nothing. If I declared my journal a nonprofit corporation, I could receive tax money instead of relinquishing it; I would be eligible for more grants than I could count, and could pay myself a handsome salary if the right ones came through (a slender possibility: see above). The semantics involved here—”profit,” “nonprofit”—have always puzzled mc, but intelligent friends ask, “Why don’t you quit carping and just do it?” Well, because my journal, and my own writing, are the only areas of my life in which I can be in complete control. Incorporating would mean paperwork, a board of directors, yearly meetings, voting—everything I mistrust, if I had to operate that way I’d quit publishing. It wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be mine.
All of which, every time I think about it, only makes me more sure that government art grants are the most misguided idea since the electric spoon, for the simple reasons that: (a) they fund the wrong things; and (b) what really deserves funding doesn’t demand funding.
Oh, there are all sorts of peripheral reasons why government grants are bad news: They discourage competition and self-reliance and weaken survival instincts among artists and render apathetic and cynical the general public, which might support the arts voluntarily (i.e., pay a fair price to enjoy what they enjoy) if they didn’t see swarms of Cristos wrapping their garbage in hundreds of thousands of tax dollars every year.
But these complaints, I suppose, pale before the sad truth in the very names of the grantors: the National Endowment for “the Arts,” state councils on “the arts.” They aren’t kidding: That’s exactly where the money goes—to “the arts,” not to artists. It goes to bring traveling troupes to town, to renovate old playhouses, to buy costumes for neighborhood Barrymores, to fund local orchestras. Some kinds of money can go to arts administrators, and some go to “artists in residence,” often talented folk who spend their precious creative hours with third-graders because the schools don’t want to hire art teachers and the artists can make more than $600 for a school week. The cash, in short, goes to performances of various kinds, but not to artists, the admitted elite, without whom there would be nothing to perform or look at or read. Some states do have fellowships for artists—as does the NEA, and hefty grants those are—but a few nice chunks of money to artists are only drops in the huge grants bucket.
Thus, the greater part of our tax-funded arts grants is wasted, sucked into some vacuum called “the arts,” which holds vast audiences but no creators. And what isn’t wasted—what goes to artists—is unnecessary. Because what our good legislators haven’t discerned is that an artist will create whether he is paid or not.
The artistic portion of an artist’s life is the same—hard, joyous, above all solitary—whether he lives with a cat in a New York walk-up or with a wife and four kids in a Peoria split-foyer. What he does, he does because he must. Most artists dream of making a good living from their art but don’t mind masquerading as businesspeople from eight to five every day: They tell themselves it won’t be forever; they remind themselves that the drudgery, the dullness, the bourgeois job gives them utter freedom, at night and on weekends, behind the locked door of their studio or study. If “free” money is available, they’ll want some, of course—but if it isn’t they’ll carry on nonetheless: because they can’t do otherwise; because their art is their joy. Artists can’t be starved out of their art—or bought into it. (Come to think of it, the same is probably true of the amateur groups and professional troupes receiving most of the money.) Given a choice of unlimited money or unlimited freedom, most artists would choose freedom.