Affirmative Action Art is all the rage in California. Recently, the California Arts Council decided that, because of ”social conditions which have historically denied some groups access to the mainstream and . . . complicated patterns of cultural bias,” race-blind awarding procedures were no longer adequate. A new “cultural outreach” was called for with hundreds of thousands of dollars especially set apart for “the state’s underserved ethnic minority art groups.” “We want to better reflect the cultural diversity of the state,” explained Paula Leftwich of the Arts Council’s Los Angeles office. Those eligible to apply under the new initiative include those whose “origins or ancestry” are “American Indian, Alaskan, or Aleut natives who retain their ethnic identification; Asians or Pacific Islanders . . . Blacks . . . and Hispanic people.”

As with other forms of affirmative action, annoying questions suggest themselves. Can a one-quarter Cherokee apply—if he braids his hair and lives in a tepee? Given one application by a one-eighth Hispanic artist named Martinez and another application from a one-half Hispanic artist named Smith, which one will most likely receive a grant? Since the Arts Council concludes its list of eligible groups with the curious statement that unspecified “other eligibility criteria” may also apply, we suspect that a proper set of “Jew Laws” is being written.

In any event, in the race for public largess, “minority applicants” will now be shielded from the rigors of competing against Irish-American play wrights, Russian-American pianists, or Anglo-American painters. Intent upon “expanding the number of ethnic minority artists and arts organizations who are able to apply for funding,” the Arts Council will someday get around to caring about standards of achieve ment and performances, but not yet. California taxpayers are no doubt thrilled at the prospect of subsidizing Eskimo whale hunts, Aztec human societies, and other exotic cultural cel ebrations. After years of paying for avant-garde insults to all moral and aesthetic norms, Californians might actually prefer to see their tax money spent on snake dances or Shinto shrines.

But it remains to be seen that government support will actually help Oriental, Indian, or Black artists. What, after all, does California—or any other state—have to show for the millions of tax dollars already spent on paintings and poetry that are just “good enough for government work.” It’s not just an American problem. The Economist recently reported that despite dramatic increases in government spending on the arts under Mitterrand, French literature, paint ing, and theater have never been more lifeless.

Community support for the arts is one thing, government subsidy quite another. The government makes a bad job of almost everything it undertakes, and if we can judge from what it does to politicians sent to Washington, it cannot be very good for character and integrity. A good artist might be willing to collaborate with an intelligent patron, but become a government flunky? Never. Almost by definition, what gets subsidized is usually bad art—not just in a technical but also in a moral sense. By a sort of Gresham’s law, the overabundance of government art drives the genuine article out of the marketplace. It is worth wondering why.