03/04/2011 06:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Arts Budget Cuts Address National Endowment's Weakness

"The ants on the crucifix" should be a synonym for "the writing on the wall". This winter, the Smithsonian Institute removed an artwork that had angered the Christian Right, and last month, the House voted to cut a quarter of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget. It happened like clockwork, and it's only the latest sign that arts advocates must abandon the federal funding model.

Critics don't care that the Smithsonian exhibit was privately funded. Over the years, the "save our children" lobby has streamlined its arguments; every time another controversial artwork shows up anywhere near public funding, they'll cite the precedent of the ants on the crucifix. But even if it's no longer possible to have a bipartisan conversation about arts money, maybe that's for the best. Maybe the culture wars can still be fought without a frontal assault.

An example of the convoluted path to arts funding can be found in Los Angeles. Tourist visits in the city jumped 8% from 2009-2010, and Australians, for the first time, made up the largest chunk. The economy helped, as did the exchange rate, and Gustavo Dudamel couldn't have hurt, but some sources credit cheaper flights between LAX and Australian airports. Los Angeles gets money for its Department of Cultural Affairs from a portion of hotel tax revenues, so when it got cheaper for Australians to fly across the Pacific, hotels filled up and helped fund the arts.

That contribution was small, but there are countless factors like it in transportation, communications, tax incentives and copyright law that play a much larger role in determining what gets funded than does the federal arts budget. Within limits, wider expressways mean more trips to city centers, faster internet means more YouTube videos, and larger gift allowances mean more museum donors. This logic also addresses the furor over cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities and, to a lesser extent, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. As a general rule, federal projects that make it easier to do anything also make it easier to do art.

And, as any manufacturing tycoon will tell you, it's more efficient in the long run to invest in means than in ends. Arts advocates sometimes forget that we ought to agree with this: when we talk about culture and heritage, we're talking about future generations and long-term benefits, not immediate profits. So why are we still relying on the government to fund individual projects?

It certainly isn't the money. Just because NEA funding is invisible on a graph next to the defense budget doesn't mean arts organizations are automatically worth supporting. That would assume they function the way we'd like them to. But naturally, the sort of projects that actually drive tourism and innovation are usually self-sufficient anyway, and the programs that subsist on grants are unlikely to make a broad economic impact. I owe this last point to Tyler Cowen, who wrote the book on the subject.

On top of the federal arts budget's inefficiencies and lack of influence, there's the intrinsic trouble of centralizing something people are expected and even encouraged to disagree about. Someone will always be offended. Hell hath no lobby like a fundamentalist scorned, and under the current system extreme positions can't be ignored.

Saying we should abandon national arts funding is not the same as saying we should abandon the arts. The NEA survives as a symbol, a reminder that we Americans believe in the arts. But artistic works are a byproduct of a healthy society, not the other way around, and a much more potent symbolic gesture would be to let the arts budget die and show that we Americans aren't missing the forest for the trees. Instead of arguing over the pittance of direct funding to the NEA, we should focus on better harnessing the massive indirect funding all around us. Maybe we could even push that kind of initiative through Congress, for once.