A big story that no one noticed: Last year, the crowd funding company Kickstarter distributed more money for the arts than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This isn't surprising. We're living in times where every dollar government spends is getting harder to justify and funding a poetry chapbook which, regardless of its aesthetic value, will probably be read by less than 200 people is difficult to justify to the Republican Liberty Caucus.
Still, even Kickstarter's founders don't seem sure that this is a good thing. Kansas recently cut funding for its Arts Commission, and it is likely that many other governors will do the same. What does the decline of the NEA and the rise of crowd-funding mean for the arts?
If the NEA were to stop existing, this would hardly be surprising in and of itself. After all, it has only existed since 1965. Still, the NEA may be new, but government patronage of the arts is a very old tradition that goes back at least to the days of ancient Greece. Government patronage used to be much more considerable. Queen Elizabeth gave Edmund Spenser a life-pension for the first half of the Faerie Queene. (Judging by the latter three books, he felt like he was cheated.)
That being said, the majority of work which has gained government support in the past has been at least somewhat popular. Greek drama might have been funded by the state, but the theater was attended by almost everyone. The idea behind the National Endowment for the Arts often was the opposite: The reason why it funded projects was because the projects were not loved enough to sustain the artists on their own. I am sure that the Cowboy Poetry Festival draws a large crowd, but probably not as many as would show up if J. K. Rowling had offered to do a pre-publication reading of the last Harry Potter book in Times Square.
Neither is it convincing that "government programs ought not to support popularity, but rather timelessness." There is the occasional outlier, like Herman Melville, but when we consider the most critically acclaimed authors in American history, the majority of them have been somewhat popular. This is not to say that The Scarlet Letter sold as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, but typically when someone like Longfellow or Faulkner or Welty came out with a book, it was at least looked on as a cultural event. The same could be said about the music of Samuel Barber or the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Kickstarter might not produce any of this. But, so far, the National Endowment of the Arts has not been producing too much work of that caliber either. This is not to say that popular appeal is enough to determine the ultimate value of art. Pornography is not typically of great aesthetic value, even though it is popular from Washington, D.C. to Utah.
Nonetheless, there are enough discerning people in the world to know what good art is and to know when to invest in it. Hopefully, some of these people are visiting Kickstarter. So far, it is difficult to make an umbrella judgment about the kind of art that Kickstarter produces. And it is even harder to make any kind of judgment about what contemporary work constitutes "Great Art."
One thing is for sure, though: Critics will not endorse the art that is supported by Kickstarter at the same level as that supported by the National Endowment of the Arts until the Kickstarter artists become as much of the artistic establishment as, say, Suzanne Buffam or Ryan Teitman. If you haven't heard of either one of them, don't feel bad. I hadn't either, until I looked up a list of recent NEA grants. This reflects poorly on the state of contemporary art. Ms. Buffam or Mr. Teitman's poetry might be good, but if Shakespeare recited a sonnet in the forest for no one to hear it, would it still be great literature?
If nothing else, contemporary art might benefit from a bit of the critical populism that Kickstarter threatens to introduce. After awhile, critics will probably begin to take a more serious look at the projects that receive funding and, at that point, the artists who create successful projects might already have formed some sort of alternative artistic establishment than that which is so well endowed by the ivory tower. Regardless of the quality of the projects, their ability to generate funding suggests that at least someone thinks that it has aesthetic merit.