Government and the arts. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But the two are inextricably intertwined, both for ill and for good.
The list of ill is too long to go into, even on the limitless pages of the Internet. But it usually boils down to aesthetic disagreements over particular works. The most recent ill-tempered and ill-advised clash of government and the creative world came with Senate’s refusal in November to honor rock icon Bruce Springsteen with a ceremonial resolution in the Boss’s honor. I won’t go into that here, as Tim Gebhart has already covered this lunacy so well. But do let me reiterate: Partisan politics and overheated (and improper) war rhetoric spiked that innocuous effort to recognize one of America’s leading musicians.
Then you’ve got the continuing battle over federal funding of the Corporation for Public Television, an outlet that, while less artistically vigorous than in previous years, is still one of the best spots in the broadcast landscape to find worthwhile, well-made programming. If not for PBS affiliate WGBH-Boston’s support of Masterpiece Theater, Americans wouldn’t have been able to see the award-winning The Lost Prince.
And the often ill-advised coupling of art and government trickles down to even the local level. Witness the various “art in public places” directives, efforts by cities or counties to add (or foist, depending on your point of view) a little culture to their citizens’ daily lives. Unfortunately, it’s usually the local officials who choose the art and most citizens frequently view the works, justifiably or not, as at best useless and at worst offensive.
However, there might be a bit of good in the government/art connection on the horizon. Tax legislation currently under consideration on Capitol Hill has tax breaks for songwriters, writers, artists, musicians and other creative individuals.
One measure, already approved in separate House and Senate tax bills, would allow songwriters to count their royalty payments as capital gains instead of ordinary income as they now are categorized. That could mean up to 20 percent less in taxes for these musicians.
The Senate measure also proposes a change that would let artists (and writers and scholars) who donate work to a museum or other charitable organization a full fair-market-value tax deduction. Currently, only estates of artists get that more generous tax break, while the munificent living creator can only deduct the cost of material used to produce the work. That means a painting worth $5,000 might translate into only a $100 tax deduction to account for the painter’s canvas, paint and brushes.
The tax breaks aren’t a done deal. Both must make it into the final bill that Congress approves and sends to the White House for signature into law. But at least the progress through the legislative maze so far is encouraging.
Who knows why Congress has become such a collective supporter of artistic endeavors. But it’s a welcome trend from a group that too often seems to view all cultural efforts, from music to theater to art to film, as elitist and therefore automatically suspect in the ostensible grassroots political world.
That’s a short-sighted view. A nation’s creative community is a reflection of and necessary voice and window into its collective consciousness. And these legislative efforts, which will help individuals continue to make livings in their selected fields, is an acknowledgement that artists shouldn’t get special tax treatment, but that they should get fair tax consideration that takes into account the realities of their creative circumstances.
This commentary appeared in a slightly different form as “Money for nothing and more tax breaks for me” on Don’t Mess With Taxes.