Regular readers of this column will know that I rarely wax political in this space. It’s not that I’m apolitical. In fact I pay pretty close attention. But this space is generally reserved for ruminations about the creative process in its many forms. Government is not known for creative or artistic work, but it does have a peculiar legacy of being connected to lives that are. History leave traces of those atypical moments when governments have invested in art, with legacies extending as far back as Angkor Wat, Rome, ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. In more recent centuries we've seen countless artistic expressions funded from seats of power throughout Europe. In early 20th century United States we saw major works encompassing diverse and dramatic styles as a result of smart investments by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in Federal Projects Number One.
Now that we’re living in The Future [sic] there are fewer expressions of civic art, including (but not limited to) the ever-hobbled National Endowment for the Arts, with smaller grants offered by other agencies for focused projects or specific initiatives. But let’s not pretend: for all its wide ranging impacts, the WPA and these other, more modern grant-making efforts continue to be politically motivated at some fundamental level. The front lines may be staffed by people who genuinely believe that public support for The Arts is vital for a great civilization, but whenever government money starts getting spent, the expenditures are invariably influenced by politics.
These days there isn’t much public speaking about the arts. Government does not fund much these days, relatively speaking. Even absolutely essential construction projects are often left to last-minute decisions, woefully underscoped in terms of aesthetic vision. The bulk of modern artistic expression has been turned over to corporate enterprise, often commissioned for the purpose of either self-indulgence, or, more comfortably, profit. (It's arguable that all artistic expressions concern self-indulgent intentions, but that's a thought for another blog.)
One of the rare expressions of compelling, creative, federally funded work continuesin an unlikely place, with no significant risk to losing its funding. It's one of the most respected large national organizations operated by any country in the world, and it's certainly not what people think of when they think of creative work. It's NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and before you think that I’m going to wave the flag in favor of fantastic flights to distant lights, I’ll ask you to read on.
Unlike the now-defunct WPA, NASA is all about science, engineering, and exploration. It’s not a organization tasked with making art, per se, and its history of occasionally funding some small scale, self-congratulatory artistic efforts are mostly minor. NASA, of course, has the job of coordinating extraordinary scientific efforts for the purpose of stretching the limits of scientific knowledge, ostensibly for the betterment of the country. It keeps highly educated scientists employed, thus retaining major national assets at the human scale. By any real measure, NASA is an anomaly. Relative to other agencies, it’s an outlier. There are no other federal agencies in the US government that do such large, boldly daring things without a direct, tangible return on investment. When The Agency’s interplanetary spacecraft called Juno reached the gas giant Jupiter in July 2016, people around the world cheered…for what? They cheered because the effort itself was an expression of life and courage and the process of figuring out how to do something out that hadn’t been done before.
That precisely describes the beating heart of the arts, this push to experiment with an idea simply because it’s interesting. I’m fully aware that NASA—and The Juno Mission, in this case—are not about the arts, conventionally speaking, but the particular spark to experiment and press out is why I understand what’s going on at NASA in terms of the arts. We cheer for the creative expression of bold, daring creations because those efforts remind us all those dreams we have about ordinary life, about our fleeting time being more than simply about making it through the day. Nothing at Jupiter that will have a material influence on all of us back on Earth, but then again, that’s not why we made the trip.
The point is sharper, perhaps, when presented with a note of honesty and full disclosure. As someone who knows the inside of NASA from long stretches of contract work there, I can honestly report that NASA is just like any other large bureaucracy— worse, perhaps by being a public one as opposed to a commercial one. The skeleton is rickety; the sinews holding it together are often moribund, slow, stiff, and dull. The inertia to solve problems on a day-to-day basis has ossified, with a byzantine management structure that sags under its own flabby, antiquated girth. But the intangible spirit of the place continues to spark occasionally, and that spirit makes all the difference. On top of all the crufty bureaucratic gunk that keeps the agency from moving at 21st century speeds are a thin layer of scientists and engineers who know that NASA is the only place where they can dream about sending a probe to Jupiter in the first place. It’s the only place that could even consider building space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, and it’s the only place that can capably field the spacecraft necessary to monitor our changing home planet. NASA’s greatest successes happen despite the ineptitude of the commons. Why? It happens because creative people don’t have a choice. They paint and sculpt and compose music and write because the act of doing so is the source of making life mean something. The work is interesting and interesting work binds us to each other.
Would I like more public funding for the actual arts? Would I like the arts to be more prominently placed in the national dialogue? Would I like to be independently funded? Most certainly; yes to all the above. But one thing does not abrogate the other. When you next see extraordinary images from another planet or a distant galaxy, remind yourself that the energies to make those pictures possible came from a desire to try and see what would happen if a few curious people decided to take an idea and push it someplace it’s never been before.