The Politics of Art

By Matthew Hennessey

If you hang around with actors, as I occasionally do, you often hear things like this:

Other countries respect their artists. They give subsidies. They believe culture is something the state should support. Here in the United States, we treat our artists like crap. It says a lot about us as a country.

To be absolutely clear, I made that quote up. None of my personal friends ever actually said that. But many of them have said something more or less like it, and, in my days as an actor, I frequently said such things myself.

Even among artists, actors are an unusually paranoid, frustrated, and bitter lot. Most know next to nothing about how the world beyond the stage door works (source of paranoia). They are almost all rotten at managing their personal finances (source of frustration). And you’ll never meet an actor who thinks that his friends are more talented than he is (source of bitterness).

A quick joke.

Q: How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Twenty. One to screw it in, and 19 to say “I could have done that.”

So when an actor—or any artist—says that the state should support the arts, what he usually means is that artists should be given taxpayer money to do their work but that the government should simply write the check and then buzz off. After all, we can’t have the government meddling in the work of our artists.

I’ve always found this curious. Where business is concerned, there is no limit to the regulations and restrictions that the Left can dream up. When it comes to the arts, though, all my liberal friends are libertarians.

“The most important thing [about Obama] is he’s got great ideas,” said Academy Award winning director Steven Spielberg on the steps of the Capitol building just moments before Obama’s inauguration.

But I’m curious. What does Spielberg think about this idea that the president articulated in an April speech to supporters?

We’re not trying to push financial reform because we begrudge success that’s been fairly earned – although, I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money…

Does Steven Spielberg think that he’s made enough money? Spielberg made $85 million in 2009 alone. Like many of his film industry colleagues, Spielberg’s income is comparable to that of a CEO at a top American company. In fact, according to, if Spielberg were a chief executive, he would be the seventh best-paid CEO in the country.

Barney Frank’s House Financial Services Committee has been trying to figure out how to cap or capture “excessive executive pay” for almost a year now, but its focus is always on Wall Street. The top earner in Hollywood last year was Transformers director Michael Bay. His $125 million would put him fourth on the CEO list. Director Roland Emmerich, at $70 million in 2009, would rank eighth, and Avatar director, James Cameron, at $50 million, would be 14th.

So how come we never hear liberals complaining that Hollywood salaries are out of control?

One answer is that Hollywood is full of liberals, and liberals like Steven Spielberg give oodles of money to Democrats. It should hardly be surprising, then, that Democrats are for greater regulation of every industry except the film industry.

But a better answer is that Hollywood salaries aren’t a problem because Hollywood isn’t responsible for causing the economy to collapse. That’s a fine answer, if a slightly unrefined one (it’s at least plausible that government policies designed to extend mortgage lending to under-qualified borrowers bears equal or greater responsibility for the housing crisis than Wall Street “greed” does).

If you look a little deeper, however, I think you’ll find that the real reason most actors and artists think it’s okay for Steven Spielberg to earn $85 million a year, but that it’s criminal for Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf to earn $18 million a year, is that most liberals think that Spielberg’s work is important and Stumpf’s isn’t.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that John Stumpf adds far greater value, not just to his company, but to the world, than Steven Spielberg does. Yet, to most liberals, Spielberg’s compensation is “success that’s been fairly earned,” while Stumpf’s is an affront against decency.

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