There’s a certain type of fiscal conservative unique to the United States that takes great issue with public spending on the arts, and indeed, seems to believe that every government dollar that isn’t spent on road maintenance or predator drones may as well have been shovelled into a great pit and set ablaze.
The latest target of this faux-concern for the taxpayer’s dime is the Circus Center in San Francisco (of course it’s in San Francisco) which claims to be the only school for the Circus arts in the US. The Centre has racked up roughly $175,000 in government funding since the turn of the century. That’s the best part of ten grand a year, the latest instalment of which was in the form of a $10,000 NEA grant in 2017. The money helped fund The Clown Conservatory, “24-week program, taught by master clowns, circus artists, and circus historians.” The course costs a steep $6,000, and includes classes and workshops on slapstick, physical comedy, mime, musicality, props, and other avenues of professional buffoonery .
This wasteful government spending has attracted the ire one Craig Eyermann, a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and creator of MyGovCost.org: Government Cost Calculator. To be fair to Eyermann, his concern about wasteful policies and governmental overreach seems non-partisan, but his particular disdain for what he amusingly dubs “clown college,” seems particularly wrong-headed.
Eyremann’s core argument against the grant, which he implies is the strangest thing the government spends money on (it isn’t), is that people just don’t like clowns any more, to wit:
Aside from providing this core program of training for America’s next generation of political leaders, the Clown Conservatory represents taxpayer dollars being wastefully directed to sustain something that the public really doesn’t want. Because if it did, there would be a growing international job market for clowns fed by growing public demand, and there simply isn’t. The evidence for that can be found in the stagnant membership numbers of the World Clown Association, which has consistently counted some 2,400 people in its ranks since 2004.
This would be a compelling point, if the point of arts spending was to produce marketable entertainment products. There’s already a source of funding for popular entertainment, it’s called the free market. Arts grants are literally designed to allow art and culture that might not be financially viable to continue to exist. Indeed, that clowning is a dying art is the exact reason why the government should maybe spend the occasional $10k on keeping it alive. You might not respect clowns or clowning as a performance art, but there’s a long, rich history to it, a history worth preserving. As Circus Center executive director, Barry Kendall, put it when asked why American taxpayers should fund a school for clowns:
Paying taxes is a deeply patriotic act and supporting the preservation and advancement of American culture is one of the patriotic uses of those dollars,” said Kendall. “Circus Center is proud of the unique contributions that our professional clown training program makes to the cultural life of our nation, and we are delighted that Clown Conservatory was recognized through the NEA’s competitive application process.
For your edification, I crunched a few numbers and came to the conclusion that for the price of one predator drone, clown college could produce 4,200 clowns, enough to fill the nation’s clown stockpiles for decades to come. That’s a joke, obviously, and I know I’ve been banging this drum pretty hard throughout this article, but when your country spends well over half its federal budget on defense and that number is likely to go up in the next few years, quibbling about a few clowns in San Francisco being able to have extra soy milk in their lattes seems nothing short of petty.
Ultimately, The Circus Center will always be an easy target for anti arts-spending rants. It’s weird, it’s niche, it’s difficult for the public to relate to, and it lends itself to obvious jokes about politicians graduating from the clown program. In fact, Eyermann liked that joke so much he made it twice. And that’s why we need Clown college, my friends, because any clown worth his oversized shoes will tell you that humour comes in threes.