Why You Should Give A Damn About Arts Funding

It’s been repeated to the point of being a broken record- lack of public support to the arts.  There are some out there who look at the humanities as superfluous, even elitist.  Unlike medicine, art doesn’t save lives, supposedly, but that’s a simplistic attitude for a country privileged enough to have places where art is a community’s salvation.

So it really comes as no surprise that the Republican Study Committee’s deficit cutting plan, released in late January, proposed completely severing funds to both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), both of which operate on annual budgets of $167.5 million each.  The plan also wants to take $20 million from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “a presidential memorial that fosters scholarship and dialogue in the humanities and the social sciences.”

I have a hard time believing that taking away these funds have anything to do with whittling down our national deficit.  The cuts Republicans want to make to the arts only trim the federal budget down by three-tenths of one percent.

What this really is is the Republican Study Committee’s hit list against American arts and culture, camouflaged as economic accountability and “big government” consolidation.  The committee’s number one target is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; NEA and NEH follow closely behind at numbers five and six.  

“The Republican/Tea Party base still passionately believes that the main service provided by the NEA is state-sponsered Bible desecration… Art spending, it seems, is the obvious example when it comes to illustrating the evils of wasteful government,” wrote ARTINFO.  

The committee also wants to see cuts in education, social services, family planning, public transportation and energy conservation.  Yet no cuts to the military budget.  And no raised taxes on the richest 2% of American taxpayers.  Guns and wealth… because the Kardashian lifestyle is how we want to sustain our image as the great innovator of the world.

The NEA fought a similar battle in 1995 when a newly-elected Republican majority tried to get rid of it because the endowment supported performances and exhibitions that the GOP decreed offensive.  The NEA ended up taking a 39% budget cut, which ended its ability to issue out grants to individual artists.  Even with inflation adjustments, the NEA operates at about $58 million a year less than before the “culture wars” of the ’90s.

“The NEA, founded as a symbol of Kennedy-Johnson liberal idealism – and hamstrung in the ear of Reagan-Bush-Clinton libertarian reaction – is these days so anemic that it is hard to be truly passionate about,” argues ARTINFO.  “Nevertheless, the mere existence of government arts funding is symbolically important.”

Just ask a Republican.  In 2005, at the 40-year anniversary celebration of the NEA and the NEH, then president George W. Bush said that “the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have strengthened our democracy by supporting our nation’s ideals, institutions, and emerging talents.  The NEA has provided support for music and dance, theater and the arts across our great country.  It has helped improve public access to education in the arts, offered workshops in writing, and brought artistic masterpieces to under-served communities.”

It’s also smart economics, particularly during a time when falling revenue is more the norm than the exception.  On average, the arts industry generates $166.2 billion in income each year.  “The government’s existing arts-funding model follows conservative budgetary principles,” Americans for the Arts president Robert Lynch told the LA Times.  “A small federal investment that’s important to the health of the nonprofit arts sector helps sustain its 5.7 million jobs and the $30 billion in annual returns to federal, state and local coffers that those workers pay in taxes.”

“NEA funding is an investment in the arts,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY), “but it’s also an investment in communities and jobs.”

But I’m not saying it’s time to bust out the “Save the Arts” bumper stickers, which I generally find useless and only serve the self-indulgent purposes of supposed art supporters who think slapping a bandaid on an infected cut will protect it from gangrene.    

I’m saying it’s time for something more assertive, more compelling, because this assault on arts funding runs deeper than allocated funds; it’s a battle over wider priorities, and a contest that needs to push the art agenda as equally important as other American fundamentals, such as military funding.

“You can’t fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the national endowment for the humanities or the arts,” Colin Powell told CNN’s State of the Union.  “Nice political chatter, but that doesn’t do it.”  The four-star military general suggests cuts in military spending instead, stating he doesn’t believe that “the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can’t be touched.”

Severing federal budgets to the NEA, NEH, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Woodrow Wilson Center go deeper than a lack of arts funding.  It’s a depleted investment in education and national dialogue.  If we really want to be a country of innovation, as President Obama claimed in the State of the Union address, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and realize that good ideas don’t magically appear on their own, and they don’t come from a left brain-oriented curriculum.  

It’s not always about memorizing and manipulating numbers.  Art is just as crucial to national sustainability as science and math, because art teaches and exercises creativity and imagination, both of which are crucial elements to us “out-innovating” the rest of the world.  

You can argue the supposed sacredness of military funding as a necessity for our national defenses, but on the same token, who’s defending us on the domestic front from ignorance and illiteracy in the discourses that shape our society?  The answer is the arts and humanities, which not only make these discourses relevant, but also teach us how to give a damn and use our talents for civic engagement and participation.  Art always opens the door before policy.  You want to reap a new generation of American leadership?  You start by sowing an investment in the artists and humanitarians who are continually shaping our national dialogue.

And then there’s the issue of sheer hypocrisy.  For all the PR the Republican party touts for military’s role in the fight for democracy and free speech elsewhere in the world, I can’t help but wonder what they would say if the tables were turned and the general public realizes how subtly our free speech is infringed, under the guise of fiscal responsibility.

 

Related Articles:

Art Museums and Critics Unite in Protest to Smithsonian Censorship

MoMA’s Recent Purchase – Smithsonian’s Censored Video

Artist Philanthropy: Growing in Numbers and Strength

 

Photo courtesy of Emre Ayaroglu via Flickr

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