Reducing government arts funding threatens foundation of civilized society
Historically, a country is, and should be, defined by its culture. From Greek philosophy to the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, it is the arts that survive and give us a sense of the value of the society — there’s a reason the so-called Dark Ages were so bleak and largely overlooked except for oppression and war.
Oliver Cromwell’s rule in England saw a ban on theater and an absence of color — and the Puritans were anti-intellectualist and, frankly, boring as hell.
But in the “failing to learn from history” category, there always seems to be those — mainly on the right of the political spectrum — who see arts funding as an unnecessary evil that is sending the country’s budget spiraling out of control. Who can forget the dreadful North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, dubbed the “Artificial Art Official,” who waged a one-man crusade against the arts in the 1990s?
In January, reports circulated that President Donald J. Trump was proposing to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes PBS and NPR.
Once again, the arts are under attack, this time from a man whose concept of high art is a giant portrait of himself (paid for by money from his charity) and incredibly gaudy, gold-painted architecture.
The notion that arts funding negatively impacts the economy is a myth that is easily disprovable. In fiscal year 2015, the federal budget was $3.8 trillion, which equated to approximately $12,000 for every woman, man and child in the United States.
The CPB is the largest of the three organizations, costing a “whopping” $445 million, at a cost of $1.37 for each man, woman and child in the U.S. The NEH Humanities costs approximately $150 million, the same as the NEH, for a total of 46 cents for each American. These numbers are rounded up. The NEA actually reports funding of $147.9 million, but this is an arts column so let’s make the numbers easy on ourselves. Contrast that with defense, which, according to Business Insider, costs $601 billion, more than the defense spending of the next seven countries on the list combined.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the country has a $559 billion deficit. So how will de-funding 0.00107 percent of the deficit fix the economy? It is an argument that is easily refuted.
Another consistent argument that anti-arts campaigners turn to is that if the art is any good, then the free market will support it. Before we counter that, let’s look at what the three organizations actually do.
The CPD produces “Sesame Street,” home to Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and a plethora of recognizable characters. It is also home to, dramas such as “Downton Abbey,” and programing that focuses on history and the arts in all forms. The CPB is backing a program through Wisconsin Public Television called “Veterans Coming Home,” a series depicting what some of the 2.5 million veterans endure as they reenter society.
Where else does one find such a range? Bravo TV was once an arts-centered network, but is now home to multiple “Housewives of Somewhere” or “Duck Dynasty” shows which revel in obnoxious people becoming famous for being, well, obnoxious.
The NEH offers research funding to institutions like museums, colleges, and libraries, including funding 16 Pulitzer winners, including Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series, among other notable endeavors. Taylor Tepper of Time.com cites the example of Michael Bernath, an associate professor at the University of Miami, who received $6,000 for his project “In a Land of Strangers: Northern Teachers in the Old South and the Emergence of American Sectional Identity, 1790-1865.”
Surely a variety of outlets are lining up to fund Bernath’s project for its obvious ratings attractiveness.
The NEA supports art and those who make it. Tepper argues that eliminating funding would kill hundreds of programs, like Art 365, which grants five Oklahoma artists $12,000 to support their work, adding that past grantees photographed “remote portions of our National Parks and wilderness areas,” and used aerial photography to look at churchgoing demographics in Oklahoma.
Little of what these organizations fund is “sexy” or “commercial.” Art is not always immediately commercial, nor should it be beholden to market forces. Does a lack of broad appeal mean the work has no value? Jesse Helms pet peeves were Robert Mapplethorpe’s homo-erotic photographs. While these may not be to everybody’s tastes, the general consensus among art critics is that Mapplethorpe captured the essence and sprit of a time and a community.
Who is to say what at will last and, ultimately, define us historically? What if Theo Van Gogh had refused to subsidize his brother? Vincent sold one painting in his life time, but only a Philistine would deny the value of the stunning body of work he produced.
Let’s look at the Impressionists. Their work is considered beautiful, even pretty, and incredibly commercial. The images are used on greeting cards and calendars that are safe to hang in granny’s kitchen to brighten the place. Yet they were laughed at when they first started to exhibit.
Probably the best example of “state-funded” arts is the Medici’s subsidies of Florentine art which gave us Botticcelli’s “Birth of Venus” and Michelangelo’s “David,” among many other classic works. The Medicis were powerful bankers, merchants and rulers, yet they understood that their legacy lay in the arts.
Contrast arts funding in the U.S. with other industrialized countries. In 2013, according to alternet.org, Germany’s culture budget was the equivalent of $1.63 billion. Northern Ireland’s population of merely 1.8 million people found an arts budget of $21 million. The allowance for France’s culture ministry was $10 billion. This was actually a 2.3 percent decrease, which led to large-scale protests and strikes. Britain uses lottery money to fund the arts. In 2012-2013, the department of Culture, Media and Sports funded 16 major museums and galleries for the amount of $728 million.
Arts funding, far from being a drain on budgets, increases cultural awareness, promotes diversity and improves the quality of life for everyone. In her excellent article, “What We Can Learn from the Brief Period When the Government Employed Artists,” Tess Thackara writes about Works Progress Administration, a government initiative to fund artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She writes that, “(It) left a striking legacy. In producing many thousands of paintings, sculptures, murals, photographs, and posters it pioneer(ed) new technical innovations in these cultural fields. It gave numerous important artists a leg up in a desperate time, among them Jacob Lawrence,
Alice Neel, and Louise Nevelson.
In a country split by political vitriol, we must ask how do we wish history to judge us? And who will document our times for these future judgments to be made?
Thackara writes that, “Artists were employed with specific goals in mind: to help the government communicate with the rest of the country, to inspire pride in a nation that had been brought to its heels, and to document the country’s recovery effort.”
Arts funding is not a luxury, it is essential for the health of a free and flourishing democracy. Thackara writes that artist Lee Krasner called the WPA program a “lifesaver.”
By opposing any funding cuts, it is the life and future of this country that we may be saving.
Story by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor