It has been widely reported that our current administration is proposing to completely cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This would mean cuts of $148 million to each of these agencies. According to an article on Snopes, the combined total represents 0.006 percent of the Federal budget or less than $1 per person.
I have to be honest. I’m deeply torn about this. The creation of great works of art in all its forms–visual, performance, written–is one that lifts us above what is often a “least common denominator aesthetics” of the marketplace. They capture both the greatest aspirations and painful realities of our human condition. Furthermore, there is a role of the humanities in educating us for citizenship, for our common life in the republic. The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities states:
“Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”
Their work of creating and preserving culture includes funding resulting in seven thousand books, sixteen of which have won Pulitzer prizes. Did you like the Civil War series? NEH funding helped make that possible. We have a set of bookshelves in our living room filled with Library of America works by the best of America’s writers. NEH made that possible. Over 63.3 pages of newspaper have been digitally archived through the United States Newspaper Project. It can be asked how we can possibly aspire to greatness as a nation if we do not know our story.
Unless our object is to become a nation of barbarians, it seems to me that it is unarguable that we must continue to support our arts and letters. But it seems to me that this begs the question, should this be via government agency through compulsory taxation? And this is where I’m torn. Our 20 trillion dollar deficit (nearly $61,000 per person) tells me that we expect far more government than we are willing to pay for. Now the $300 million for these two agencies is just a drop in the bucket, even while we expand spending on our military and propose to build a hugely expensive border wall. But if we aren’t willing to pay more taxes, we have to cut somewhere and truthfully, most of the rest is entitlements for both rich and poor, as well as our defense spending.
I wonder if it is time to make agencies like NEA and NEH into private foundations and to encourage private philanthropy to invest in the arts. One thinks of the Gates Foundation, which has given away as much as $5 billion to causes it supports in a single year. I for one would be happy if most of the money spent on political campaigns were given to the arts instead. Instead of the grief of robo-calls and endlessly coarse and repetitive advertising, we could have great art and great ideas. Probably not going to happen, but I can dream.
On a more serious note, my home town of Youngstown has a nationally known museum of American art because an industrial magnate made it possible to build an outstanding collection and provide free admission. Will a new generation of philanthropy step forward to fill the gap and sustain our artistic greatness? Could some of our wealthiest citizens step forward and replace what may be lost to budget cuts?
But support of the arts is not just for the rich. Most of us can think of at least one arts organization or artist that has given us joy. It could be a community arts center. You might do like a friend of mine and set aside money to buy original works of art and start your own art collection. Maybe it is your local public radio station. Perhaps it is a poet just starting to publish their work. I sing with a choral group, and I know that our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our budget. The joy of making great music together makes it worth investing not only my time but my money. Do you know that if just one million of us contributed $25 a month to such efforts, it would equal the budget cuts we have been talking about? And many of us could do more.
There is something else that can come of more of us personally supporting the arts and humanities. We tend to pay attention to what we invest in. We get to know artists and writers whose work we like. We come to understand what it means to give birth to works of beauty, and what many of these people sacrifice to do so. We break the walls of impersonality that have separated artists from the rest of us and enrich each other’s lives.
On one hand, I wonder why trifle over such a “drop in the bucket” when we propose to spend huge amounts on a wall that I doubt will make us any safer (the “really bad dudes” tend to have lots of money to circumvent things like walls). But I also wonder if organizations like NEA and NEH might be better off, and more accountable to the public, if they cut their ties with government. I can see why not all taxpayers get paying taxes, even a minuscule amount, for such things. Why not let those who do more directly support such efforts, and other arts organizations and artists from national to local levels. What is stopping us?