VIEWPOINT: Prioritize American Art and Soul

In 1965, the U.S. Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Besides funding arts and humanities projects, the agencies support art education, international cooperative initiatives and research. However, both agencies have regularly faced criticism and threats of demise.

Trump’s current cost-cutting budget proposal would eliminate both agencies, saving $300 million from their combined budgets, which is .024 percent of federal discretionary spending, or approximately 92 cents per citizen.

Comparatively, some of Trump’s lifestyle choices, including twice-monthly trips to Florida and his family’s stay in New York City, will cost $1.42 per citizen by year’s end.

The relative financial burden of supporting the NEA/NEH also pales by international comparisons. Around the world, public investment in the arts far surpasses that of the United States: Germany invests $20 per citizen, England invests $77 per citizen and Australia $269 per citizen.

Eliminating the NEA/NEH might sound enticing to fiscal conservatives, but the numbers are too small to believe that the choice is based on budget priorities. The proposed border wall would cost nearly 73 times more than the combined NEA/NEH budgets. The numbers are inconvenient, but the economic significance of eliminating these two agencies pales in comparison to the disregard for equity, sustainability and democracy itself.

Georgetown University professors Evan Reed, Allison Hilton and Shana Klein, from the department of art and art history, have all received NEA or NEH support in recognition of their work as artists and scholars. Each of their independent projects involved uniting human beings around issues and concerns that affect the quality of life, in these cases teenage students, international scholars or students completing dissertation work.

Uniting people and directly improving the quality of life are priorities – not indulgences. Our society suffers from anxiety, insecurity, social phobia and anger. The results include isolation, fear, illness and violence.

Nevertheless, the art world is not united in support of the NEA/NEH. David Marcus, with the Blue Box World theater project in Brooklyn, suggests their demise would be “the best thing for the arts in decades,” claiming that public subsidies prevent “creative destruction,” and place grant approval above audience engagement.

Even some supporters of the NEA/NEH – myself included – criticize some of their policies and practices, without suggesting that they be eliminated. The agencies ought to be improved upon, with increased funding, rather than eliminated.

If, instead of art, we were disputing problematic American diets, would we suggest withholding food from people? Though hard to believe, that suggestion is in Trump’s proposed budget.

If government support for the arts evaporates, will other sources step in? Historically, this has not been the case. Low government funding and insufficient private and corporate support have historically resulted in curating art based on economic priorities and sharing it with people based on economic parameters.

Moreover, rural areas, low-income communities, smaller cultural institutions and underserved demographics such as veterans or senior citizens would suffer disproportionately from the demise of the NEA/NEH. Market dynamics, philanthropy and sustainable donor support favor larger institutions with bigger footprints that – for the work they achieve – cannot serve the general population from coast to coast.

The old-school, bottom-line, profit-drives-the-story framework is not working – not in many industries, and certainly not in the arts. To foster research and development, both producers and consumers of art need to be able to take risks. The quality of life should not be measured by profit.

All art is subversive. It constantly struggles to redefine itself, to replace previous norms with new experiments that will themselves become norms to be replaced. This living laboratory, though illuminating for healthy and vital development, is constantly shifting and often frustrating.

Nevertheless, suppressing the arts’ role in a democracy suppresses more than just art. The insidious side to oppression is its capacity to render citizens speechless, reducing them to props.

As federal agencies, the NEA/NEH cannot advocate for their own survival. Numerous petitions exist to speak out against eliminating the NEA/NEH. More effective is citizens directly contacting representatives and speaking out. Most effective is celebrating the role of the arts and humanities in life and voicing the recognition of our collective coexistence.

 

Bruce McKaig is a professor in the Art & Art History Department at Georgetown University.

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