Support for the Arts in the Time of Budget Cuts

In the aftermath of the rough cut debut of President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, we’ve heard the for-crying-out-loud political hue and cry about the budget’s inequities, its tilt toward military spending increases, at the expense of social programs that tend to pillory the poor, and all the rest of profoundly important issues that lie, like dragons, in the budget, the debate that is already there, and its final shape.

Not entirely hidden in that budget is the almost predictably reassuring presence of proposals to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting.

We say reassuring because it isn’t simply a case of careless and thoughtless Trumpian bluster, although it certainly reflects the president’s lack of curiosity in the arts,  in books, in diverse voices, and arts education and encouragement.

The theme of somehow defunding or making cuts in federal programs that support the arts and artists has been a constant and steady drumbeat for the conservative Republican right over the years, as incipiently hostile as opposition to Planned Parenthood.  These stout conservatives, many of them on the Christian right, rail not only against Political Correctness, but old but never forgotten sins and offenses by recipients of arts grants who produced work that offended religious groups with works that were either shocking, for all the wrong reasons, or tolerant and/or celebratory of gay life in America.

Inevitably, people like writers George Will or former presidential wannabe Pat Buchanan will talk about one particular work of art—or not—that’s some 30 years old now, and use it as megaphone and  core reason for defunding the arts.

With the Trump administration, its cuts or defunding to be done in the name of protecting Americans, or saving money or somehow achieve that goal of budget balancing that is as distant as one of those newly discovered planets.

This opportunistic attack on the arts is to many revealing.  Most people in terms of polls actually do not favor cutting arts spending, minuscule—in budget terms—that it is.  Many people think art—theater, the highest notes, the deepest vision, the lines of a poem—can inspire us not just to speak to our better angels but to invite them into our house for a meal and friendly talk around the table.

The perpetual suspicion and hostility to art seems often part of an American undercurrent of prideful anti-intellectualism. We have as part of our history a party that proudly designated itself as the “Know Nothing” party.   But we are also—however diverse we become—a part of Western culture with a history of state supported and encouraged—without the heavy boot of censorship—art and those who make it.

Artists—even when they shock us or discomfort us, but especially when they create inspiring and consoling beauty in all of its forms—should be supported in their endeavors. If a self-proclaimed intellectual like Steve Bannon can have the ear of the president, should not artists have the eyes, ears and hearts of the people?  

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