There’s been a lot of buzz about President Trump’s proposed budget cuts on government spending. In the art community, the focus has been on the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Here is the breakdown of the facts:
THE BUDGET: A major platform of the Trump administration is dramatic cuts on government spending, which the Obama administration has been criticized for mismanaging. Another goal is the Republican platform of diminishing federal bureaucracy, i.e., giving less power to the federal government, and more to individual states.
THE GOAL: Cut $10.5 trillion in the next ten years—that’s $1.05 trillion annually. (Washington Post)
THE METHOD: The administration has proposed cutting lots of smaller expenditures in order to reduce spending as a whole. They refer to these as “discretionary spending”: money spent by the government’s choice. One of those small expenditures is the National Endowment for the Arts.
THE NUMBERS: The NEA and NEH combined make up $296 million – 0.006% of the $3.899 trillion in 2016 federal spending. (Washington Post)
The Issue: Is Federal Arts Funding Necessary?
“Government is not necessary to create art,” says David Marcus, a senior contributor to The Federalist and the artistic director of a theater company in New York City, in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon. “Art is older than government… I think it would look different, but that’s just the nature of art.”
The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank influential in the budgeting plan, calls the NEA “welfare for cultural elitists”. Many consider the art world to carry a leftist agenda. They believe the National Endowment uses American tax dollars to subsidize artists and organizations that do not benefit or reflect the ideals of the citizens it takes from.
But who are NEA grants really benefitting? Those opposed to the cuts would say American culture itself. The 0.006% of the federal budget—not even a drop in the bucket—is serving the creative endeavors of the nation, boosting cultural innovators who may not have a chance in a market ruled completely by private investment and endorsement.
What does this mean for the arts?
One of the fundamental arguments ingrained in this debate is what it means when government makes decisions on which art is worthy of receiving money and acclaim. Eliminating the National Endowment of the Arts is seen by supporters as a freedom: freedom from bureaucratic forces determining our culture, and government bodies showing support for politicized artistic endeavors. There have been a number of past controversies over the projects funded by the NEA, with criticisms ranging from silly to deeply offensive. In some ways, this can also be a small protection from authoritarianism by taking government influence off of the arts.
But we’re getting away from the bigger picture here. The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities represents more than just individual artists. It funds countless community efforts to better the lives of Americans—for example: therapy programs for veterans and mental health patients; nonprofit arts agencies that foster cultural programs for at-risk youth.
The current high-end art market will not be shaken. Private funding will support the insular and “elitist” top-ranking fine artists—the part of the art community that supporters of the cuts condemn. What is at stake is the future of art, when there are fewer opportunities for budding artists, especially those in under-resourced communities, in a society where the arts are institutionally undervalued as “excess”.
This argument shines a spotlight on the divisive climate of current United States politics. The country is unable to agree on what they consider to be art—good art, bad art, necessary art—whether art should even be in question. Some would argue that this paves the way for a thriving artistic dialogue, rife with controversy on both sides.
The decision is reported to be announced in April. Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to appreciate, support, and promote all forms of art in every way we can. There must always be a place for art, especially in times of conflict, to capture, express, and interpret our world.
Friday, February 24, 2017: Puloma Ghosh