Yesterday, Tyler Green in “Barack Obama and the arts: A disappointment” at the Modern Art Notes blog issued a mid-term report card of sorts for the Obama administration’s support of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Public Broadcasting Corporation, as well as the administration’s valorization of arts education. The whole is worth reading, but here are the central paragraphs:
In his just-released fiscal year 2012 budget, the White House proposed 13 percent funding cuts for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This gave Congressional Republicans an opening: Noticing that the White House wouldn’t … take a stand on arts funding, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives promptly doubled the president’s proposed NEA and NEH cuts to 26 percent each, the deepest decline in 16 years [this includes, needless to say, the years of the Bush administration].
Just as troubling: The White House has not slowed Congress’ penchant for cutting art funding wherever it finds it. Candidate Obama said that supporting arts education funding was one of his top arts policy priorities. So much for campaign promises, because the White House just stood idly by as Congress cut art education funding earlier this month. As part of passing a continuing resolution to keep the federal government functional while Congress works on a FY 2011 federal budget, both the House and Senate cut $40 million in funding for art education.
Let’s look back at Candidate Obama’s much-vaunted, eight-part arts policy campaign platform. Candidate Obama proposed new art education programs, including an “artist corps,” but has offered nothing of the sort — yet. Candidate Obama said that he supported increased NEA funding, but after supporting modest increases in the NEA’s appropriation earlier in his presidency, President Obama just proposed that big funding cut. Candidate Obama proposed an increased focus on cultural diplomacy, but so far the president’s most significant effort on that front has been a tiny $1 million program. … The Obama campaign pledged to streamline the process for artists needing visas to enter the United States, a situation which is hard to measure but which administrators report has improved. Obama promised health care for artists. We’ll see how that works out. And finally we’re still waiting for the Artist-Museum Partnership Act to be approved by Congress so that artists who donate their work to cultural institutions receive a fair tax deduction. Judged against Candidate Obama’s own plans, President Obama still has a way to go — and has even taken some steps backward.
The $146.3 million for the NEA in the proposed 2012 budget (the NEH and PBS have rather different missions and a set of problems of their own) works out to a little under $3 million for each state, which is a little less than two weeks’ pay for Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men. During an economic downturn it is reasonable to believe that belts will be tightened and budgets cut, but the economic downturn had already begun by the start of Obama’s administration in 2008, and the signs of a recovering economy are clearly not reflected in this 13 percent cut (for all the complaining about the Republican-led House of Representatives, they just finished the job that the Obama budget proposal started).
Some governments prosecute artists; others, especially democratic governments on the eve of elections, coddle them. For all of the outreach to artists that Obama’s campaign attempted in 2008 (and Tony Blair’s government in the UK in the 1990s, and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s in 2007 — progressive liberals all, one would think), it has not generated the support for the arts that was keenly expected in the first rush of enthusiasm for this outreach. Artists were invited to the table only to be sent away with empty stomachs and expectations for a more glorious future.
Artists and arts organizations have been unable to make persuasive cases for maintaining the current levels of the NEA subsidy, let alone increasing that level, and in part I believe it’s because that the argument that the arts are somehow instrumentally “good for society” in a number of ways is, even if arguably correct, insufficient. There are many things that are instrumentally “good for society” for which the government pays, the arts only one element among them. It’s true that the arts generate jobs, but really all businesses do that, from automobile factories to office complexes; if I lose my job (at an organization completely unrelated to the arts), the newsstand across the street where I buy my paper and the restaurant where I buy my lunch will lose my business too. And then, budgets and balance sheets are a zero-sum game. If a community has $30,000 to spend, how can it do so to the greater benefit of the community? A nurse’s salary in a geriatric psych unit, or a production of King Lear? A necessary infrastructure improvement to the roads or a staging of in the next room (the vibrator play)? A schoolteacher or a new play program? (This last, as Garrett Eisler suggested yesterday, is not a rhetorical question; he quotes a Bronx middle-school principal, faced with budget cuts, who says, “Do you cut your arts program or your math teacher? It’s not a choice anyone wants to make.”)
Given that there has been no huge hue and cry from the general public about these cuts (artists and adminstrators are predictably outraged, but so are teachers and parents when education cuts are announced), one has to consider precisely what value the NEA has to this general public, and it’s clear that this value is very little. Governments support the arts to appear enlightened, even if they’re not; it’s a small price to pay for the electoral support of the creative community; and whether it’s ultimately a gesture of dilettantism or philstinism is of little interest. Democracy is democracy, and the people speak — or, in this case, they remain silent.
Perhaps it’s time for the Obama administration — and us — to stop hypocritically paying rhetorical lip service to the arts while cutting its government support. Perhaps it’s time to close the NEA. Shut it down, zero it out, lock the doors and sell the carpets. Send Rocco Landesman back to Broadway and the private sector, where he can do less damage to the delicate psyches of playwrights, literary managers and artistic directors. The repercussions will, for some, be unfortunate, but they will be local and brief.
Would things change for artists? Given the paltry sum that the NEA already disburses, it’s unlikely. Those who are still truly dedicated to their work will continue to find a way to do it and present it to the public; it may be infinitesimally more difficult, but it will still happen. And we will have bought, with the savings of this $146.3 million, something that is beyond measure: an honesty about the administration and our culture, and the importance of governmental support for the arts to that culture. Of course, if the disappearance of the NEA itself finally meets with vociferous public disapproval, then the Obama administration can rectify the solution by refunding it during its second term. If it has one.