Such an action would, of course, eliminate a significant part of the funding of many scholarly and artistic projects, make a significant cut to the budgets of libraries and museums and go a long way towards eliminating public television. Of course, that would mean a loss of jobs for trained people who work in the arts, humanities, public television, libraries and museums. But, there seems to be little interest in mentioning those jobs. I guess because they can’t be of much importance since they rely (at least to some extent) on the waste(?) of government money. In the name of fairness, I do have to admit that such cuts would save the Federal Government some money.
Let’s take a look at how much, however. According to the figures I have been able to find, both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are currently receiving about 148 million dollars a year (about $.45 per capita). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets about 445 million (about $1.35 per capita) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services gets about 230 million (about $.70 per capita). So, altogether, that’s about 971 million dollars a year or about $2.95 for each of us.
Now I’m not going to suggest that 971 million dollars isn’t a fair amount of money. In fact, to me, personally, it’s a LOT! On the other hand, we spend more than 600 Billion on “defense,” about $1860.00 per person. So, if a billion is a thousand million (as I believe it is) we are talking about less than a thousand million compared to 600 thousand million (which translates to about .00167 of the amount for defense for all of the areas discussed above. That’s still a lot of money to me, personally, but it’s such a small fraction of the total federal budget (about $3.8 trillion [about $12,000 per person] that it’s hard to see it as very significant. Note: a “trillion” is a thousand billion, as I understand it, which makes the 971 million seem pretty insignificant.
On the other hand, I believe that the actual cost, while demonstrably quite minor, is actually not relevant to the real issue at hand, at least with the arts. Certainly the country (even the world) would be greatly diminished by the loss of (or significant reduction in the services of) our museums and libraries. This is to say nothing that the arts, museums, etc. have been proven to have an impact on the economy of their home communities far in excess of their costs. They generate hotel room sales, restaurant sales, car rentals, souvenir purchases, and all sorts of other activity from both locals and visitors. All of these things result in tax income and jobs in the local community.
But, to get back to non-fiscal losses which would occur due to these cuts; while I confess to not being a rabid PBS watcher, its programing is, in my opinion, among the highest quality which I view (and I am rather fond of “Antiques Roadshow” [both the US one and the original, UK one] which I usually spend a couple of hours a week watching). Actually, that may well be my most consistent TV watching, although I have watched many of the Ken Burns movies and Bonnie would certainly have felt the loss of not being able to watch “Downton Abbey” or “Victoria.” My children’s childhood would have been much different without “Mr. Rogers” and “Sesame Street.”
And, I must point out that those programs have been of greater value than just frivolous entertainment for many children. A case in point; few years ago, our daughter, Margaret, had an infected wisdom tooth which came close to killing her. While she was in intensive care and unable to speak, she communicated to her mother and a couple of friends using sign language she had learned from “Sesame Street” many years earlier. It might not have been fluent “speech,” but she could still communicate basic ideas. This was even noted by her doctor (who pointed it out to his gaggle of interns). To me (prejudiced person that I am) that alone goes a long way towards justifying my support for PBS.
Having been involved in higher education for a number of years, I am well aware of how significant National Endowment for the Humanities grants have been in helping support research in many areas, including some of interest to me. Without some support, many, if not most, of these research opportunities would be lost, as (unlike in the sciences) few businesses are heavily devoted to serious research in the humanities:
… the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.
Definition of the humanities from the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965
Why? I suspect that it’s because the some art objects may be seen as supporting ideas (or contain other content) which are considered controversial, or contradictory to some people’s political ideas. Jesse Helms, the late Senator from North Carolina, was adamantly against any funding for the arts because he felt that the arts didn’t support his fundamentalist Christian values and “conservative” principles. Or, perhaps it’s more correct to say that Senator Helms (and, I would suggest, his spiritual followers) were (and are) against supporting any art, or art institution, which they cannot control, or use to support their causes.
Yes, the leaders of the National Endowment for the Arts have, generally, tried to be pretty neutral in supporting what are determined to be worthy artists and organizations without a lot of consideration as to the specific content of the art works they create. As the author, Michael Crichton once said, it is “… the job of art to bring true feelings alive. To shock people into awareness.” Or, as J.K. Rowling said in response to questions about why she was pleased when people cried over one of her books; “I’m a writer. If you’re not feeling, I’m not doing it right.” Art isn’t always supposed to lead us into paths of contentment and placidity, although it can do that, too.
So, the leaders of the NEA have seemed to support the idea that in a free society the right of the artist to follow his/her path is important. I tend to agree with this point of view. Does that mean that I love and support everything which is presented as “art?” NO, but I support others’ right to find value in things which I don’t. Others also have the right to disagree with my opinion, because (contrary to what some critics would seem to want us to believe) I don’t believe that “expert” decisions as to the “value” of art are the only determining factors in a works’ significance. I am only the final arbitrator of what is art for myself! Only in authoritarian states is the decision of a critic (usually a political appointee who decides based on whether the content of the art (whatever that means) supports the government’s point of view the determining factor as to the “value” of art.
Historically, those selected to chair the National Endowment for the Arts have come from a background in the arts and/or arts administration and they have let well-trained professionals make the grant funding decisions which have meant a lot to individual artists and organizations, but are extremely small in the grand scheme of a federal budget. Does that mean that I always agree with the decisions which the NEA makes? No, but I do recognize that decisions have to be made as to how to spend the limited funds available and that I recognize that their people have been designated to make these decisions. The alternative, I suppose would be either to declare the arts (music, theatre, visual arts, etc.) as useless and valueless to the people as a whole and therefore unworthy of support, or to suggest that in order to serve any sort of valuable function, they must support the current government (which, of course, violates the First Amendment, but that’s another story).
However, I think that former First Lady Michelle Obama said something worthwhile when she said “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.” That has, after all been the function of art for centuries. As Shakespeare suggested, the purpose of playing is “…to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Hamlet, III, 2
As far as political control of the arts, I like what John Kennedy said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him… We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” I’m also rather fond of Lyndon Johnson’s statement that “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
In simplest terms, as Stephen Sondheim said, “Art ... is an attempt to bring order out of chaos.” One would think that anyone who does not wish to live a life in chaos, would wish to encourage art, for it reminds us of who we are, where we have come from and where we wish to go. That’s why I cannot support the cutting of a few pennies for support of the arts, humanities, etc. in order to buy more bombs, guns and bullying.
I would like to encourage support of the NEA, the NEH, the CPB and the IMLS. Send a message to our “leaders” that we think there’s more to life than cutting rich people’s taxes and buying guns and that they should please put OUR money where our beliefs are.”