With the Congress including $50 million for the arts in the economic stimulus package, the overall annual budget for the NEA will be just short of $200 million for the coming year. By comparison, we spend more on the Iraq War every day, or $341.4 million, according to the website costofwar.com. This is the real obscenity that goes uncensored.
Yet funding for the arts is more controversial than funding for war. For decades, arts subsidies have been targeted as frivolous waste by many of the same conservative Republicans willing to budget trillions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arts are attacked for being a gay -- there, I said it -- left-wing luxury by some who think $500,000 pay limits are unfair to failed Wall Street executives.
President Obama can propose that the arts be a bipartisan cause, but the fight for the arts in the trenches of politics will have to be part of a populist agenda, from the bottom up. Even more than graffiti removal, Obama needs smear removal from everything the right wing scorns as "public." Obama's long-term model should be Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. The immediate goal should be dispatching his proposed "artists corps" into neighborhoods and schools to promote and mentor in music, poetry and creative writing, murals and computer graphics. He needs the talent and power of the hip-hop generation. He needs to win back our youth from the escapism of the video arcades.