The NEA works. Why does Trump want to destroy it?

Yet another fight is shaping up over elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, which on Thursday the Trump administration announced as part of its first federal budget proposal. The National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, a chief revenue source for PBS and National Public Radio, would also get the ax.

How many times has this battle already been fought? Welcome to “Groundhog Day.”

Here’s one big difference between the cultural life of today and of 1965, when the NEA was founded: Where once a public museum audience and a private commercial market for contemporary American art were tiny, now they are vast and international. Imagine where today’s cultural life would be if the federal agency, born into an era of general indifference to the arts, had never existed.

Consider: During those 50 years, a modest but not insignificant number of artists have gotten exceedingly rich. Charitable foundations established by just four of them — the late Mike Kelley in Los Angeles and Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol in New York — have combined assets in excess of $2.25 billion, according to their most recent tax filings.

The resources of those artist-created foundations vary, and they are put to different charitable ends. But they’re giving back. The Warhol is arguably the largest source of grants made to institutions that support artists, surpassing the federal government.

Our public investment is working. Pulling the plug is unwise. As with any other infrastructure, from bridges and roads to power supplies, an arts infrastructure requires maintenance.

The NEA was instrumental in creating an infrastructure for these artists’ popular success. Their numbers, however, remain modest, and popularity is not always the sole gauge of importance. Imagine what could happen if the battle-scarred agency, rather than limping along fighting opponents as it has for half its institutional life, was empowered to do its full share.

This is all you really need to know about the looming battle over the arts endowment:

  • The 2016 Democratic Party platform includes a section headed “Promoting Arts and Culture.”
  • The word “arts” appears nowhere in the 2016 Republican Party platform.

Out of sight, out of mind. The NEA has not been popular among conservatives and the GOP since 1965, the year the federal agency was founded. They’ve been trying to kill it for half a century — not because they hate art, but because they hate government.

The other day, the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington, D.C., overseen by a couple of Nobel laureates and other prominent economists, published a devastating bar graph. If you thought charts were dull, this one would snap your head around.

The design is sort of like Trump Tower looming over the Big Shot thrill ride at the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas, plus a neighborhood Taco Bell. It compares the annual federal allotment to the National Endowment for the Arts (just under $150 million) and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting ($445 million) to the estimated cost to taxpayers of Melania Trump choosing to live in New York City rather than in the White House (about $2 million daily). This means an annual government outlay of more than $700 million. The first lady’s tall bar on the graph towers over the others.

Estimates that high have been disputed. But the Center for Economic Policy Research also notes — correctly — that the NEA, CPB and seven other relatively low-cost domestic programs are on the chopping block not for diligent reasons of fiscal restraint. The NEA gets 0.004% of the $4 trillion U.S. budget, or 0.014% of the $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending. Together those nine cuts would add up to a pittance. Elimination will have roughly zero effect on the federal deficit, which President Obama slashed by nearly two-thirds.

The point of the bar graph was to demonstrate that an expenditure benefiting a presidential whim dwarfs modest ones that benefit the nation as a whole. Like all good graphic design, it did its work well. Which is one reason it pains me to think that it won’t much matter.

The hit list drafted by the White House budget office is ideologically driven. Whether it’s the diverse American cultural infrastructure or our collective duty to help the poor, federal assistance lies far outside a greedy worldview popularized by junk novelist Ayn Rand in her potboilers “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.” Those juvenile texts, comic books without the pictures, are beloved by GOP leadership.

In 1964, just at the moment legislation was being written to establish the NEA, Rand published “The Virtue of Selfishness.” The idea that the federal government should play an active role in arts support, common across affluent Western European democracies, had been percolating during the Eisenhower years. But selfishness did not drive the NEA’s creation.

Tragedy did. Shocked sorrow at President Kennedy’s assassination dominated the national mood, which Lyndon Johnson leveraged into otherwise nearly impossible legislation — the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act and establishment of the NEA.

Not for nothing does the first photograph in the NEA’s official history show John Fitzgerald and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy with Catalonian cellist Pablo Casals, who famously performed at the White House in 1961. When Washington’s plans for a National Cultural Center, conceived during the Eisenhower years, finally opened a decade later, its new name was the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Johnson is the only American president to have worked in a New Deal agency. (He ran Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration in Texas during the Great Depression). His Great Society was crafted in the New Deal’s image.

Ever since, the NEA goes on the chopping block whenever Republican conservatives gain power in the nation’s capital. Yes, Richard Nixon famously upped the endowment’s budget more than any president, but that’s because the Californian was notoriously insecure about being seen as an uncouth rube. He let his true feelings be known in a private 1970 memo to H.R. Haldeman, unsealed in 2010.

Describing Modern art as something “the Kennedy-Shriver crowd believed in,” Nixon arrived at the political calculation that “those who are on the Modern art and music kick are 95 percent against us anyway.” Traditional art was fine with him, but he quietly ordered Modern paintings and sculptures to be pulled from American embassies.

Since Ronald Reagan, the arts agency has been whittled away to a mere shadow of its former self. In inflation-adjusted terms, it spends $100 million less today than it did 20 years ago. But even in its financially straitened condition, it manages to help mostly small arts organizations across the country, either directly or through allocations to every state arts council.

Whenever the executioner mounts the platform, arts supporters fight back with the same litany. The arts are essential, not secondary. Smaller mid-American communities will be hardest hit. Jobs will be lost. Veterans programs will disappear. Quality of life will suffer. Arts education will vanish from more school curricula. Etc.

We are hearing this lucid inventory recited again for the umpteenth time. All of it is true.

Yet, given the players, expect it to fall on deaf ears this time. How many in the Trump administration cabinet were expressly chosen to dismantle the programs under their purview, whether civil rights or education, environmental protection or healthcare? Neoconservative writer Ronald Radosh explained that Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, once told him, “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Simple people who are puzzled by organized society, as writer Gore Vidal once described Randians and their anti-government ilk, now run the legislative and executive branches. This is their chance.

Because demolishing the little NEA is a metaphor for undoing the big New Deal, it is only right to give FDR the last word.

In a 1936 Madison Square Garden speech, deep into the Great Depression and just a week before elections, Roosevelt railed against what he called the “hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing” government that let the 1920s roar and the 1930s collapse.

“Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government, with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent,” he thundered. Roosevelt won re-election in a landslide.

Americans still believe him. Last year, Ipsos Public Affairs published a survey commissioned by Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group that favors federal funding, showing that, by a 2-1 ratio, Americans support doubling the NEA budget — the opposite of penciling it out. Nonetheless, hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing indifference to the arts is poised to become Trump-era doctrine.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

@KnightLAT

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