The very week that Barack Obama issued his State of the Union Speech, promising investments in education and the creation of new jobs, I received a rather disturbing message from Americans for the Arts (www.americansforthearts.org), an arts advocacy group dedicated to nurturing art in America. The message explained in no uncertain terms that “165 conservative members of Congress representing the Republican Study Committee called for termination of the National Endowment for the Arts and key arts education programs at the U.S. Department of Education,” as a means of cutting “unnecessary” government spending.
As an artist and arts advocate, I do not find a reduction in arts funding to be shocking news. When budgets are trimmed — whether in personal spending, academia or government (big or small), it seems the arts are among the first victims of the scissors. I feel this is largely due to a public misunderstanding of the breadth that “the arts” covers. Many members of the public, and perhaps even the members of budget-cutting committees, have a tendency to believe the arts are just “pretty pictures” — frivolous and unnecessary visual objects.
There is a tendency to forget that the arts cover nearly every form of entertainment in both fine art as well as popular format — music (from classical to hip-hop), theater (from Broadway to sitcoms), dance (from ballet to line dance), literature (from Hemingway to Harry Potter novels), as well as visual art (from Renaissance paintings to soda cans). By cutting the arts, I imagine some feel they are only cutting the budget for white upper-class museum patrons and season ticket holders at the Metropolitan Opera. But the effect is much more widespread.
The arts are much more than candy for our senses. The arts are a form of distillation — a product of our culture. Think about a particular era, (almost any era in American history will work) — the 1950s for example. I doubt you are thinking of any exact political or historical event. You are probably thinking of long, sleek automobiles with gleaming chrome and tailfins, the early rock and roll of Elvis Presley, poodle skirts, checkered floors, neon jukeboxes, the glamour of Marilyn Monroe — all forms of art generated by artists within that time period.
You most likely were not thinking of the Algerian War, the Suez Crisis, or other world-changing events. By looking back on the 50s, we can now say the art produced during that era defines a celebration of excess and an escape from the harsh realities that World War II had unearthed the decade before.
The art produced by contemporary artists is often hard to decode. It can be difficult to know what the art being made right now has to say about our society in the years to come, but a few decades later, the message comes to light. If federal funding for the arts were cut, we would have a rather large and indecipherable gap in our cultural history.
I understand that the perception of our present culture to future generations as historical record can seem a bit trivial in such times of economic desperation, but our generation has every right to express its artistic global view. Federal funding is often the only way that ambitious artistic programming can be undertaken. The cost of cutting arts funding is one that cannot be immediately felt, because it cannot be measured in terms of things gained, but rather in the expense of things never attained — paintings that will never be created, books that will never be written, songs that will never be sung.
Previous administrations in far worse economic situations have seen the value in supporting the arts. The Federal Art Project (1935-1943) was the visual arts arm of the New Deal/Works Progress Administration that helped to pull America out of the Great Depression. The project supported the early works of some of America’s greatest artists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, helping them to get a solid footing to start their careers in a shaky economy that did not otherwise benefit the arts. The program not only supported the artists, but the artists allowed America to stand on a level playing field with the rest of the world in cultural achievement, an invaluable asset to our growth as a world leader.
As the scissors are sharpened to trim personal, local, state, and federal budgets, I urge you to consider the effects of cutting funds to arts and arts programming. I urge you to change your personal definition of the arts. Rather than “pretty pictures,” I hope that you define the arts in the more substantial terms of inspiration, advancement, innovation, creativity and national identity — terms that better describe not only the arts, but their lasting effects — terms that are much more difficult to leave on the cutting room floor.
Brandon Long is program director for the Community Arts Center in Danville.