The White House released its 2019 budget Monday, yet another indicator of the unfortunate character and motives of the Trump administration. The headlines are mostly about the inadequate infrastructure proposal, the president’s gratuitous swipe at food stamps and billions for the unnecessary border wall.
Here’s a less noticed but equally important signifier: As with the budget a year ago, Trump’s 2019 plan seeks to decimate the National Endowment for the Arts. Should his proposal be approved, the endowment’s annual funding would be reduced from $150 million to $29 million, the first step in phasing out the agency entirely. (The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services also face draconian cuts.)
Destroying the NEA would be deeply damaging to the creative culture of the country. The attempt to kill it reflects the false premise that federal support for culture is unnecessary, or even un-American, and that the arts are a legitimate battleground in the nation’s political wars.
In 1989, an NEA-supported project, Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ,” was challenged by conservative lawmakers on moral grounds. The following year, fellowships awarded to performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller — the NEA Four — were vetoed by endowment chairman John Frohnmayer for supposed indecency. The artists took the NEA to court, and in 1993 won reinstatement of their grants. Those battles were long ago, but the endowment remains shadowed by the controversy.
That’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons, not least because it obscures in the public’s mind a core function of the NEA: Supporting the arts infrastructure of communities.
In 2016, for instance, the NEA directed only about 1% of its budget to individual artist and translation grants, $1.5 million. The rest went to support arts organizations and agencies in every state and every U. S. territory.
Earlier this month, the endowment announced its first round of funding for 2018: more than $26 million to organizations big and small. This includes nearly $3.5 million awarded to 132 recipients in California.
Among local grantees are the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which received $100,000 “to support Technology Enhanced Arts Learning (TEAL), a collective impact project for public school teachers and administrators,” and Beverly Hills’ Jazz Bakery, which will use its $25,000 award to support performances and educational activities.
The Cornerstone Theater Company, in the Arts District, received $30,000; it has spent three decades developing original plays out of communities such as Watts and East Los Angeles. Another $10,000 went to 826LA to help fund “a creative writing and publishing program for youth.”
Such efforts are precisely what I want my tax dollars funding. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed, “participation in the arts — drawing, dancing, and all that — makes the soul grow. That’s why you engage in it. That’s how you grow a soul.”
The same, I would suggest, is true from the perspective of the museum-goer, or the reader, or the theater and concert audience. To engage with a work of art is to engage in empathy, to enter the experience of another, to connect with their humanity.
This is an intention, an effect, that good government should prize. It speaks to what we share, what we hold in common, rather than what pries us apart.
The president, however, is not much interested in unifying impulses. But the arts also offer substantial economic stimulus. Arts and culture industries are, or can be, a significant financial driver.
A 2017 NEA study — produced, partly, in response to last year’s proposed budget cuts — traces the clear results of arts investment: In 35 categories, the arts contributed close to $730 billion to the U.S. economy. Every dollar the NEA grants leverages up to another $9 in private and other public funds. In California, arts and cultural industries account for almost 675,000 jobs with a total compensation of nearly $74 billion annually.
“Americans,” Trump crowed during his State of the Union address, “fill the world with art and music.” And yet, his insistence that support of arts and culture should not be a mission of the government tells us what he actually believes about the arts.
There’s an argument to be made that artists can be compromised by accepting money from the state. “If you co-operate with a government that’s guilty,” poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti once cautioned, “you become guilty by complicity.” At the same time, as former Vice President Joe Biden said in 2008, “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”
Some years ago, I served on an NEA panel, recommending awards to publishers. For two days, we discussed — argued over — dozens of books and literary journals representing a diverse range of voices and demographics. I wish we could have funded them all.
I don’t mean that the NEA should operate as the be-all or end-all of arts support, but there is no good reason to slash what is, in truth, a miniscule part of the federal budget. The NEA should be allowed to continue nurturing America’s complex cultural ecosystem.
As for what happens next, push-back has been immediate: “There is an old saying, ‘the president proposes and Congress disposes,’” Republican Leonard Lance, co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, told the Washington Post. “We won the legislative fight last fiscal year and will do so again this year.”
Still, the fact that such cuts are part of the president’s wish list reminds us of the administration’s antipathy toward everything it doesn’t value or understand.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.