For months now, the debate in the arts world has been: Will he really do it? Will Donald Trump be the president who finally gives the right wing what it has so vehemently craved for decades, the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts? A report in The Hill suggests that pessimists, who assumed the worst once it became clear that Trump’s election would likely empower organizations like the conservative Heritage Foundation, were right. He may indeed try to kill it.
And the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as cutting the federal appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The animus against these organizations has been so powerful for so long that defending them feels almost pro forma, a reflexive rhetorical blast into the headwinds of an anti-arts bias so deep that there’s little hope of changing anyone’s mind (“The NEA is welfare for cultural elitists,” declares the Heritage Foundation, sententiously).
Never mind the old arguments, still valid and cogent, but somehow threadbare from long use in what many people have long and fatalistically assumed is a losing battle. Despite the culture war clashes about art that some considered obscene more than a generation ago, the NEA has evolved into an organization that operates and has impact in every state, that has served returning veterans, bolstered state arts agencies and worked with all manner of groups and state and federal partners to build stronger and more resilient communities across the country. Never mind the role the NEH has played in the creation of documentaries and the education and enrichment of teachers who might not otherwise have a chance to escape the grinding cycle of teaching to the tests, which never stop coming. Never mind that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting creates the best and most enriching programming for children that is widely available without cost to the poor and the isolated.
No one knows what Trump will do until he actually does it, so perhaps someone will get his ear and deflect support for these cuts–so minimal in real dollar terms, so significant in symbolic impact. But let’s assume they’re coming. What do they tell us?
In the current political age, symbolic victories are often more satisfying than real policy change. Of course, eliminating these items from the federal budget won’t make a dent in the accumulated deficit. But it will appease a vocal constituency, who will see it as a sign of strength and determination. In the age of social media, digital rancor and corrosive suspicion of anything outside one’s personal philosophical comfort zone, winning a skirmish against the enemy feels better than witnessing incremental improvement toward actually fixing our problems. You will learn more about the larger economic forces that have led to the decline of manufacturing and the demoralization of blue-collar communities on PBS than you will haphazardly scarfing angry headlines on the Internet, but it feels so much better to attack PBS than pay attention to its content.
The loss of the NEA is mostly about symbolism. But along with the loss of the NEH and privatization of the CPB, these proposed budget cuts are part of a nascent but ominous larger movement to eliminate the last vestiges of a public realm free of the dictates of the market. Privatizing the social safety net and shifting tax dollars away from public schools are essential moves in a longer war on a social contract that preserves faith in the public realm. Academia is another target and is in the cross hairs as well.
The public realm–as opposed to commercial entertainment, including politics as currently practiced–produces ideas, information and emotional states that can’t be predicted, or controlled. It fosters the research that challenges venerable assumptions about the world; it generates the data that can point to the failings and blindness of people in power, and the often invisible frailty of our world; and it offers us ideas about the well-lived and ethical life that can’t be contained within the market’s understanding that winning is everything and consumption is paradise. It also creates webs of dependency and connection, on each other, on books, on art, on knowledge, that are, paradoxically, the well springs of genuine freedom.
Will anyone notice once these things are gone? Will it matter to artists that the NEA, which hasn’t given direct grants to artists in decades, is finally eliminated? There will likely be other changes to the social fabric that generate even more anxiety and genuine suffering in the coming months and years. Even some in the arts world will yawn about the NEA: It was bound to happen, why fight a losing battle?
If these things are, in fact, on the chopping block, and if Congress follows through, their loss will likely be remembered as a significant moment in a larger cultural shift. The arts are an easy target, especially in this country, which has never had an easy relationship with the impractical, the elegant, the counter-intuitive and the unruly. But it is the easy targets that get targeted first. And so the first tea leaves come in. No one can claim that the future isn’t getting more and more clear, and ever more worrisome.
Originally published in The Washington Post by Philip Kennicott, 1/19/17. Photo Credit: Former Navy Seal and patient at Walter Reed, Rusty Noesner holds the mask he made as part of an arts therapy program funded by the NEA. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)