A chilling headline from The New York Times: “What if Trump Really Does End Money for the Arts?” Well, what if he does? True enough, as we write the Trump administration is considering budget cuts that would eliminate, among many other things, the National Endowments for the arts and humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which funds pbs, npr, and other initiatives).
We’ll see if that happens. Many previous Republican administrations have talked about eliminating those programs. But when push came to shove and there was patronage to be handed out, nothing came of the promises, promises. Perhaps it will be different this time. The Times tells us that “Arts Groups Draft Battle Plans as Trump Funding Cuts Loom” and warns its readers about “budget hawks.” Those are the people that an earlier generation might have described as the “fiscally prudent” but which those who delight in spending other people’s money decry with minatory, militaristic language, as if battling fiscal waste was tantamount to carpet bombing your favorite subsidy.
But step back a moment. Would ending federal, i.e., taxpayer, i.e., your, money on entities like the nea, the neh, and the cpb be a bad thing?
It depends on whom you ask. According to spokesmen for the “arts community,” eliminating the nea, the neh, and the cpb would presage nothing less than cultural Armageddon. Item: “Abolishing the nea,” writes Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a panicked communiqué, “would have disastrous consequences for the arts and for communities across our nation.” Disastrous! “Funding for the arts,” he continued, “is quite simply the lifeblood of the culture of our nation.”
Let us pause to inspect those statements. The nea and the neh each have budgets of approximately $150 million (the cpb has a budget of about $450 million). Partisans of those organizations oscillate between pointing out what a pittance that is in comparison to the overall federal budget of nearly $4 trillion—it’s only pennies, Comrade, pennies!—and insisting that, without those funds, culture itself would grind to a halt in the United States.
But would it? Although started under Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the two Endowments didn’t achieve serious funding until the Nixon administration. Question: was the United States a cultural wasteland before 1965? (Frankly, we think a similar question could be asked about many other programs that originated in 1964 and 1965, but that is a topic for another day.)
A secondary question: why does Mr. Campbell drag in “communities” to his threnody? Without Big Bird, All Things Considered, and residencies for artists who “focus their art on solutions to environmental challenges and social injustices” (one nea project), would chaos ensue?
The toddler is now an adult addled by infantilizing megalomania.
And what about the tautologous non sequitur of his second sentence? “Funding for the arts is quite simply the lifeblood of the culture of our nation.” That is, funding for the arts is funding for the arts. OK. But here’s the question: why should the federal government, i.e., the taxpayers, i.e., you, pay for it?
The deeper question here turns on what the American people believe the federal government should be responsible for. Should it pay for your television shows? Your art museums? Poetry programs in your local progressive school?
Some people say, Yes! Spread the wealth (especially other people’s wealth) around and pay for all the things that readers of The New York Times like.
Other people resonate with a 1997 report from the Heritage Foundation that enumerated “ten reasons” to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. “The nea,” that report concluded, “is an unwarranted extension of the federal government into the voluntary sector.”
The Endowment, furthermore, does not promote charitable giving. Despite Endowment claims that its efforts bring art to the inner city, the agency offers little more than a direct subsidy to the cultured, upper-middle class. Finally, rather than promoting the best in art, the NEA continues to offer tax dollars and the federal seal of approval to subsidize “art” that is offensive to most Americans.
A similar indictment could easily be drawn up regarding the humanities endowment and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We do not know, as of this writing, what programs, if any, will be cut in the President’s next budget. But we find the hysteria and hyperbole that have greeted the Trump administration’s talk of fiscal restraint—like the hysteria and hyperbole that have greeted the administration more generally—alternately amusing and alarming. It is amusing in the way that a toddler’s temper tantrum can be funny. It is alarming because the toddler is no longer a toddler but an adult addled by infantilizing megalomania.