In January 2017, OLY ARTS published our editorial about possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Today, the President released a proposed budget that proposes exactly that full defunding. OLY ARTS is thus re-publishing our clarion call from 2017 to retain and expand funding for these great institutions.
“The arts…are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”
We stand for art. Our publication is OLY ARTS and we’ve staked our claim to represent the voice of the arts in western Washington. To that end, we provide daily updates on artistic and cultural events, and we encourage people to experience the arts in our region. We strive to help the arts get stronger and better: We provide previews, promotions, reviews and connection points for artists across every artistic medium, from theater to dance to visual arts to film to literature to music to cuisine.
OLY ARTS doesn’t see itself as a political mouthpiece. We echo the words of Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the following words to James Madison in September 1785: “I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen.” Like Jefferson, we are arts enthusiasts.
As a publication, we honestly don’t take a position on many public policy issues, and we don’t weigh in on matters of state or federal governance. That’s not our job. We’re not an activist organization. All people, from all cultures and all backgrounds—from very liberal to very conservative—enjoy the arts and find meaning and sustenance there. The arts are what unite us as human beings, in that the arts find the best in us and fan that spark to an open flame of creativity and expression. The arts are our platform’s raison d’être.
However, it has already been announced that one of the first cuts our newly elected president will enact is a complete dissolution of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities (Washington Post).
OLY ARTS is for the arts, of course, so we adamantly oppose these cuts. Are the arts a political football? Do we make political statements when we make art? We’d like to avoid some of these philosophical questions, as all too often they divide rather than unite us. In this instance, however, when the knife is held against our throat—and against the throats of so many people in the artistic communities we know and love—then we must take a public (and yes, political) stand.
We won’t tell you how to vote with regard to a woman’s right to her own body; we won’t tell you where we stand on public vs. for-profit schools; we won’t tell you how to vote in local or national elections. We will tell you where we stand with respect to the arts. Cutting the NEA and NEH is wrong. We stand against the current administration in this action. Again: We support the arts.
For those who might have legitimate questions about the NEA and NEH and whether or not they deliver arts funding in a non-partisan fashion, here’s a short history: In May 1963, prior to President John F. Kennedy’s untimely death, a bipartisan bill was introduced to “to establish a National Council on the Arts and a National Arts Foundation to assist the growth and development of the arts in the U.S.” This bill, S.R. 165, was sponsored by Republicans John Sherman Cooper, Jacob Javits and Hugh Scott. Democrats Joseph Clark, Hubert Humphrey, Russell Long, Lee Metcalf, Claiborne Pell, Jennings Randolph and Abraham Ribicoff were cosponsors. Lyndon Johnson’s administration signed this bipartisan bill into law.
Republican Richard Nixon’s administration supported the NEA and NEH. After all, Nixon had an abiding love for classical music. As NEA documents indicate, President Nixon’s support for the Arts Endowment eventually transformed the NEA from a tiny federal program into a significant policy leader in the arts. Under Republican president Ronald Reagan, NEA National Heritage Fellowships were established, and they’ve become the most important honor in the American artistic field. Under Reagan, the NEA budget was also substantially increased.
Under Republican president George H. W. Bush, the NEA was attacked by conservative Republican senators Alfonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms among other legislative leaders. Yet despite various controversies, by the end of George H. W. Bush’s tenure, the budget had increased. The Clinton administration kept the NEA and NEH alive and well-funded; but it’s worth noting that well into the modern era of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, NEA and NEH directors have sometimes considered themselves “nonpartisan” appointments, because the arts are so important to this nation. (The full history may be found here.)
It’s also worth noting the federal government has regularly commissioned studies to determine whether or not the NEA and NEH give good value for the investment. Some of their findings over the years point to the arts as engines of commercial and cultural growth. For example, in 1989, the NEA’s $119 million in organizational grants generated $1.4 billion in non-federal funds. By 1990, the NEA’s Challenge Grants, which totaled $237 million, had been matched by more than $2 billion in new non-federal funds. This means arts grants bring further investment from the private sector and create jobs, economic growth and well-being in the community. These things work. They make money for our communities, our states and our nation.
Finally, as Vanity Fair recently pointed out, these proposed cuts to the NEA, NEH and CPB would do almost nothing to fix the budget deficit: The total cost for these three programs—$741 million—makes up a tiny 0.016 percent of the total U.S. budget of $4.6 trillion. The cost of a single B-2 bomber was $737 million (in 1997 dollars, so the cost has gone up since then). Essentially, then, all the arts programs the U.S. government supports could be easily compensated for by eliminating a single bomber from our Air Force.
Why, then, are such cuts being proposed when they’re only a veritable penny on an accounting sheet of over $4 trillion? In such circumstances, it’s worth considering historical examples of kleptocratic oligarchies. In other countries, when a dictator came to power, it was often true that those first incarcerated and destroyed were the artists and journalists. The reason for this immediate action on the part of dictators and oligarchs is they consider art itself a significant threat to their power.
Art raises questions but doesn’t always answer them. Art forces new perspective. Art helps us stand in the shoes of others. Art should make us uncomfortable. It should make us question the status quo. Dictators are uncomfortable with this behavior. And if art is a threat, perhaps those who make art and support art are also a threat.
But art is breath and life and human soul. As Walt Whitman did, we artists sing the body electric. With Joaquín Cortés and Sylvie Guillem, we dance into eternity. With Sherman Alexie we find our heritages; with Zora Neale Hurston we turn our eyes to God; with Alice Walker we learn new colors and new songs. Filmmakers like Spike Lee and George Lucas and Julie Taymor show us new worlds on screen, while visual artists like Yayoi Kusama and Nikki McClure and Andy Warhol create new worlds in two and three dimensions. Playwrights like David Mamet, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ntozake Shange challenge us to step into other worlds, other times and new experiences.
We become one through the arts, and we become fully alive through the arts.
We urge you, readers of OLY ARTS, to call your representatives and plead for continued support for the NEA, NEH and PBS. Regardless of which side of the political equation you occupy, we believe in and echo your support for the arts. The NEA and NEH are national treasures that should not be diminished. These programs help make America a shining beacon on a hill whose light should not—indeed, must not—be dimmed. Please help us keep these lights alive.