(Ripped from the pages of The New Yorker)
When the White House released its unconscionable budget on Wednesday, which includes plans to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, my first thought was of militants destroying statues with sledgehammers in Iraq’s Mosul Museum—of the extermination of culture as a vile form of propaganda. The argument for the sweeping cuts, which also include the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is that they pave the way for a fifty-four-billion-dollar increase in defense spending. In 2016, the N.E.A.’s budget was a hundred and forty eight million dollars, a mere .003 per cent of the federal budget, which is forty-six cents per capita. You pay three cents more for a first-class stamp. Trump might as well have named his budget “America First, Art Last.”
This isn’t the first time that the N.E.A. has been in the crosshairs of conservative politics. Ronald Reagan planned to make America great again by defunding the endowment when he took office. (Never mind that his son was then in the corps of the Joffrey Ballet, one of the first organizations to receive N.E.A. funding.) Fortunately, a special task force convinced him against it, and he settled for cutbacks of six per cent. In a 1987 speech, Reagan said, “We honor the arts not because we want monuments to our own civilization but because we are a free people.” Just how free we were was called into question in 1990, when four performance artists had their grants recalled on the grounds of indecency. (The endowment’s chair was feeling the heat of congressional scrutiny after Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine enraged the religious right.) One of the artists, Karen Finley, was going to perform with her body covered in chocolate, which now sounds about as scandalous as a Kardashian spa day. But the firestorm led the N.E.A. to end support for individual artists in all funding categories except literature. For evidence of the inestimable value of the N.E.A.’s work, look no further than the fiction and poetry pages of The New Yorker. To name just two contributors who’ve received creative-writing fellowships: the U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey; and the magazine’s incoming poetry editor, Kevin Young. Or, for that matter, look at your program for “Hamilton”—the N.E.A. helped hatch it.
Trump’s proposed annihilation of cultural funding has tripped an alarm, and I’m not just talking about the impassioned op-ed that Julie Andrews and her daughter, a theatre producer, wrote yesterday for CNN. In January, pen America began circulating a petition, which has now been signed by nearly a quarter of a million concerned citizens, including such essential American artists as Jasper Johns, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Serra. But the hard truth is that the “America First” budget cuts won’t harm the global art world they occupy, which generated forty-five billion dollars in sales last year. Yes, the N.E.A. helps support shows at such major museums as the Met, but that institution also has David Koch on its board to kick in funds when it needs sixty-five million dollars for a new pair of fountains. The N.E.A. funds programs in all fifty states. The communities that will be hardest hit by this disastrous decision are those in places like Berea, Kentucky, which received thirty thousand dollars last year to fund a program in which artists and early childhood specialists work with children in rural preschools, and with their parents during home visits, to close the achievement gap as they head into kindergarten. Or the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, whose members belong to the Haida tribe in Alaska. The H.C.A. used its forty-thousand-dollar grant to pair master carvers with apprentices to create totem poles, as the Haida people have been doing for thousands of years. It strikes me that a budget that claims to put America first should, at the very least, fund the first Americans.