Defunding Arts and Culture: Will It Happen?

I have no evidence that this disgusting portrait of Donald Trump made from Peeps by Wisconsin artist Cynthia Lund Torroll was federally funded.

My guess is no. But if you live in Trump Nation, and your state or city is not committed to restoring cuts with state and local tax dollars, prepare for cuts to the small cultural institutions and programs that make a huge difference to your community.

It doesn’t surprise me that the first Trump budget proposes to eliminate all federal cultural and public broadcast funding. It’s the same script we have been seeing for almost forty years. First, the amounts of federal money devoted to arts and culture are infinitesimal, particularly when you compare them to the military budget, and can be added or subtracted with no fiscal impact. According to Suzanne Nossel, Director of the PEN American Center (who characterizes this move as “a repudiation of the Enlightenment“) these cuts would represent .01% of government spending, and would pay for exactly nothing, except perhaps a year of protecting Donald Trump in his lavish homes. Second, like George W. Bush, who also rattled his sabre at the arts and humanities, Trump seems almost untouched by formal education and doesn’t think it is important. Finally, it has been a fairly consistent talking point among a certain kind of conservative (think Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Rudolph Giuliani) to oppose federal funding for arts and cultural organizations that seem to promote community engagement and critical thought, as well as producing the occasional Piss Christ. Young Conservatives blog gleefully speculates that the President has even baser motives: cutting all arts and culture funding is cosmic payback, they suggest, for the Hollywood celebrities who have “have lashed out against Trump over the past year.”

Well, screw with the President and lose arts funding; screw with the arts, and someone makes a portrait of you out of Easter marshmallows.

Although other Presidents and Congresses have cut these agencies  (George W. Bush, a hobby painter whose wife was a former public school teacher, proposed cuts of 10% in some years), threats of a diminished federal commitment to public broadcasting, and to humanities and arts funding, have been a consistent feature of the political landscape since 1982. Will Donald Trump be the President who succeeds in doing away with federal cultural funding completely?

I don’t think so, although as usual, there may be token cuts. This is why, and this is what you can do.

The arts and humanities have many lobbyists: support them. Scholars, have you ever wondered what really happens to your professional association dues? Yes, they go into managing the organization, and paying staff salaries, although not in the lavish way some members of the Modern Language Assocation (MLA) have charged in the past. But a big part of any professional association’s job is to prevent federal cuts to programs and institutions that support our scholarly work. These folks are backed up by major public and private universities that (gasp!) educate students regardless of their political affiliations. So the first thing you can do if you care about what happens to cultural funding is join your professional organization, now. The second thing is to organize an email campaign to your senators, particularly if you work at, or are a graduate of, a flagship public university in, for example, Nebraska. Or Utah. Or Kansas. Or — well, you get my point.

Outside universities, there are local and community projects all around you that receive federal funding: become acquainted with them, patronize them, and give them money to survive whatever cuts are levied in the final federal budget. Every state — red and blue –has its own humanities council. All of these smaller councils get a significant part of their funding from the government, and this funding is redistributed to libraries, local historical societies, and community education projects. None of these organizations ask at the door whether you voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Federal arts, humanities and broadcasting operate primarily at the level of the community. The NEH supports public scholarship, teaching, and has been a major funder behind the digital archiving of Early American newspapers; similarly, the NEA put over $30 million dollars into local arts intitiatives last year through its Creativity Connects program to “support partnerships between arts organizations and organizations from non-arts sectors, such as healthcare, nutrition, juvenile justice, science, and technology, among many others.” Among these projects was the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Colorado, which funds poetry writing workshops for homeless military veterans. Indiana’s Humanities Council used some of its 2016 budget to launch:

a series of conversations to bring together hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses to talk about how they can make their county a better place to live, work and play.

Last year, 38 small pop-up exhibits on the Bill of Rights were given—for free—to Indiana schools, libraries and other nonprofits in celebration of its 225th anniversary this year.

And last month, a group of teenagers clustered around a visitor to Franklin Central High School, jockeying for position with smartphones and snapping selfies. Their guest? Indiana poet Adrian Matejka.

t’s a stretch to characterize this work as federal overreach, or what we used to call pork barrel spending, before we liberals insisted it was politically incorrect to shame pigs by comparing them to politicians.

My guess is that cultural funding cuts have been included in the budget — as they are in every cycle — as leverage for the GOP to get other things they want. Like a collection of shiny new nuclear warheads, and a beautiful wall that will keep United States citizens from fleeing illegally to art colonies Mexico. But here’s the other reason why — with your phone calls, letters and emails (find your Representative here and your Senators here) — these agencies will not be cut: they are a tangible and visible way to put  federal dollars into local communities, and our representatives in Washington like doing that, regardless of party affiliation. I can’t be the only person who received a personal note from my Senator congratulating me on my NEH grant, can I? And not every town can be lucky enough to have a nuclear arsenal ginning up the local economy.

I also predict that the contemporary cultural splits between conservatives will make it hard to create Republican solidarity around these cuts. Remember the Culture Wars of the 1990s? Yes, they resulted in such things as the 1990 defunding of the NEA Four (Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Karen Finley), which led to dramatic changes in the program. But this struggle was not about culture vs. no culture, but about what cultural narrative conservatives were willing to tolerate. Furthermore, were American cultural agencies to be eliminated, urban, liberal centers like New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles would survive, but Trump Country would not. “We went through this before, in 1995 and 1996,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York. “If they succeed, it will hurt rural America. New York will still have art shows. It will be rural [radio and television] stations that come off the air.”

Hence, expect significant pushback on these cuts from moderate Republicans, and their constituencies, during a budget process that promises to be a real doozy. Am I telling you not to worry? Of course you should worry. But don’t panic — organize —  and don’t let this distract you from lobbying your Representatives and Senators about military appropriations either, which are slated to go up by $50 billion in the new budget; or the proposed 37% cut in State Department funds.

Because, to the extent that they are capable of planning anything,  it is my guess that distracting arts-loving liberals is the whole point of this maneuver.

3 Comments

  1. I think you’re absolutely correct, although I think the point of this is also to placate the tectonic pieces of the Republican party that are threatening to break off from Trumplandia and go searching for their self-respect.

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  2. I hope you’re right, but my experience with a vandal administration in Alabama that wanted to show it was fiscally conservative by defunding 12 cultural state agencies (saving all of $1.2m) makes me fear you’re too sanguine. In AL, the attacks were not about actual savings but about attacks on rural cultural institutions that conservative votes living nearby liked but were ideologically opposed to. That is, their hatred of spending led them to agree to cut local revenue generators, and the Gov (predecessor of our current Luv Guv) got a win for . . . whatever. At least 2 of those institutions have died because they couldn’t retool their business model. I fear the best we’ll see is steep cuts that leave the NEH-NEA-PBS admins in the position of spending all their time trying to raise money while they cut staffs. This is the CEO-Wins-All model at work, and has little to do with rationality, IMHO. I’m happy to be wrong on this.

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