So it begins. A report in The Hill, then picked up in the Washington Post, says that the Trump administration intends to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and sell off PBS. It’s part of a plan to cut some $10.5 trillion over the next decade.
Zeroing out the culture budgets isn’t about money; together, the NEA, NEH and PBS account for barely 0.02 percent of the federal budget. Neither is it about art the Trumpsters think is offensive or artists they don’t like (the “over-rated” Meryl Streep notwithstanding).
The Hill points out that if Trump wants to cut a trillion dollars a year, as his plan says, pretty much all of the government’s discretionary spending needs to go. And that means cuts everywhere (except defense of course):
The departments of Commerce and Energy would see major reductions in funding, with programs under their jurisdiction either being eliminated or transferred to other agencies. The departments of Transportation, Justice and State would see significant cuts and program eliminations.
The Department of Energy, for example, would see the Office of Electricity axed, and Trump would “eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”
What, you ask, is the “Department of Electricity? The department’s job, according to its website, is to:
provide national leadership to ensure that the Nation’s energy delivery system is secure, resilient and reliable. OE works to develop new technologies to improve the infrastructure that brings electricity into our homes, offices, and factories, and the federal and state electricity policies and programs that shape electricity system planning and market operations. OE also works to bolster the resiliency of the electric grid and assists with restoration when major energy supply interruptions occur.
In other words, it’s the department that looks out for our electrical grid to make sure it is dependable and efficient. It was surreal this morning to see incoming Energy Secretary Rick Perry weakly arguing against the cuts at his Senate confirmation hearing. This from the guy who had advocated killing the entire department when he was running for president. Oops.
No, this isn’t about the arts. It’s bigger and more insidious. It’s a vision of a country that doesn’t believe in collective public greatness. It’s the commodification of American values reduced to the profit motive. Everything for sale. Everything having to pay for itself. Everything measured by its profitability, its ratings, its popularity. Everything is a deal, a hierarchy sorted into winners and losers.
Winners are rewarded with opportunity, access and tax cuts. Losers are marginalized, priced out of basic services and having to fend for themselves. This is how undeveloped unambitious oligarchies behave.
Make America Great Again? Of Course!
Countries aspiring to be great understand that collective investment leads to great accomplishment. We used to know that, confident enough to win world wars and go to the moon. But we seem to have forgotten how. In pursuit of privileging individual profit over collective accomplishment, we’ve let investment in our infrastructure crumble, allowed our students to struggle with crushing debt, and priced out the middle class from being the middle class.
The arts are a microcosm of this. We’ve commodified the arts in attempting to convince the powers that be that the arts have value. So art has to be not just art but a cure for whatever social or economic problems need addressing. What is great art anyway? In the commodified America we’re suspicious of any claim to greatness if it isn’t vouched for at the box office or can check off a list of social goods.
We miss the point if we think this is about arts funding. It really is about a vision of greatness. No country has ever staked a claim to being great because it balanced its budgets or glorified a culture of winners and losers. That’s just bookkeeping. Sad.
You can’t be great unless you invest in being great. The challenge for the arts now is to remind us all of that.