Controversies about public cultural funding continue to pile up, even though the amount of money involved is insignificant in comparison to taxpayers’ investment in such public-spirited priorities as prisons and weapons of mass destruction.
Today’s New York Times carried a piece reporting that a House Appropriations panel recommends cuts of about half in current appropriations for public television and radio, including elimination of the “Ready to Learn” program that finances children’s shows (punishment for the episode of “Postcards from Buster” that dared to include a visit to lesbian mothers in Vermont).
Meanwhile, there’s been a little tempest out here in California over a public statement by Barry Hessenius, former executive director of the California Arts Council, the state arts agency with the dubious distinction of having been cut by its state legislature from a $37 million annual appropriation to $1 million. Hessenius said this at a panel discussion on arts funding: “We’re overbuilt in the arts. We haven’t done what we need to downsize and streamline,” dealing with the “oversupply” of arts organizations.
The first time I heard this rhetoric was in Washington, DC, in 1980, when one plank of the Heritage Foundation’s recommended platform for Ronald Reagan’s new administration was to cut the National Endowment for the Arts. As appeasement to right-wing forces, Livingston Biddle, then chair of the NEA, suddenly began spouting similar language about survival of the fittest doing the right the dubious honor of taking its assertions of motive at face value. Never mind the fact that the entire budget of the NEA was topped by the cost of a single missile. Never mind the debts Reagan’s administration ran up in foreign adventures. If they kept saying their main reason for cutting arts funding was to reduce federal spending, arts bureaucrats were going to be good sports: they would pretend to believe this cover story and take their licks manfully. Biddle allowed as how perhaps there were a few too many artists and groups, perhaps consolidation was needed, and the cuts ensued.
You’d think this tired game of pretend would wear out after 25 years, but I guess some things are evergreen. As an antidote to the mind lock induced by this sort of empty pretense, I suggest four steps:
First, sit down and make a list of all the redundant, duplicative, harmful and failing industries the federal government supports through outright subsidy, import tariffs and tax relief. Start with defense, steel, agriculture and airlines, and keep going until your hand cramps or you run out of ink.
Second, spend a little time researching the cost to U.S. taxpayers of our policies of supporting oversupplied industries. U.S. cotton producers, for example, receive more than $1 billion to keep domestic cotton prices artificially low on the world market, a policy that makes our agribusiness happy at the expense of cotton growers in the developing world, who can’t sustain what would otherwise be viable, productive cotton markets because they can’t compete with our heavily subsidized prices and still make a living wage. The $200 million House Appropriations wants to cut out of public broadcasting equals only 20% of that single subsidy. Keep researching until your stomach turns.
Third, rub your eyes vigorously, being sure to sweep up the scales as they fall.
Fourth, say it with me: As a nation, we don’t mind subsidizing overbuilt, redundant, oversupplied and downright bloated commercial interests, so long as they make the rich richer and keep the rest of the world under our thumb. We don’t mind spending over $50 billion per year to operate prisons and jails nationwide—that’s just the cost of doing business. What we do object to is investing more than the bare minimum in education, culture and the other social goods that might teach us how to live consciously and help us connect with our fellow human beings.
We discover what is important to a society not by listening to its leaders’ rhetoric but by watching how they spend its resources. All the rest is static and noise. It saddens and embarrasses me that even people who know firsthand how important it is to invest in culture can be hypnotized by rhetoric into covering their own eyes with scales. If we truly believe in survival of the fittest, let’s start with the biggest hogs at the subsidy trough, major corporations. Till then, using “art” and “oversupply” in the same sentence ought to be an offense against public decency.