There they go again! A few right-wingers who want to defeat the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan now before Congress are using one of its smallest provisions, a $50 million supplemental allocation to the National Endowment for the Arts, as a dart they hope will let the air out of the bill.
There aren’t a great many opponents, and they don’t have much support, but in the ping-pong politics of the mass media, they are getting plenty of airtime and column-inches: fair and balanced, indeed!
I imagine a tiny group of diehard Republican strategists combing through the recovery bill’s 250 pages, looking for just the right dart with which to puncture their opposition. With page after page of fine print, their eyes begin to feel the strain. Loosening their ties, they ring for a servant, ordering refreshments.
“Eureka!” one cries at last, “$50 million for the NEA! We’ll always be able to depend on the arts.”
I like to imagine that even if none of these politicians bothered to do the math, as he set out glasses and ice the butler indulged himself with a brief mental calculation, noting that the proposed NEA allocation amounts to a minuscule fraction of one percent of the bill’s budget. But then, with an evergreen villain like “the arts,” even a little public money goes a long way.
Back in the heyday of the “Republican revolution” of 1994, when Newt Gingrich and his cohort imagined their victory in midterm elections would last forever, right-wing groups like the American Family Association used a few controversial NEA grants as the centerpiece of their attack on government, to considerable effect. They mailed out millions of “dirty” pictures (i.e., images by Andres Serrano, Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe), becoming by far the largest disseminators of the material they condemned. Their attraction was simple: what could be handier than readymade words and images needing only a little inflammatory rhetoric to convince voters that taxpayer funds were being used to overturn family values?
But this time, the opponents of the recovery bill don’t need alarmist propaganda. They simply hope and trust a significant number of voters will buy their assertion that public support for arts programs doesn’t aid recovery or do anything else useful to address economic crisis.
When right-wingers reach into their quivers, choosing an arrow to aim at the heart of public spending, why does the dart labeled “art” come so easily to hand? Two reasons stand out.
First, because public sector cultural initiatives in the U.S. have been so small and weak for so long, few voters have a clear idea of how powerful cultural action can be in helping to bring about positive social change. Spending opponents count on voters to make an automatic association between the rubric “the arts” and the air of snobbery emanating from the red carpet on opening night at the richest opera and ballet companies—and from there, to imagine their own hard-won tax dollars subsidizing the expensive amusements of toffs.
Second, after decades of being used in this way, having acquired the habit of deep demoralization about the prospects for public cultural spending, the artists and allies who do understand the potential here have mostly given up on trying to get government to listen. Mainstream arts lobbies rely on tired arguments that lack much power to mobilize people. There just hasn’t been the political organization or clout to defeat the arts dart tactic.
And it is just a tactic ($50 million in public spending amounts to 16 cents a person, big whoop). The real issue is economic philosophy, or put another way, whose economic well-being matters. It’s kind of stunning how many on the right continue to insist that tax cuts for business and wealthy citizens are the way to stimulate the economy, even though marinating in that approach has helped to create our present pickle. After all, besides the systemic breakdown caused by a few billion chickens coming home to roost, its main impact has been to help the rich get richer (and the poor be damned). The far-right Heritage Foundation’s stimulus program, for instance, includes rejecting stimulus spending and cutting or eliminating taxes on capital gains, income and inheritance.
Brian Riedl, the Heritage Foundation spokesperson on an NPR story last night didn’t mention most of these positions. Instead, he squarely gripped the dart labeled “arts subsidy,” saying: “There is absolutely no way that this will stimulate the economy…. simply borrowing money out of the economy in order to transfer it to some artists doesn’t increase the economy’s productivity rate, it doesn’t help workers create more goods and services, and it won’t create economic growth.”
Brian Riedl needs a basic math lesson too. How stimulus spending works is simple: money is allocated to programs that will create more jobs, people who have paying jobs spend money for goods and services, thus supporting more jobs, and so it goes. In every previous U.S. economic crisis and every comparable international situation, the public sector has stepped in to forge the first link in this chain of prosperity, and a new cycle of recovery has begun. To produce the desired effects, it doesn’t much matter what those jobs are, although to advance other policy aims simultaneously, it makes sense to invest in them, as with the Green for All call for 25,000 new jobs retrofitting and repowering for green energy and the new WPA for artists I’ve been writing about.
Two big things are wrong with the current recovery package: it’s not large enough, and it relies on adding funds to existing programs, rather than underwriting promising new initiatives (this aspect is touched on by David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times). More is great, but where’s the change? The NEA under Bush hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory, making some good grants but also wasting money on silly and irrelevant initiatives such as a poetry memorization program. There are plenty of good ideas in need of support, and I can only hope that under Obama, the NEA will pick up on them.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will probably be approved in the House very soon, perhaps tomorrow, with or without the NEA appropriation, but certainly without the language needed to enable artists’ jobs as part of the recovery. There will still be a chance in the Senate to insert appropriate language into provisions about employment and training, education and the NEA. Join the Facebook group of the National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools and Communities to receive an action alert with the information you need, or write to the group’s convener at firstname.lastname@example.org. Wouldn’t it be encouraging if this time, the art dart missed its mark?