My last essay, exploring deeper meanings of the current threats to defund public arts agencies, elicited a great deal of comment. The bulk of it came from people who, like me, perceive the stuckness of mainstream arts advocacy and are seeking alternatives.
So, what now? What do we do about it? I have a few suggestions to address the current crisis—and beyond. This essay is the second in a special three-part series. In the third part, I’ll move on to longer-term interventions with potential to prevent future crises from controlling the story. (I’ll post the final part tomorrow, breaking from my standard twice-a-week rhythm in this moment of exceptional need and possibility.)
It’s too bad that cultural policy questions mainly command attention when there’s a short-term crisis. We are urged to hurry and declare our support for public funding before it disappears. There’s not much room for reflection, let alone strategic thinking, when the threat is immediate: budget votes on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA and NEH), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and National Public Radio may come early this week; and state-level advocates are trying to overturn or head off state agency abolitions right now in Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington state.
At moments like these, everyone does what they’ve always done: petitions, letters to elected officials, letters to the editor and op-eds, occasional rallies and press conferences, almost all stressing nonprofit arts’ economic impact.
Like thousands of others, I went to Americans for the Arts’ Website to send a message to my elected representatives. There I found three readymade talking points that could be added with one click: two were about money (the scope of the arts industry, the assertion that public funding leverages private money), and the third pointed out that NEA funding goes to every state, reminding legislators that every one of them has a dog in the race. These arguments are so bloodless and soporific that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading all the way to the end of an op-ed based on them. Yet these have been the talking points for more than three decades. The result? The real value of the NEA budget has fallen by more than half. But hey, it’s all we’ve got, right?
Wrong. We’ve got much more, but we aren’t using it.
If the by-now familiar pattern holds, draconian cuts will be reduced if legislators are overwhelmed with constituent response, if many major donors say they care, if celebrities are mobilized to lend their voices. But if—as I wrote last week—enough politicians feel the need to symbolically demonstrate their seriousness about budget-cutting by proposing or endorsing the defunding of arts agencies, that’s what will happen.
Mostly, the arts funding debate unfolds without any reference to the larger context, as if winning support were a simple matter of crafting the right argument, sort of like winning a high school debate. The problem is, actually existing politics isn’t based on the merits of argument. There are two kinds of political power in this country: money and people. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a much-forwarded column last week decrying the extent to which the first of these threatens democracy. It’s chilling how closely our political reality matches Herbert’s forthright class analysis:
While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.
So what we get in this democracy of ours are astounding and increasingly obscene tax breaks and other windfall benefits for the wealthiest, while the bought-and-paid-for politicians hack away at essential public services and the social safety net, saying we can’t afford them.
In my last essay, I compared the cost of the NEA and NEH budgets to military spending. Now, compare it with something that speaks directly to Herbert’s point: the two-year tax cuts extension President Obama pressed for and won in December. That bill includes:
- $61 billion in income tax cuts for the wealthiest;
- a cap on taxation of capital gains and dividends at a cost of $54 billion;
- raising the ceiling on high-income tax deductions at a cost of $21 billion;
- dropping estate taxes to 35 percent after a $5 million individual exemption, at a cost of $68 billion; and
- an investment write-off for capital-intensive businesses, at a cost of $21 billion.
The $858 billion tax deal includes provisions to benefit low-income taxpayers too, like an extension of unemployment benefits; and provisions benefiting both workers and employers, like a drop in both halves of the payroll tax. But just totaling the provisions exclusively targeted at helping the wealthy yields $225 billion in lost revenues. This is equivalent to the daily expenditure of twice the combined annual NEA/NEH budgets, seven days a week, for the two years covered by the bill. The 277 Representatives who voted for it represent 65% of the House votes cast; the 81 Senators who voted for it represent 81% of the Senate votes cast.
What would advocacy be like if people stopped pretending they’d win it on debate points, and began speaking truth to power? In this money-driven system, it’s likely that the best short-term chance at restoring proposed arts cuts is for wealthy donors to speak out. And that sometimes happens: the boards of red-carpet arts organizations include large numbers of political donors, and some of them use their clout. But is that what citizenship has been reduced to, waiting for the wealthy to call the tune, as Bob Herbert says? Are we so cowed that we can’t tell it like it is? That we can’t deploy well-deserved shame to inspire people power?
To be sure, there are men and women in Congress who can face themselves in the mirror as they ask the essential questions of public policy: Who are we as a people? What do we stand for? What does the way we spend our commonwealth say about us? But there are also many who have traded away the real meaning of democracy for campaign contributions, and whose prime directive is pleasing whomever pays the piper. In this context, many arts advocates behave like some abused children: try really hard to follow all the rules even if no one else does; smile, cajole, entreat; try to guess what they want you to be and pour everything in that.
It’s easy to see how, by degrees, people give their power away to those who in no way have their best interests at heart. The hope of earning love through obedience is human, if vain. The antidote? Take back your power, learn to speak your truth, refuse to pledge allegiance to delusion, pursue not the crumbs you’ve been told to settle for, but what you really want. Throwing off the toxic passivity that pervades mainstream arts advocacy is exciting, empowering, healing. Beyond that, face it: what have we got to lose by abandoning an utterly failed strategy?
Here’s an open letter along the lines I’d like to see circulating in every district represented by someone who voted for the recent extension of the Bush tax cuts:
Less than two months ago, you voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They reduce tax revenues by an amount equivalent to paying out twice the combined budgets of the National Endowments for The Arts and Humanities, every single day of the year. At a time when our nation’s polarization of wealth is extreme—the top 10% own 80% of all financial assets; and the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%—I am shocked to think you care more about the wealthiest political donors than the well-being of the rest of us.
By cutting arts funding and other social goods, you are making the rest of us pay for millionaire tax cuts. It is wrong to sacrifice our children’s access to music and art classes to save millionaires from paying their fair share. It is wrong to abandon artists who have dedicated their lives to working in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other places where their skills of imagination, beauty, and meaning lift spirits, build community, and help people find resilience. It is wrong to defund creativity at a time when we it is precisely what we need to excel in science and business, to align our spirits with hope and recovery.
It is embarrassing to be the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate, prison population, and expenditure on war, and the lowest public investment in creativity. You want us to believe that you’re concerned about the economy and taxpayers, but really? Tote up the tax breaks included for millionaires: you just put $225 billion of taxpayers’ well-being into the pockets of people who already have more money than they know how to spend.
This is a shame and a scandal, and I’m going to do everything I can to let my fellow voters know about it. Restoring arts funding would be a tiny gesture to show you actually care about what the rest of us want: it’s literally the least you can do. You were elected to serve everyone, not just big donors. Here’s your chance to prove it. Don’t let America down!
John/Jane Q. Public
All politics involves marketing and horsetrading. In fact, the market is a wonderful metaphor for the give-and-take central to any political process: you need something, I can supply it, you reward me, and if we are fair traders, we will both be around to do it again when the tables are turned.
But the big problem with our wounded democracy is that the market is no longer just a metaphor. Today, it’s a straightforward description of the buying and selling of public policy. In the op-ed I linked earlier, Bob Herbert put it most clearly:
The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.
Most politicians start a career with vision and ideals, whether or not you or I share their particulars. But the dominion of political money and its temptations—access to the mighty titans of commerce and the air of luxury they breathe, the opportunity to dole out favors and extract the promise of favors in return, the dangled hope of higher office that comes from believing your own propaganda—is powerfully seductive.
In this atmosphere, it is no wonder that advocates start to think market ideas and economic arguments are the only ones worth putting forward. You can see how easily they might fall into the error of believing that the officials who are squandering our democracy on sustaining the privileges of the wealthiest and most powerful would be susceptible to arguments that the arts grow the economy, that they produce wealth. But those officials aren’t promoting the agenda of corporate and financial elites because they think they will be best for the United States. They are promoting it because they have been paid—in money, influence, flattery, the promise of more power—to do so. Sometimes, without even noticing it, they come to see the interests of those who pay the piper as their own. After that, dancing to the same tune just seems natural.
Once this round of arts advocates’ letters and emails has been sent, once this round of phone calls has been made and this round of petitions has been signed, once the dust of this short-term crisis has cleared, whether or not it was possible to head off the worst damage, one path to change will be open. We cannot compete successfully in the money-driven political marketplace because we do not possess the vast economic power that requires. A campaign that consists of repeatedly inundating officials with assertions of art’s economic impact is not going to change that. The few elected officials who can now be persuaded to act as forthright advocates will be those from safe, cosmopolitan districts; the rest will not jeopardize their seats by speaking out on an issue they do not see as affecting their support. The one possible path is mobilizing significant numbers to act, radically changing the way we and our fellow citizens see the public interest in art.
How to do that is the subject of my next essay, coming very soon. In the meantime, for a soundtrack, what else but Cream’s “Politician”? Recorded in 1969, vocals and bass by Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton on guitar, Ginger Baker on drums, rhyming the predatory side of politics in practice:
I’m a political man and I practice what I preach
I’m a political man and I practice what I preach
But I’m just not there, when you’re in my reach.
Hey now baby, get into my big black car
Hey now baby, get into my big black car
I wanna just show you what my politics are.