Note: I’m also blogging this week as part of Cultural Policy 101: A Blog Salon sponsored by Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA. Join the conversation, and if you’re planning to be in the Bay Area on Saturday, April 16th, register for my free workshop “Advocating for the Public Interest in Culture” at the Oakland Museum, also sponsored by Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA. Click here to register.
I had lunch yesterday with a friend whose dedicated pro bono project is helping to enlarge public support for artists’ work. She’s been advising a member of Congress, organizing local activists, and generally stirring the pot with a great deal of energy and creativity. Her dedication is one reason why it felt so bad to look up from my plate and admit that I don’t think the type of change that’s needed will emanate from elected officials, no matter how hard we work to convince them. The mental image I see when I think of Congress voting on arts funding is a field of grain: when the wind blows rightward, nearly every head bows.
A story in Sunday’s New York Times brought it all home, encapsulating the history of U.S. public cultural funding in a single incident. Democratic majority leader Senator Harry Reid innocently invoked the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in his defense of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which has supported this project of the Western Folklife Center, a deeply rooted and widely admired organization based in Elko, NV.
Reid’s paean inadvertently handed his opponents another symbolic club with which to attack government spending, as Adam Nagourney explained in the Times piece:
That once-obscure gathering became a target in the budget battle a world away in Washington last week, employed by conservatives as a symbol of fiscal waste….
“He was trying to defend the National Endowment for the Humanities and the N.E.A., and he thought, this is something that he was familiar with and he’s always liked, and he was holding this up as an example,” said Charlie Seemann, the executive director of the Western Folklife Center, a converted 98-year-old hotel on Railroad Street. “And, whoops! In this political climate it was too good a target: ‘Cowboy poetry, say what? We’re paying for that?’ ”
The NEA money for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering is a pittance—as are all such allocations in comparison with, say, the 10 percent cut in the top tax rate Republicans voted for, which would cost the federal treasury about $1.8 trillion in lost tax revenues over the next decade. That averages out to $180 million a year (much more than the entire NEA budget) of which $45,000 equals .025 percent.
So why the big fuss? The truth is that arts work in this country has contracted a bad case of Symbolitis from the rabid right, and so far, no remedy has emerged. This is the speedy history I shared with my lunch companion:
In stage one, the National Endowment for the Arts is created in the mid-sixties with modest and conservative intentions: keeping pace with other countries, filling what was called the “income gap” between arts institutions’ earnings and aspirations, and so on. (I’m focusing on the NEA because it has the worst case of Symbolitis, but of course, there is public arts funding through cities and states, and government supports a whole range of museums and other institutions.) In a short time, those left out of the NEA’s creation story—community-based arts, art for social change, culture in rural communities, and more or less everything else that wasn’t packaged in marble-and-velvet—protested, and small programs were created to support them.
Look at the NEA’s appropriations history, and you’ll see steady if modest increases each budget year until 1982. There were always a few ideologues against government arts spending. But the votes reflect a Congressional consensus in the first 17 years of the agency’s existence: it’s a small amount of money (remember that those dollars were worth three times as much in 1980—and it was still a small amount of money), any nation worth its salt has an agency like this. In short, what’s not to like?
In stage two, the wind began blowing in the other direction, and members of Congress inclined their votes accordingly. Beginning in the late 1980s, right-wing activists, especially groups claiming religious grounds, such as the Moral Majority and American Family Association, discovered they could attract donations like iron filings to a magnet by circulating transgressive images supported by NEA fellowships, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs and Andres Serrano’s images of religious icons immersed in bodily fluids. Uber-ideologue and then perennial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan gave a furious and influential speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992 which came to be known as “the culture wars speech,” portraying American values (understood as white, Christian values) as under threat from Democrats and liberals. When the Republicans swept the congressional elections of 1994 under the banner of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the NEA budget was cut by about 45%.
In stage three, beginning in 2001, there was a very slow build-up to a current-year level of $167.5 million. (It would have had to be $270M to equal the spending power of its height in 1992; or $377M to equal the spending power granted the NEA in Ronald Reagan’s first budget.) No congressional consensus, though; just a slow eking out of majority vote, while Republicans, taking a leaf from their counterparts in the 1990s, made more and more use of arts funding as the symbol of government waste and outrage.
Which brings us to stage four, the present. Repeated bouts of Symbolitis have rendered public arts funding toxic. Prior to the recent budget deal, members of the House voted to slash the current-year budget by $43 million; I have not been able to find anything definitive yet about the current-year budget level just adopted (the NEA is too puny to warrant its own line in the summaries that are circulating, and the actual figure is likely to be worked out in a backroom somewhere on the Hill). Meanwhile, President Obama’s FY 2012 budget request reduces the agency’s budget to $146 million.
The NEA provides only a few pennies per person in cultural funding, and like most public and private funders, sticks very close to the model of private arts patronage. Apart from the funds the NEA is legislatively obliged to pass along to the states, it runs an arduous grant process that singles out projects and organizations to receive grants. It doesn’t address large questions of community cultural development, nor turn the spotlight on cultural issues such as the crying need to stand up for public service jobs, a new “WPA for the arts” (for more on that, go to the essays page of my Website and scroll down to read the two parts of “The New-New Deal.”) So I’m not saying that enlarging its budget would fix things, just that it’s an indicator.
But whether you focus on the tiny world of the NEA or widen the lens to take in all of the cultural issues and opportunities before us, the challenge is either to: (1) persuade a majority of members of Congress to volunteer for the ridicule Harry Reid brought down on his head when he innocently mentioned the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, or (2) to recast the whole conversation so that trumped-up outrage and ridicule no longer rule the day.
I’m not saying option (2) is easy, but under current conditions, when most members of Congress vote the way the best-funded wind is blowing, it appears that option (1) is impossible.
Last week, a bunch of movie stars (the headliners were Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey) descended on Washington to testify in Congress for NEA funding. Congress cancelled the hearings because of the budget standoff, but the stars made their presence felt in the media. They advocated a return to what they called “full funding,” the $167.5 million level. Just to offer another reality-check, that’s almost exactly twice the budget of Baldwin’s last-released film, Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, which makes a whole year of national arts funding roughly equal in value to three hours of cineplex screen time.
I’ve written at length about the antidote to Symbolitis, most recently in my series “Life Implicates Art.” One of my perpetual criticisms of arts advocacy is why it is so devoid of art. So I’ll let cowboy poet John Dofflemyer have the last word, in this poem in tribute to Harry Reid:
Easy to get emotional on the Senate floor, misspeak
extemporaneously to take the snipers’ potshots while
trying to save the arts for humanity like a little girl lost
in the crossfire, or before investing more on war.
Katrina came and left New Orleans underwater
slick with oil. New England fracks for natural gas
and Fukushima leaks real radioactivity to California’s
happy cows. Still hungry for energy, it’s difficult
to live in the moment, as we wear ever-changing fear
and panic like uncomfortable underclothes, like
sackcloth. On the surface, we exchange living green
for speed and comfort, swap our aching knees and
yesterday’s horses for more horsepower mid-stream,
planting houses in the San Joaquin that used to feed
a more patient population. The sun will dawn despite
our hopeless battle with the clock, despite the weight
of addictions we can’t escape – I write in self-defense
as if there were only moments left to live, one at a time.
There’s only one wake-up call that rhymes with this story, “Desperado,” an Eagles tune. “Why don’t you come to your senses?” the lyrics ask, and why indeed? Here’s a version by Linda Ronstadt, and for good measure, Johnny Cash.