My mailbox is being flooded with panicked messages from artists across the country. By executive order, the governor of Kansas has abolished the Kansas Arts Commission (KAC). The governor of Texas wants to defund that state's arts agency, as does the governor of South Carolina. Republicans want to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. And arts advocates foresee a long row of dominoes waiting to fall when those go.
What does it mean?
From the official perspective, it's framed as all about saving money: “Our state faces a nearly $500 million budget shortfall,” Kansas' Republican governor Sam Brownback said. “Let’s do all we can to protect the core functions of government.” But Brownback neglected to mention that the numbers don't quite add up: the KAC receives $778,200 in direct funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and $437,767 in indirect grants and services from Mid-America Arts Alliance, a regional funder, so the net effect of eliminating state funding would be a loss of several hundred thousand dollars coming into the state from other sources.
To some people, it's a resurgence of anti-art feeling. As I wrote in December, people are now talking of new "culture wars," harking back to the arts censorship campaigns of twenty years ago. They see this eliminationist fervor as driven by ideological opposition to public arts funding. They focus on the threat artistic freedom of expression represents to those who want to control the message. This is real, to be sure: in any setting, repression almost always starts with artists and intellectuals, who represent the refusal to submit. But this situation is not driven by ideology. As you will read below, it owes far more to politics than principle.
Certain arts advocates see it as an occasion for self-flagellation: to them, this proves we aren't trying hard enough to make the case for arts funding. Earlier today, someone forwarded a tweet from the California Arts Council: "First Kansas, now Texas. We MUST make our case more clearly. The arts are not luxuries – they are vital." Unfortunately, in practice, that almost always means redoubling efforts to make the same arguments that have been failing for three decades. There's a desperate cargo-cult mentality that pervades arts advocacy, as I wrote back in 2006: it's as if advocates believe that doing the exact same thing over and over again, with infinite patience and dedication, will eventually be rewarded with a gift from the gods. Actually, it just wastes time and money, keeping people too frightened and preoccupied to come up with a better strategy.
The national conversation about arts funding has grown stale and desperate. It needs fresh air and new light to peel away the familiar cover-stories and see what's really happening. Three essential points need attention:
First, it's not about the money. Consider the facts. For instance, last month, House Republicans proposed reducing the allocations for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to zero. That's two separate agencies budgeted at $167.5 million apiece, for a total cost savings of $335 million.
Just to put that into perspective, the savings would amount to less than one-thousandth of a percent of the cost of just the war in Afghanistan since 2001, and less than one-millionth of a percent of the total FY 2011 federal budget. It's less than one-twentieth of the FY 2011 budget for nuclear weapons, still being stockpiled at great costs to taxpayers, "just in case." Putting the NEA/NEH money back into taxpayers' pockets would give each of us about a dollar a year, half the cost of a plain Starbuck's coffee, less than half the cost of a subway ride.
In truth, when politicians decide to decapitate arts funding, they aren't even trying to make a significant economic impact. Instead, they are using budget cuts as a form of political speech by cutting something that most voters don't perceive as directly affecting them or creating widespread pain. That is because, even though the dollars involved are insignificant enough to be dismissed as a rounding error in other budget areas, the cuts garner plenty of publicity: artists and their advocates are very good at communicating their displeasure. In essence, politicians use arts advocates as a megaphone to issue a political message: Look at the criticism I'm willing to take to save voters money! I lopped the head off all this unnecessary crap like art before even trimming the fat from the things you really care about! Money is the sizzle, not the steak.
Second, arts advocates undermine their cause when they respond to the cover-story as if it were the real story, focusing on dollars-and-cents arguments as if it were really about that. Decades have been wasted conducting the arts funding debate within the established frame. Mainstream advocacy groups have spent tons of time and money trumpeting the “economic multiplier effect,” for instance, in which every dollar spent on theater tickets generates more dollars on parking and restaurants, multiplying jobs and taxes. This is true, as far as it goes. But the arts have no special claim: the result is the same if you buy tickets to a bowling tournament or dog show.
The orthodoxy to which arts advocates pledge allegiance is that they will succeed by speaking the language of legislators and corporations. It boggles my mind how little that delusion is disrupted by reality. Look at the numbers. In constant dollars, the 1980 and 2009 NEA budgets were each $155 million. But the FY 2009 budget should have been more than $400 million just to equal the spending power of 1980. Now the prospect of elimination is very real. How long can people cling to a failed strategy?
Instead, every advocate should start with open eyes: refuse to pretend this debate is about money; explain how the arts are being used to send a political message. Drop the cover-stories, and tell it like it is.
Third, while all this timid dithering is going on, the largest, most important policy question is nearly dying of neglect. Who Americans are can be deduced from the way we spend our commonwealth. We may claim to be caring, to collectively value the most important things, but every single day, seven days a week, we spend a sum on war larger than the annual budgets of the NEA and NEH combined. We have the the highest incarceration rate in the world. The USA has 4% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated. Do you want to be a citizen of Incarceration Nation? Well, you are.
The most important policy question is this: Who are we as a people? How do we want history to remember us? What legacy do we wish to leave the next generation: our stupendous ability to punish, or our vast creativity?
In any society, some things are sustainable through markets alone, while other social goods will never turn a profit. Few of us would want to live in a world solely reliant on market success: can you imagine the untreated illness that would result from the withdrawal of public health programs? The stupendous ignorance that would result from the abandonment of public education? The level of homelessness that would result from putting an end to all housing subsidies? In relation to social goods, it is in the public interest to address marketplace imbalances through other interventions: public and private grants, regulations, tax exemptions, and so on.
Just as the United States has become the world's biggest punisher, we have become its most anemic supporter of creativity. Expenditure levels have changed in the five years since the Canada Council for the Arts released a much quoted report entitled "Comparisons of Arts Funding in Selected Countries," but the proportions are the same: leading European countries typically invest as much as fifty times more per capita in support of culture than the United States.
Making art is the essence of being human. We do it in marble palaces and grass huts. Even under the worst possible conditions, in SuperMax prisons and concentration camps, people save precious crumbs or scrape up mud to make sculptures. They scratch on prison walls with rocks or bits of charcoal. Herbert Zipper, the founding director of the National Guild for Community Arts Education, led a clandestine orchestra in Dachau. Our ancestors gathered around campfires, huddling against the darkness to share stories of the hunt, the trek, the storm and their meanings. Today we sit in massive multiplexes, warming ourselves by the light of much busier and more complicated stories. But underneath, we are the same. Making stories, images, songs and structures is as essential to us as breathing. And how we tell our stories shapes our lives.
Think about it, dear readers. The human drive to create and share beauty and meaning is so central to our existence that every day, around the globe, countless thousands risk life, liberty, or livelihood to express it.
Arts advocates have been trying to pour the vast personal and social importance of this essential human experience into containers—into language, slogans, arguments, strategies—far too small to hold it. Art’s essence is its ability to engage us fully in body, emotions, mind and spirit, to create beauty and meaning, to cultivate imaginative empathy, to disturb the peace, to enable grief in the face of loss and hope in the face of grief. Trying to explain or demonstrate this with numbers is like trying to describe a rainbow without mentioning color. It is ineffective, discouraging, and unworthy of who we really are to keep trying the same failed approach. And now it is plainer than ever that the failure is total and abject.
U.S. policymakers have made a very bad mistake in placing the work of artists in the category of frills and extras, rather than understanding how they function as social goods. Beauty and meaning lift our spirits, express our identities and aspirations, enable us to come to know and care for each other despite our differences. The hope of a sustainable society rests on our creativity—our capacity for imagination and empathy—and if we think it will flourish without nourishment, we are in for a world that more resembles "Grand Theft Auto" than a garden of earthly delights.
I am not a diehard arts agency advocate. I've written and spoken volumes of constructive criticism: most of these agencies channel a disproportionate amount of funding to largely white, red-carpet organizations, short-changing important work by artists of color, rural artists, women artists. Too many treat "the arts" like a cozy private club, airing a snobbery that repels people in droves. Too many pledge allegiance to absurd orthodoxies, using "the arts" to refer only to subsidized nonprofit organizations within the traditional arts disciplines, as if our massive consumer cultural industries and the vast web of informal arts participation weren't even part of the cultural landscape.
There are caring, dedicated, capable people in all of these agencies, and most are running programs that have significant positive impact along with the ones that simply channel money to client groups. But I'm not interested in preserving funding for these agencies to perpetuate the way they've been doing business. I'm interested in seeing this crisis as an opportunity to rethink their approach, to throw off the old and now-discredited orthodoxies, and to begin treating their work like the lifeline for civil society and cultural citizenship—the sacred trust—it truly is.
Every day, in every corner of this country, nearly every life, nearly every waking hour, is saturated with music, stories, visual imagery, and conscious movement expressing the intrinsic nature and overwhelming resilience of human creativity. Culture is the secret of survival. Our task is to help people see that our collective well-being depends on recognizing the public interest in supporting artistic creativity, that with our future riding on the stories that shape us, we had better make a serious investment in our capacity to create and share stories.
As I travel around the country, I have been offering workshops on reframing the arts: how to change the frame, the deeply embedded story that makes “the arts” so expendable in so many people's minds. Arts advocates' thinking needs to expand, creating new frames—new containers—that are big and strong enough to convey the real and awesome power of human creative expression. This requires discarding the old frames that constrain thinking; and that has to start with abandoning the old gentlemen's agreement to treat the passion for cutting arts funding as all about the benjamins. The time has come to speak truth to those with entrenched power and to ordinary citizens, those who put them in office and have the power to replace them.
It is so easy to allow our minds to be colonized by convention, so that—by degrees—our thinking becomes imprisoned in a cage of orthodoxy: we no longer see what is, but only what others say it is. I've been listening to Nick Cave the last few days. He has a way of cutting through the noise. Listen to "Nature Boy" as you practice letting go of orthodoxies you no longer need:
I was just a boy when I sat down
To watch the news on TV
I saw some ordinary slaughter
I saw some routine atrocity
My father said, don't look away
You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now
He said, that in the end it is beauty
That is going to save the world, now