Currently, the NEA receives a tiny fraction of the federal budget — less than one-hundredth of 1% — to give “Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”
In the field of literature, for example, the NEA’s most recent Annual Report (PDF) states:
In FY 2015, the NEA awarded 36 NEA Literature Fellowships in creative writing for poetry, totaling $900,000, out of 1,634 eligible manuscripts. Proving that poets come from all walks of life, each with a different story and unique perspective, this year’s poets include a photographer who worked in factories and the mental health field, a professional rollerblader, and a combat engineer who served six years in the Army National Guard. In addition, the NEA awarded 20 NEA Literature Fellowships in translation to support new translations of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 11 different languages into English.
Critics of the NEA have struggled to figure out what art “is” and whether controversial works are worthy of government funding. As Justice O’Connor explains in National Endowment for the Arts, et al v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998):
Throughout the NEA’s history, only a handful of the agency’s roughly 100,000 awards have generated formal complaints about misapplied funds or abuse of the public trust. Two provocative works, however, prompted public controversy in 1989 and led to congressional revaluation of the NEA’s funding priorities and efforts to increase oversight of its grant-making procedures. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had used $ 30,000 of a visual arts grant it received from the NEA to fund a 1989 retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The exhibit, entitled The Perfect Moment, included homoerotic photographs that several Members of Congress condemned as pornographic. See, e.g., 135 Cong. Rec. 22372 (1989). Members also denounced artist Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.
Critics of the NEA repeatedly point to these controversial examples, even when they pretend to move beyond them. One of those critics is George Will, who simply harbors contempt for art in general. In his opinion piece in The Washington Post, he proclaims:
Let’s pretend, counterfactually, that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g., “Piss Christ” (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine) and “Genital Wallpaper” (don’t ask). What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding? Or do they insist that public funds should be expended for no defined public purpose?
Mr. Will downplays the benefits of art, including the promotion of “civically valuable dispositions,” “community and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “self-esteem,” ultimately concluding that art is the equivalent of macaroni and cheese, a tasty but largely empty food. He says snidely:
The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible. Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”
Personally, I agree that food, like macaroni and cheese (though preferably more nutritious), is actually a good thing that deserves government subsidies, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that art deserves encouragement and support from the government. Sure, many artists will continue to produce art without government support — that’s always been the reality for the vast majority of artists — but is that the way it should be? The message defunding the NEA sends is that art isn’t important. Is that what the American public really believes?
I can think of hundreds of ways I benefited from arts programs, which helped me get through elementary school, a relatively tough time in my life academically. Research shows us that the arts make us better students and better thinkers, and history and life experiences tell us that the arts soothe, inspire, engage, entertain, educate, and unite us. In the divisive Trump Era, all of these benefits are more important now than ever.
*The image is from Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to the Different, which is what comes to mind whenever I think about macaroni and cheese. I am a big fan of Todd Parr’s work, even though I don’t think it’s okay to eat mac n cheese in the bathtub!