Like many liberals, I’m chipping away on my home-study American political science degree; this chapter is on governmental budgets. The President introduces his “dream budget,” which can be summarized as the potentially most awkward elephant in the room, should Trump ever have to personally meet chairman Jane Chu or any other staff from the department that he zero-ed out. Trump’s using budget like a threat, a political surgical knife that reveals how deep he pierce a government, country and society, given he’s taken no Hippocratic Oath.
So I visited arts.gov to see if the NEA was still around. I was pleasantly surprised that not only did a 404 error elude me, but a considerate pop-up windowed guided me to a FAQ page, answered all my questions and hearsay about the fallout of Trump’s nightmare budget. Here I share what I learned therein with you, kind reader, and include with it my thoughts, concerns and crass conclusions that comprise my first of many diatribes on how our miserly billionaire Warmonger in Chief plans to spend our monies.
The NEA’s FAQ page begins/began with “Is the NEA closed?”
Social media has been buzzing about everything Sunburnt Combover has been proposing, particularly cutting the arts, environmental protection agency and giving all the money to infrastructure, outfrastructure (wall), war, Mar-a-Lago and Trump International. People are concerned. Infuriated is a better word. And the coveted National Endowment for the Arts strikes a sore spot in those of us Americans who look to more peaceful countries and societies that not only fund arts but communicate to the creative class that they’re valuable for their imagination (not just how well they can make a smart phone app UI), and how enjoy creative culture, museums, the arts, et al. So how has the U.S. compared to other developed countries? This 2005 report may be dated but still sheds light and is regularly referenced in how each country fairs in terms of cultural funding.
But why communicate to the creative class that they’re valued? Uh, well, for one reason is that (according to the NEA) we are one the largest labor classes in the U.S. Filmmakers, actors, graphic designer, musicians, singers, artists, fashion designer, photographers--the arts sector in the United States more than 2 million worker, according to the NEA. And on this note, the value of the NEA is frequently weighed by its distribution of funds toward creativity, but the reports it generates are equally important, particularly in looking at how the marginal disutility of labor occurs within these informal industries. There reports are usefully predictive of how people are working, spending free time, applying their education, generating money (and taxes), and where this is happening.
So where is this cut coming from? What’s the rationale? What’s the history of controversy in NEA funding? One long-held belief is that the arts serve one (small) percent of the population. Why should tax-payer money be used for the arts, which are appreciated along class lines? The NEA’s FAQ does a great job to clarify that one of its goals and achieved missions to deliver the arts to “underserved areas...especially rural and inner-city communities.” Cutting funding to the NEA will only increase the inequity of access to the arts.
If part of a larger historical fight against the NEA, Trump’s cut is more likely a function of (religious) Conservative dominance on Capital Hill. The NEA budget has steadily increased since it’s founding in 1966, with the exception of a 40% cut in 1995 that remained until 2001. The cause of the aberration: Newt Fucking Gingrich, leader of the Republican majority during the Clinton years, who tried to kill the NEA. (This cut was reversed in 2001 by the GWB). The Gingrich cut was strongly supported and espoused by Republican of North Carolina, Jesse Helms, (whose been lobbying the Big Guy in the sky since 2008), who was the ideology of the Religious Right incarnate. His disgust for arts funding came from a gag reflex that linked the denigration of the Judeo-Christian god to a certain faction of artists: The NEA four: Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes--performance artists funded by the NEA, who had their support rejected by the agency chair, the conservative John Frohmayer (National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley), plus Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano. (Mapplethorpe’s depictions of the gay nude, shot in dramatic glorification of the body [referencing the classical Greek nude, recalling that phrase “more Greek than the Greeks”] and Andrés Serrano’s Piss Christ explain why the Religious Right believed the arts were against their beliefs: they were, but not just by artists; much of society doesn’t align with these religious interpretations of the law.) The case seized onto an aesthetic parallel in order to censor sacrilegious art works. The preamble to the case begins:
In 1989, controversial photographs that appeared in two NEA-funded exhibits prompted public outcry over the agency’s grant-making procedures. Congress reacted to the controversy by inserting an amendment into the NEA’s 1990 reauthorization bill. The amendment became §954(d)(1), which directs the Chairperson to ensure that “artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”
Finley ultimately won the case and the NEA was forced disperse funds to the artists. The question was from the Left whether religious values, specifically Protestant Christian, were justifiably obstacles to tax dispersion to arts within a country that touts the separation of church and state and/or the Constitutional declaration that no religion will have governmental preference over another. The NEA v. Finley said, ‘No.’ So rather than setting a criterion to which (Conservative) appointees could control what’s produced, they decided it was better just to cut it. That’s a summary of the culture wars, to which the left and mainstream media don't really talk about today, while the Conservative right, via hot hands Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter maintain as a placeholder for their fight against Liberals. Today, however, it’s not clear whether the Trump budget is a continuation of this religious faction against creative liberals necessarily, or just a psychopathic vendetta to build his wall, stroke his ego, or a combination of both.
What’s strangely contradictory about Trump’s NEA budget cut is that he claims to be strong on military (offense and) defense, ostensibly to protect our country from attacks by Muslim extremists who seek to destroy our culture, i.e. Western culture, but Trump’s budget does their job for them. What’s consistent is his approach to freedom of the press, women’s rights and socially protected classes are equally contradictory.
On a social level, the real failure to society American society to make the arts correlate with the populace is two fold: one, a failure to broaden the appreciation of art and two the failure to educate toward those to find art appreciable. That is, not only do art practitioners--artists, curators, dealers, institutional functionaries--fail to make the arts accessible to the broader society, but the society to which we hope they would bring the arts is informationally impoverished. Yet, while the arts are perceived as an exclusive past time, more people have been studying contemporary arts since the mid-20th Century than ever before. Structurally, there is an educational lapse in formative public instruction, and we are all aware of it: The Arts are the first to be cut from public curricula in what seems to be the remnants a Space Age attitude that cherishes the sciences, mathematics and history. I’m not opposed to funding any educational study and I like science. But the quick-to-cut-the-arts is delusional in the presumption that the arts are superfluous. In the decades since art education in public schools began getting nixed, we’ve seen that the attraction to better schools and institutions always include and emphasize the arts. The solution is simple: don’t EVER cut educational funding. Any argument to get cut educating should be seen as the simple failure of the predecessors to educate the opponent of education, or a personality disorder.
The arts are important for students as well as workers. Opponents to arts funding would do well to read the Harvard Business Review’s 2008 article, The MFA is the New MBA, if they hasn’t the haven’t the patience of reading through NEA reports. Rather than teaching kids to pass tests, how about teach them how to creatively problem solve? One results in life-long bullshit artist, the other results in flexible citizens who adapt to a changing world.
The battle for the NEA funding is a short-sighted trench warfare in what should be a larger war on which department even exist in government. We need not only the NEA, but a Department of Culture. It’s the only rational approach to not only the arts but other quasi-departments that closely parallel economies (i.e. where there are educational, practitioners, and monetary generation) and should be a formalization, represented, and overseen. Anything else, like the current or “small government” mantra is just delusional in the global reality of today. The exportation of our culture and cultural products to the rest of the world is the equivalent to capital flight. If people are creating industry it requires oversight as a liaison between the corporate and business entity and the voting citizen who exists outside that economy. By extension, it requires a line on the budget whether for that oversight or for direct funding.
The art world is ripe for oversight. We see behavior that would be considered insider-trading on Wall Street or outright neptocracy. Haunch of Venison, which closed in 2013, owned by Christie’s during its decade tenure in New York, showed perhaps the rarified cycle between a gallery that sold works and an auction house that could control the market value of the same works. The fabrication of the value of the works that went through this cycle are nothing short of alchemy. The Hauser & Wirth (previously Schimmel) space in L.A. aims to blend a cultural institution with a for-profit-gallery model like a vertically-oriented industry. How this will impact the exchange between culture cache and monetary value is yet to be seen. And they aren’t alone in devising new financial tools. Investors are open about including the arts in your portfolio; as a global phenomenon, Le Freeport makes buying, trading, and storing your artwork easy--you don’t even have to enter the country. Situated in Singapore’s duty-free airport zone, thus “no tax is due on the artwork for as long as it is stored in the facility, though applicable taxes are due in the respective location the work eventually ends up in for display or ownership. “
The abuse of the culture industry of unpaid interns is an exemplary cry for oversight. Around 2010, Obama and various State’s Department’s of Labor started cracking down on this abuse unpaid laborers whose employees interpreted “intern” as “anyone who would work for free,” regardless of whether that person’s time equated to credits from an educational institution or any kind of training; some galleries had (and still have) a perpetual place for an unpaid intern and give them little or no useful skills or experience.
But I digress. To really understand whether the NEA funding cut is justified on the grounds that it serves a selection of our society or doesn’t generate (enough revenue), we should compare it other state-sponsored past-time, activities like professional sports. The divergences are shocking. Sports teams do not receive direct federal funding, but they do receive enormous local state tax subsidies. The Brookings Institute found that just Yankee Stadium received 1.7 billion in municipal bonds from New York. These bonds don’t have taxable interest, which means the Federal government lost $431 million from those bonds, and another $61 million from private high-income bond holders. That’s just to start. What’s even more troubling is where the money that’s generated goes, and how many people benefit from the activities in the stadium. Jeffrey Dorfman states, “Governments should never finance a stadium with public money as it is simply a subsidy to rich team owners and a few businesses that stand to benefit from the events held there.”
Even after a stadium is built, the buck doesn’t stop there. There’s renovations, repairs and staying state-of-the-art. The tax-burden is ongoing, and ever more expensive, while the use value is decreasing: the dozen professional games and occasional concerts don’t warrant these enormous structures to be built over acres of city. These enormous tax-subsidies for rich team owners gets pushed through in aggressive threats to take the team to another state. It’s undemocratic, and as Richard Florida points out, really an inter-state problem that requires Federal regulation.
The threat to take a team elsewhere is an indirect threat to take economic growth or activity elsewhere, but according to Stanford professor of economics, Roger Noll “NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth, and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover any significant financial contribution by the city.” Sports subsidies are the equivalent of just putting money in the pocket of the very rich. It’s not for the fans, nor the city, nor the neighborhood. Dorfman counters the rebuttal that the businesses around the stadium will be spurred when sports attendees come with two points: one, how much of that spending goes toward taxes and two, the money spent there comes out of a budget that would have or could have been spent elsewhere, since these are services and goods, like food and drinks, that can or would have been accessed elsewhere. So it’s not generating business, it’s concentrating business and spending, which is the same rationale to give tax subsidies to the stadium in the first place: concentrate spending on one (rich) entity. Then there’s the question of job creation as a form or economic stimulus. The occasional “gig” at a stadium, from an employee’s perspective is particularly dire; it’s unstable, temporary and deskilled and low-paying. While stadiums largely employ temporary workers, cultural institutions employ workers year round. Even when exploiting internships, the interns are a small percent of the employees at cultural institutions.