Like the pigtailed heroine who regularly gets tied to the railroad tracks, the National Endowment for the Arts is again under threat.
The Trump administration’s newest budget, released Monday, cut funding for the NEA, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The budget indicated plans to eventually zero out the three agencies, whose combined budgets make up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of what the government spends overall.
And, as happens every time the NEA or the others are threatened with the ax, champions of those programs sound the alarms.
“This year, we must once again prevent draconian funding cuts for the NEA from becoming a devastating reality,” read a statement from actor Tim Daly, president of the D.C.-based arts-lobbying group The Creative Coalition, that popped up in my inbox.
With the alarms come the statistics. Another email I got this week, from Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre, pointed out that the NEA is “the most efficiently leveraged funding available,” as every dollar the agency pays out generates another $9 in funding from other sources.
Coincidentally, the Utah Cultural Alliance this week released its annual “State of Utah Culture Report,” which provides more statistics about the economic power of the arts and humanities in Utah. (UCA also has posted an online petition to urge continued funding of the NEA and the NEH.)
Some of the highlights: Culture-related businesses employed 79,328 Utahns last year, or nearly 4 percent of the state’s workforce, and generated some $3.5 billion in earnings. Recent surveys found the state’s arts and cultural environment was the No. 1 draw for businesses considering moving to or expanding in Salt Lake City, and creativity was the top quality business managers listed in seeking new employees.
There are always more statistics, like the ones about the effects of arts education on academic performance. For example, a study released last year found students who took four years of art and music classes scored an average of 92 points higher on their SATs than students who took half a year or less.
All of these statistics provide iron-clad arguments for why government funding of the arts and arts education is important to the nation’s economy. And they are utterly irrelevant to those who are bound and determined to cut the NEA and similar programs to nothing.
Opponents of the NEA often call the program a luxury that should be scrapped to keep the budget balanced. Considering how small the NEA’s budget is compared with the federal budget — 0.0004 percent — the fiscal argument is like an obese person saying they’ll lose weight if they eat one fewer M&M every week.
Then there are the infamous complaints about NEA money going to controversial or offensive artworks, like the portrait of the Virgin Mary that incorporated elephant dung or the photo of the plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine. Such controversies certainly grab the headlines, but they have little to do with how the NEA’s funds are distributed nowadays, which is often through state governments and thoroughly vetted nonprofit organizations.
The NEA and similar agencies are so often targeted because they represent art — and art is inherently dangerous.
For all the talk about arts education making better and more diligent students, it also makes people who are less boring. The glory of teaching kids about art and music and literature and poetry isn’t that it makes them better at building widgets or filling out spreadsheets — it’s that it creates people who think independently.
And that’s what makes it dangerous to the status quo, which would condone art if all that resulted was happier worker bees. Art, though, also creates revolutionaries who will kick over the whole beehive. That’s why art — and organizations that support it, like the NEA — is so hated and feared by the powers that be, and why the argument over the future of such agencies will never end.