So, the Trump administration will be eliminating the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities.
Thank God. The budget will be balanced. The Union will be saved. Our long national nightmare will finally be over.
Well, at least our budget will be .006% closer to balanced. The combined budgets for NEA and NEH are about $296 million a year. All in all, this works out to a little less than the price of a can of soda for every man, woman, and child in America, and I’m talking name brand, not generic. Nothing but the best. If our National budget were $50,000, that percentage would be the equivalent of about $3. Yikes.
A little full disclosure here. My career is in the arts, but I don’t make my day to day earnings through either the NEA or NEH. I will occasionally work a job where some of their funding may come from those sources, but it’s minimal and rare. I mean, it’s not like I’m a congressman on a health committee or anything (sorry, too soon?).
Just to get it out of the way so I can get to the meat of my rant, let’s talk dollars for a moment. The Arts are an economic engine. In data compiled by the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis, using 2013 as the research year, performing arts (live theatre, music and concerts, ranging from country and pop, on up to symphonies and chamber groups, and live events) produced around $700 billion. This money was directly generated by performing arts organizations through production of a show (the costs to build a show and the salaries of the employees). More importantly, there is a direct trickle down when dealing with performing arts. Trickle down from the patrons who buy the tickets, then programs and merchandise. From the people who go out to eat before or after the event. From the cost of transportation (busses, trains, planes, or fuel for cars), hotels, etc. to get to the show. Over the course of a year it all adds up.
But dollars generated isn’t why we should keep the NEA & NEH. See, if the National Endowment for the Arts goes away those billions of dollars don’t all go away. It’s not like all of the sudden Broadway producers will say, “whoa, there’s no NEA, we can’t continue”, or Toby Keith will say, “well, that’s it. We’re done”. The economic engine is far too big for that. Art, in all its varied forms, will go on. Historians will still research diverse topics and write books to inform others. Grand ideas will still be debated, and studies will still be created.
We need to hang on to The Endowments because we, as a nation, need to know ourselves. There you go. Esoteric and simple. We need to be a witness to ourselves. We need to have someone standing on the outside looking in and showing us the secret little spots that we think are hidden from the rest of the world. This isn’t about ego. This is about necessity.
We, as a nation, have no conscience. There is no internal Spirit that says, “Yeah, you may have gone too far this time”. There is no nagging little voice that is ready to scream, “What the heck were you thinking?” except through the Arts and the Humanities. News and information can convey the facts and to inform the populace, but it is Arts and Humanities that force us to take things to heart. One good line from a poem can sum up pages of news clippings. A single painting or photo can focus the mind to the broader scope presented by a news outlet. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is as true today as it was a century ago.
We need to witness.
The act of witness doesn’t come easily. It takes a lot of work, a lot of patience, to serve as a witness. To observe. To not only look for those things that everyone sees in a new, a different way, but to have the courage and conviction to say it, or show it, or sing it, or to write it out loud. That’s hard. It takes a lifetime to learn. It has to start somewhere, and the Endowments can provide that starting point.
They do it by creating programs that introduce people, young, middle, and old, to Arts and Humanities. It is accomplished through school programs, where children learn the media involved in paint and sculpture. It’s accomplished in grants to writers, historians, and cultural observers. It’s accomplished in community theatres and performance groups all around our nation, where citizens set aside their day jobs and come together to speak, dance, and sing, and to screw together the courage to perform in front of their neighbors.
It can become a guide for the secretary, who on lunch breaks, and during free time, finds it in herself to write a novel.
The discipline produced by involvement in the arts can inspire the farmer, tending to his land and caring for his animals by day, but sharing his talents of music with others by night.
It can be held in the heart of the lawyer, who spends the day arguing and representing others, but during that precious free time, makes pottery that brightens the spirits of those who look at the work and insist that they “could never do anything like that”, but are only one class away from being awakened to a whole new passion.
The Endowments don’t pay for all of this, but they provide the first investment toward learning to be a witness. It gives a nation-wide blessing to step up, to step out, and to create. It can, and does, inspire our citizens to find something creative in their hearts and minds, and to find the courage to share that creativity, that witnessing, with others.
To entertain, to educate, and to enlighten, these are the tasks that Arts and Humanities set forth to accomplish. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It can happen from a spark ignited a couple of hours a week in a classroom, or at a community education course over the span of weeks. It happens to us, to each of us, as long as there is curiosity and desire to do or be more than what our jobs leave for us. The Endowments can provide that first spark.
I think that this is worth the price of a can of soda.