NEA Funding: Re-Framing the Debate

We need to re-frame the debate about NEA funding.

The culturally-conservative far right wing of the Republican party has been challenging the very notion that the United States government should in any way be funding the arts. As the estimable Travis Bedard tweeted the other day — I’m paraphrasing here — the right has outsourced the creation of culture to the left, and the unintended side effect of that choice has been that the art we’ve made hasn’t served them in the way they want to be served. Now they’re trying to stop paying for the stories we’ve been telling, because those stories are often upsetting or boring or somehow offensive. Actually, to be clear, it’s not that THEY don’t want to pay for the stories, it’s that they don’t want ANY American to pay for the stories. It’s similar to the way that we liberals don’t want American taxes to fund so many bombers and torturers and illegal wars.

Naturally, we’ve all gotten quite up in arms about their recent rhetoric… and rightfully so. Federal support for the arts is a mere pittance, compared both to federal support for, say, everything else AND to the support offered by our peer countries around the world. And now they want to take that pittance away?

By responding to their foolhardy proposals with indignation, however, we legitimize the very question they’ve managed to introduce into the discussion: why does the government support the arts? Let me tell you clearly: THIS SHOULD NOT BE A QUESTION. Of course the government should support the arts. Investment in the arts offers a greater return (both financially and in support of our national happiness) than virtually any program toward which conservatives would divert the funding.

Instead of saying  “How dare you?” the next time a conservative proposes to eliminate the NEA, then, what should we say? I’ll tell you what we should say: “Instead, I propose to create a National Artists Corps that puts as many artists on salary as possible — we’ll start with 20,000, then work our way up to 2,000,000 over ten or twenty years.”

Then we can have two legitimately extremist proposals to balance against each other. Then we can work hard to find the right middle ground — because we do, after all, have to share the country with conservatives, even if we don’t agree with them — which will probably look like the current NEA only a great deal bigger. (With any luck, more NEA funds will go directly to artists, too, rather than institutions.) And then we can start talking about how to pay for the “new NEA” — where, exactly, to cut the defense budget to fund it — rather than whether we should get rid of it entirely.

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