Kulturkampf: Trump’s War on the Arts

03/12/2017 11:09 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2017

Our new President, Donald Trump, has decided that building a Mexican Wall and increasing the U.S. military budget by $54 billion (over the present military budget of $596 billion) are the most important early steps to take in his first term. But building the Wall might cost as much as $40 billion and adding this to the $54 billion military budget increase comes close to adding almost $100 billion more to our cost.

Something has to be cut!

Republicans and conservatives claim that they are the party defending American culture. But the fact is, they are not culture saviors. They have been at war with the Arts for some time now.

Donald Trump’s people talk about dismantling the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Let’s examine what’s at stake now.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting

The invention of radio and later television created a revolution in public information and entertainment. These two broadcast media grew rapidly with little regulation. Their growth was left in the hands of private enterprise. Private enterprise saw no reason to charge for radio and television listening and viewing. Growth was more than adequately funded by advertisers seeking to get the public interested in their products.

On November 7, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 creating the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB was created as a non-profit U.S. corporation to promote and help support public broadcasting. In 1970, CPB formed National Public Radio (NPR). NPR is a radio network consisting of public stations. NPR produces as well as distributes programming.

The aim of CPB is to provide universal access to non-commercial, high-quality content and telecommunications services. CPB seeks to distribute more than 70% of its funding to more than 1,400 locally owned public radio and television stations. These public broadcasting stations are also funded by private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. Government funding traditionally has supported half the CPB budget.

National Public Radio’s role is to produce and distribute news and cultural programming. Most public radio stations broadcast NPR programs and content from rival providers and locally produced programs. NPR is well known for its Morning Edition and the afternoon All Things Considered.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is the most prominent provider of television programming to U.S. public television stations. PBS has distributed series such as Keeping Up Appearances, BBC World News, NOVA, PBS News Hour, Masterpiece, Nature, American Masters, and Antiques Roadshow.

One of the most popular PBS TV shows was Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, an American half-hour children's television series that was created and hosted by Fred Rogers. The series aimed primarily at preschool ages 2 to 5, but PBS stated it as "appropriate for all ages". The series ran for 30 seasons and endeared American kids and families to this gentle man Rogers who wore a red sweater and catered to the “inner needs” of children.

Many things contributed to the government setting up a public broadcasting system. In 1961, Newton Minow, who headed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), characterized the TV landscape as “a vast wasteland.”

"You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endless commercials—many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all boredom."

Minow felt that viewers deserved a "wider range of choice.” Many cities had only one or two television stations. This was before satellites. The aim was to bring more programs with higher quality to more U.S. cities.

Public broadcasting has not been without problems. Occasional charges have been leveled that the programming has become too liberal or too conservative. The U.S. President is obligated to select nine members to govern CPB, with at least four Republicans and four Democrats. Yet there are pressure groups calling for reducing CPB’s budget or eliminating CPB entirely.

Trump’s administration will have the power to reduce or eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as he searches for cost cuts to build the Wall and build a larger military empire.

The National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created in 1965 to invest in culture much the way the country had invested in science. The NEA is an independent federal agency "dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education."

The annual NEA budget has varied between $150-$180 million, not much when you consider our military budget of $54 billion. Over the years, the NEA has distributed grants to hundreds of thousands of artists and artistic groups in such categories as artist communities, arts education, dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, local arts agencies, media arts, museums, music, musical theater, opera, theater, and visual arts.

The NEA partners with state, regional and international agencies. Forty percent of NEA funding goes to state and regional arts agencies. The NEA sponsors three Lifetime Honors programs: NEA National Heritage Fellowships awarded to top folk and traditional artists, NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships awarded to top jazz musicians and advocates, and NEA Opera Honors awarded to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to opera in the United States. The NEA also manages the National Medal of Arts, awarded annually by the President.

Yet pressure often comes from conservative groups to cut the budget further. In 1981, the new President Ronald Reagan sought to abolish the NEA completely but this was halted under much protest. In 1994, Newt Gingrich called for eliminating the NEA along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Some Congress members attacked the funding of controversial artists and others argued that the NEA was wasteful and elitist. Gingrich managed to push deep cuts in NEA’s budget and ending grants to individual artists but he failed in his effort to eliminate the NEA. In 1996 the American Family Association criticized the agency for using tax dollars to fund highly controversial artists such as Barbara Degenevieve, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Now with President Donald Trump’s election, arts groups across the nation are battling to preserve the funding that NEA grants to state and local groups.

Americans for the Arts is mobilizing 5,000 local councils, agencies and funders and 300,000 “citizen activists” to flood Congress members with calls, sign a petition to the White House and get the message out about the importance of the arts and federally funding them. Trump needs to know that federal support for the arts creates jobs and stimulates economic growth. Trump’s main goals are jobs and growth. So far the White House has not stated that arts funding is in jeopardy, but anonymous sources have said that Trump’s team is considering eliminating the NEA in the proposed budget.

Much rests on how the NEA is governed. The President appoints the NEA Chairman to a four-year term. The NEA's advisory committee, the National Council on the Arts (NCA) advises the Chairman on policies and programs, as well as reviewing grant applications, fundraising guidelines, and leadership initiatives. The President appoints 14 individuals to the NCA who are chosen for their expertise and knowledge in the arts, in addition to six ex-officio Congress members who serve in a non-voting role. The future of the NEA lies in their hands.

The National Endowment for the Humanities

Another key cultural group calls for a greater role for the humanities in public life. In 1965, Congress established the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act whose purpose is to support research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) runs as an independent federal agency that provides grants for high-quality humanities projects to cultural institutions, including museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, radio stations, public television, and to individual scholars. NEH awards grants that (1) strengthen teaching and learning in the humanities in schools and colleges, (2) facilitate research and original scholarship, (3) promote lifelong learning, and (4) provide access to cultural and educational resources. NEH supports a network of 56 humanities councils in U.S. states and territories.

President Obama nominated Jim Leach, a Republican, to chair NEH in 2009. Leach developed the American "Civility Tour" to restore reason and civility back into politics, a goal "central to the humanities." Leach visited 50 states, and spoke at university and museum lecture halls and veteran hospitals to support civil exchange and rational consideration of other viewpoints. When the Civility Tour ended, others pick up the cause, such as Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity.

The NEH is directed by a presidentially appointed Chair who approves all recommendations and awards grants. The Chair is advised by the National Council on the Humanities (NCH), a board of 26 distinguished private citizens who also are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate and who serve staggered six-year terms. The Chair's recommendations are passed on to peer-reviewers who read each project proposal submitted to the NEH.

The NEH runs several grant-making divisions and offices. One awards grants to preserve and improve access to humanities materials. Another brings humanities to large audiences through libraries, museums, radio, TV, and digital media. Another awards individuals, research teams and institutions that support original scholarship in the humanities, Another works to support and strengthen the teaching of the humanities. And another collaborates with 56 state and territory humanities councils to strengthen local programs.

NEH runs several initiatives including “Bridging Cultures” (supporting multicultural understanding), “Standing Together” (supporting returning veterans), and "We the People" (understanding American history and culture). Among their noteworthy projects are the "Treasures of Tutankhamen" (seen by more than 1.5 million people), “The Civil War” (1990 documentary by Ken Burns seen by 38 million Americans), “Library of America” (novels, essays and poems celebrating America’s literary heritage), “United States Newspaper Project,” (cataloging and microfilming 63.3 million pages of newspapers dating from the early Republic), the “Jefferson Lecture” (awarded annually to an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions to the humanities), the “National Humanities Medal” (honoring individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities), and Humanities Magazine (published six times a year).

The Need for Government Support for the Arts

Some politicians continue to desire to eliminate the big three: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). They regard these agencies as bastions of “liberalism” and prime targets in the culture wars. They use the flimsy argument of cost savings, and yet running all three agencies cost only about $741 million which is a miniscule percentage of the $3.9 trillion U.S. government expenditure. One only needs to remember that during WWII, Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts. His alleged reply: “Then what are we fighting for?”

Some argue that private philanthropic sources will emerge to sustain the budget. This is unlikely. What would be lost is all the structure and selection by experts of worthwhile programs. Overlooked is the fact that government funding itself drives private donations in the first place. If federal cuts were made, museums would be much smaller and many would not survive. Access to American art would be reduced not only for cultural elites but to low-income individuals, the handicapped, and to children.

My friend and co-author of Standing Room Only, Joanne Bernstein writes:

We know that cutting cultural budgets has nothing to do with saving money, but rather it is the reaction of philistines in the Executive branch and Congress who are somehow immune to the power of art to move the soul, lift the spirit, and expand the mind.

The famous psychologist, Viktor Frankl, said that people have enough to live on, but many have nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning.

As the U.S. shifts from a focus on material values to a focus on purpose and meaning, Americans need the soul food of the arts and humanities.

Let’s end by considering a statement by President John F. Kennedy who said:

“Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”

Now, more than ever, we need good judgement.

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Citations: “Top Hat: A Brief History of the United States” by Clark Fox; “Untitled” by Lee Krasner, 1948; and “Dread Times” by Christian Sarkar, 2016.
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