Trump’s plans to cut the arts and humanities

Art attack: Four projects which received money from the US government. How important are they?

Yesterday President Trump proposed a new budget for America which abolishes funds for thousands of arts and humanities projects. Are these not the most important part of any democracy?

“Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support … the arts and the humanities.”

These words were signed into US law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. With them he created two independent government agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its humanities equivalent (NEH).

The agencies cost just $300m, about 0.002% of America’s total federal budget — far less than wealthy democracies spend on culture and the arts elsewhere. But last year the NEA used that money to help fund 24,000 projects in every state in the USA, from exhibitions at New York’s largest museum to art therapy classes for war veterans in Virginia.

Now its future is in doubt. Yesterday President Donald Trump announced his “America First” budget proposal for 2018. It includes plans to increase defence spending by $52.3 billion, while slashing funding for most other government agencies. And it proposes abolishing the NEA and NEH altogether.

Arts and humanities are often seen as “soft” subjects which can be cut by governments looking to save money. So it is not the first time that the NEA and NEH have been targeted by politicians. But Trump is the first president to attempt to do away with them all together.

In Foreign Policy magazine, the writer Suzanne Nossel argued that he is particularly disdainful towards the arts.

She pointed out that last year he said that he does not read books, and that when building Trump Tower in 1980 he destroyed two “historic” art deco panels that the Metropolitan Museum had promised to take off his hands. During his presidential campaign, he often associated artists and intellectuals with “out-of-touch elites”.

Perhaps knowing this, the Association of Art Museum Directors released a statement the day before his inauguration. “It is the mark of a great democracy to support the arts, which are an expression of what makes us human,” they pleaded.

Could they be the most important thing of all?

The art of democracy

Don’t be silly, say some. The arts are important, but society would hardly crumble without them — not as it would without doctors, engineers or police officers. And the future economy will largely be driven by the amazing developments in technology which we are already witnessing. There is nothing wrong with leaving the arts to private funding.

That is hopelessly short-sighted, say others. The arts connect with people from every walk of life. They teach us to think outside the box, and to understand different perspectives; to look for the meaning and context behind the words and images in front of us. All of this is essential to a free-thinking democracy. Without art, we are mere robots.

You Decide

  1. Are the arts and humanities more important than science and technology?
  2. Should governments fund art projects?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are putting together the US budget for 2018, and you have $1 trillion to spend. You must fund defence, education, arts, NASA, welfare, transportation and so on. How much would each department get?
  2. Write a short story, based in a world where art is banned.

Some People Say...

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage.”

Lyndon B. Johnson

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t care about the arts. Why should the government fund them?
In the USA, the money from the national government agencies “unlocks” money from state agencies too — this means that a small amount goes a long way towards funding community projects across the country. Even if you don’t care about the projects themselves, they still help to support the economy by employing millions of workers and attracting tourists.
What’s the argument against?
People who are opposed to government funding argue that “free money” makes artists complacent. Perhaps they would be more imaginative if they were forced to make money off their own bats through selling tickets and so on. This might make them consider what audiences really want to see. If people won’t pay for it, is it really worth making?

Word Watch

Proposal
The plans are still just a “blueprint” for next year’s budget, not definite policy. In the American system Congress, not the president, ultimately decides national spending.
Most
Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs will also receive increases in Trump’s budget. The biggest cuts are to the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department.
Governments
For example, last year Britain proposed abolishing its art history A Level to save on education spending, until there was an outcry from academics.
Targeted
For example, President Ronald Reagan also wanted to cut the NEA and NEH, but he faced opposition from a Democratic Congress. The NEA was criticised in the 1990s for not spending enough in rural areas.
Books
Trump proudly said that this is because he is “always busy doing a lot”.
Art deco
An artistic and architectural style that was popular in the 1920s and 30s.
Private funding
There is already a healthy culture of privately funding the arts in America. This is in part thanks to tax breaks for individuals and businesses who donate to arts institutions.

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