Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

The Right to Bear Arts

Now that #45 and the Republican-led House have failed to deliver on their sacred oath to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care act, they can turn their politically weakened attention to other matters such as tax reform, immigration and infrastructure, the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch for a seat on the Supreme Court, and, one of the heaviest of all lifts, the 2018 budget. Last week's essay, The Codification of Cruelty, portrayed this blueprint with fairly broad brushstrokes.  This week, let's engage in a serious bit of pointillism, honing in on an ultra microscopic subatomic speck of that budget: funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which in turn funds both the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).

In fiscal year 2017, public funding for NEA and NEH amounted to $145 million a piece; CPB $445 million in public funding.  Combined, these three organizations received a grand total of $735 million in public subsidies which, in a budget of $4 trillion amounts to a Lilliputian-sized .00018%.  Or, considered by another metric, a $4 trillion budget means we are spending $456,621,004.00 every hour on the hour, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a  year (there are 8,760 hours in a year).  The $753,000,000 allocated for NEA, NEH and CPB take up just a little over 90 minutes worth of those 8,760 hours. By a final metric, and, to put this into even greater perspective, the combined cost to every single taxpayer in America for NEA, NEH, and CPB is a mere $1.43 a year.
Oh the humanity!
For many years conservatives and deficit hawks have argued that federal funding for the arts, humanities and broadcasting is, in the words of Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson "welfare for rich liberal elites."  They have derided the funded art as being obscene, the news coverage as dangerously one-sided (liberal-to-radical) and the non-news programming appealing only to a minor handful of elitist urbanites. Well I'm here to tell 'ya that I know a lot of non-wealthy, non liberal, non-elite folks who love NPR's A Prairie  Home Companion, Car Talk and Ask Me Another, as well as All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Story Corps.  Then too, there are tons of regular working-class folks who tune in to their local PBS station to watch Austin City Limits, Antiques Road Show, and This Old House as well as Washington Week in Review, PBS News Hour, Masterpiece Theatre and my personal silly favorites, Keeping Up Appearances, Fawlty Towers and the incomparably hilarious Are You Being Served?  And of course, where-oh-where would at least two generations of children be without Sesame Street?

NPR has long been home to some of the very best - and most moderately-paid - journalists on the planet.  And when I say "journalists," I mean it.  For the Nina Totenbergs, Elearnor Beardsleys, Tamara Keiths, Mara Liassons and Sylvia Pogiollis are not "infotainers"; they are unbiased reporters and correspondents stationed all over the globe covering daily events and fast-paced breaking news in ways that would make Cronkite, Lehrer, Russert, Murrow and Sevareid glow with pride.

Precisely what percentage of the NPR and PBS operating budgets are provided by the federal government is unknown - precisely because it varies depending upon the source.  While Fox News claims the percentage to be greater than 25%, NPR insists that no more than 9% of their operating funds come from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.  Whatever the true figures are, the overwhelming majority of funding comes from corporations, foundations and the public at large.  Nonetheless, for the feds try to eliminate all funding for NEA, NEH and CPB (which ultimately affects both PBS and NPR) it is wrong, short-sighted and distinctly un-American.

How so?

During the Great Depression, FDR's New Deal provided funding for the arts.  Its "National Theater Project" was the godparent of tens of dozens of new plays, hundreds of new theater companies and tens of thousands of performances for people of all ages and races.  (The poster above advertising "Man Eats Hat" was created under auspices of this program.  This delightful farce was created and directed by the then 21-year old Orson Welles, and starred Welles and the as yet unknown Joseph Cotton.  Another program, the Public Works of Arts Program put artists and muralists, painters and sculptors to work creating works of art.  In the first four months of 1934 a;one, the PWAP hired artists who in turn produced 15,663 paintings, murals, prints, crafts and sculptures for government building around the county.  Today, many can be seen in museums or adorning the walls of Depression-era post offices, train stations or now crumbling civic edifices.  (At left is but one of the thousands of paintings, Baseball at Night, by Russian-born Morris Kantor (1896-1974), many of whose works can be found at the Smithsonian. 

My good friend Carlos Pagan, a brilliant producer of PBS programming reminds me that art - whether it be broadcast, performance or multi-media - is part of what makes America a great nation.  Without it, we are diminished; our aesthetic selves malnourished and unchallenged.  We simply cannot let CPB, NEA, NEH and NPR go without funding.  Oh, they will continue to exist, but quite possibly as shadows of their former selves.  For #45 and his minions to defund these vital and valuable resources is to proclaim that as Americans, we have, no right to bear arts . . . only arms. (Here, I must fess up.   This catchy slogan is not mine; I borrowed it from my friends at the Creative Coalition.)  Nonetheless, it is true: a government that goes out of its way to defund art, creativity and clear thinking is not worthy of approbation or respect.

In the days since the American Health Care Act was pulled from consideration, many fingers have been pointed among Republicans as to who was chiefly to blame for its failure . . . just as many Democrats have stood up and crowed over their victory.  What has been lost in all this is the real reason why the AHCA failed: because We the People banded together and said NO!  The same power exists for We the People to make sure #45 and his Congress know we want - nay, demand - that we have a right to bear arts.

For all those who agree, my friend Carlos Pagan and I urge you to log on to Protect My Public Media and sign their petition.  It's because of us that the ACA is still the law of the land.  And it will likewise be because of us that public media - that which reports and challenges, entertains and educates - will continue being funded - at least in part - by our tax dollars.

In the words of Henri Matisse, "Creativity takes courage."

We all have the right to bear arts. 

64 days gone, 1396 days to go . . .

Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone