With news reports indicating President Trump will cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as a gesture of supposed fiscal responsibility, it’s depressing for many of us working and teaching in these fields.
That these agencies are run on extremely small portions of the national budget underlines the extent to which all this is for show . Except, of course, it will have an effect. Apart from pandering to those suspicious of the value and political inclinations of artists and scholars, and demoralizing those who place great value in the importance of the humanities and culture, the dismantling of these federal programs would bring to an abrupt end the extraordinarily important work they perform in advancing research, scholarship and culture.
Such prejudiced thinking is at odds with valuing and appreciating the extraordinarily broad range of projects supported by NEA/NEH. Federally supported initiatives such as these are not in existence to support or challenge the political leanings or biases of the presidency, Congress, Senate, Supreme Court or whatever. Instead, these grant-awarding bodies exist to provide much-needed and much-appreciated funds for academic research and cultural provision. Simply put, much of this activity and provision would not otherwise exist were it not for the fundamentally important bodies of the NEH/NEA. It’s a scandal that for the vital work they do, they are allocated budgets noticeably frugal and completely inadequate.
Given that cutting the NEH/NEA will do nothing to positively impact the nation’s deficit, this planned axing represents a serious diminishment in the cultural and educational life and health of the nation. Doubtless we would all agree that the nation continues to grapple with monumental problems on a great many fronts, but the continued operating of these agencies are most assuredly not among these problems. Quite the reverse.
It might perhaps be more fruitful to assert or remind ourselves that the varied projects funded by NEH/NEA are vital to the cultural and educational health of the nation. Educated children, and educated adults, are all better equipped to live more fulfilled lives. Access to cultural institutions such as museums and galleries is a right Americans should safeguard and defend. Learning and the offerings of higher education are vital routes to betterment for countless Americans. It would be self-defeating if important sources of funding for cash-strapped teachers and workers in the cultural sector were summarily and punitively withdrawn. Perhaps unbeknownst to some politicians, the most active faculty of our universities encourage, among one another and the students in their classes and seminars, reasoned arguments, critical thinking and enquiring research — vital to the intellectual and cultural health of our nation.
From award-winning documentaries viewed by tens of millions of Americans to numerous Pulitzer Prize-winning books and music, the work of the NEH/NEA is unquestionably vital to the literary and cultural state of the nation. And though vindictive politicians have long been skeptical of the existence of the NEA in the face of prejudice that panders to base ignorance, the organization has continued to work to support creativity across a wide range of communities. It does so not only by providing material assistance to artists but, equally as important, supporting opportunities for arts participation by diverse groups. Let’s hope wiser heads prevail and the NEH/NEA will not be used as whipping boys — punitively blamed or punished for the faults, incompetence or inadequacies of others.
Moving forward, those of us committed to the existence of independent, federally funded agencies that support research in the humanities and funding for the arts must join together with the millions of Americans who realize the importance of the arts in their lives and the lives of their children. We must do what we can to defend the existence of the NEH/NEA and, indeed, support increases in their budgets. Now, as much as at any time, the arts and humanities are essential. The folly of axing funding for the NEH/NEA would leave our nation significantly diminished.
Eddie Chambers is a professor of art and art history at The University of Texas at Austin.