A SYMBOLIC GESTURE: The End of the NEA and NEH?
Arts funding is a hot topic these days in Northeast Ohio. It was only last year that Cuyahoga County voters overwhelmingly renewed the cigarette tax for the arts, but the stewardship of one tiny portion of those funds—grants to individual artists–has become fraught with controversy. You’ll find much more about that elsewhere in this issue of CAN, in essays by Barbara Bachtell and Donald Black. But as we pointed out on CAN Blog, our local example points to a much larger, much older issue: “This is the core of American political debate: the degree to which Government can help the people, and how it should do so.” It’s an issue that has been brought up regularly since an act of Congress created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. But as the Trump administration settles in, with conservatives controlling both houses of Congress, these venerable agencies may have finally met their match.
The move to kill the NEA and NEH has been on the agenda of conservatives since 1980, when just three weeks after his election, Ronald Reagan reportedly considered the abolishment of both agencies. But it was “Piss Christ” (1989) – the controversial photograph by Andreas Serrano – that brought about the most public battle for the legitimacy of these agencies. The infamous work become the catalyst for the Culture Wars of the 1990s, in which politicians and arts supporters debated whether the NEA should support works by Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists deemed “blasphemous.” Senator Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY) described the photograph as: “Shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever. Millions of taxpayers are rightfully incensed that their hard-earned dollars were used to honor and support Serrano’s work.” Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) went so far as to call Serrano “a jerk” – fairly tame language in the Twitter era, but quite provocative at the time. And while the NEA and the NEH seem to have been operating under the conservative radar since, they are back in the news, and I expect that this time the language will be anything but tame.
Back on January 19, it was reported by “The Hill” that the Trump Team is indeed poised to make dramatic cuts in government spending, and on the list is the complete elimination of both the NEA and NEH. At the time this article went to print, the Trump administration had begun putting executive orders into action, with cold, stunning swiftness, and arts advocates across the nation have been holding their collective breaths, waiting for the axe to fall.
Many people on both sides of the aisle question whether the federal government should be using government dollars to fund the arts, while our infrastructure crumbles, public schools are closing, and our citizens go hungry. But I wonder if the naysayers realize how infinitesimal the budget is for these two agencies. To put it in perspective: The NEA budget for 2016 was $148 million, and Trump’s recent inauguration cost $200 million dollars. At the Washington Post, Philip Bump pointed out that the federal government spent about $3.9 trillion in 2016, but the amount of that budget that went to the NEA and NEH is astonishingly small, so small it doesn’t even show up on a pie chart, unless you’re using a microscope (.003 percent, or three one-thousandths of one percent).
So the cutting of these programs is basically a symbolic gesture – a slap in the face to the millions of Americans that believe funding for the arts is crucial for the betterment of our society. Bump put it perfectly: “eliminating these items from the federal budget won’t make a dent in the accumulated deficit. But it will appease a vocal constituency, who will see it as a sign of strength and determination.” A victory for the Right, perhaps, but really only an ideological one: it’s meant to set the tone of the coming years. It’s equivalent to a bully flexing his muscles, a blustering boast, targeted intimidation.
So what will the elimination of the NEA and the NEH really mean for the arts in Northeast Ohio? Despite the fact that the grants awarded by these agencies are relatively small, many local organizations benefit from their funding. The list of local NEA Grant recipients for 2017 include: Cleveland International Film Festival, Inc. (CIFF), DANCECleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Play House, Cleveland Public Theatre, Cuyahoga Community College Foundation, Tri-C JazzFest, LAND studio, The Cleveland Orchestra, Rainey Institute, SPACES, Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, and the Verb Ballet. Small as they are, however, these NEA grants are considered vital. Having an NEA grant is something of a stamp of approval, and can help leverage up to 55 times the amount of money in private donations, said Donna Collins, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council.
A recent example of NEA monies in action is the SPACES World Artists Program (SWAP) – an artist residency program through which SPACES brings in 4 artists (or art collectives) + 1 art writer, per year, from around the world to live and make new work in Cleveland for up to 3 months. The artist residencies culminate in an exhibition, and the art writer residency culminates in critical writing and dialogue about Cleveland artists that gets published through the art writer’s established platform (for instance, the 2016 art writer, Jillian Steinhauer, wrote about Cleveland artists for the national arts website Hyperallergic and Britain’s The Guardian).
Currently on view at SPACES is Anthony Warnick’s show, “Except as a Punishment for Crime”, which is a SWAP project, partially funded by the NEA. While most of the SWAP residencies go to national and international artists, SPACES felt so strongly about the Cleveland-native’s proposal that they invited him to participate as a resident.
The exhibition takes its name from the 13th Amendment, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” His installation is a harsh critique of the private, for-profit system of prisons in our country that effectively use inmates as slave labor. Included in the show are fabric assemblages created from flags made by prison laborers, and screen prints also made by prisoners that resonate with phrases like: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Or rather bluntly: “This was produced with forced labor.”
Warnick’s show takes on the prison-industrial complex, a multi-billion dollar industry that uses the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States as unpaid laborers. And like Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary, 13th (nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar), Warnick is pointing out that this systematic method of oppression is merely a continuation of slavery. “Except as a Punishment for Crime” strikes at the heart of America’s tangled racial history – which is an issue with tremendous local resonance as well.
Without NEA funding, this exhibition would likely not exist.
It’s hard to quantify what would be lost with these cuts, but locally, the elimination of the NEA and the NEH will certainly be felt – but it’s also on the local scale that we can fight, and hopefully see some change. In a city that overwhelming voted to use government dollars to fund the arts, we may be in a better position than most places.
The importance of local activism was emphasized even back at the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act signing ceremony in 1965, when President Johnson said: “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours. The arts and the humanities belong to the people, for it is, after all, the people who create them.”