Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dear President Obama, don't cut the National Endowment for the Arts

The arts "preserve and protect the union" too.
Dear President Obama,

In this letter, I'm going to make the argument that cutting the budget of the National Endowment of the Arts (and the other two major federal cultural programs, for that matter) is a big mistake. It's not as big a mistake as funding the arts at their current level, though. That's a massive mistake, and one of the reasons I think we've reached our present sad state as a democracy.

The NEA budget is small enough to be more symbol than substance. And it's on that symbolic basis that I'm making the argument. How small is it? Less than three "Spiderman Units," a term that a theater wag came up with to emphasize the cost of the new Broadway musical. A "Spiderman Unit" is $65 million. I also suspect it's just a couple of pallets in one of those trucks of U.S. currency (I imagined they were full of $100s, right?) we used to corrupt the tribes and officials of Iraq and Afghanistan. We were acting pragmatically, I know, horsetrading, buying influence.  We were not modeling good democratic behavior, though, and our punishment for this will continue, I'm afraid.  But don't leave me! This connects to the arts, I promise!

What I admire about your Presidency so far is its belief in another sort of pragmatism. I call it Capital P Pragmatism, American Pragmatism, the pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Jurgen Habermas (not really American, I suppose), Richard Rorty, even Cornel West. I view it (as Dewey did) as intimately connected to democratic processes. The difference between small p pragmatism and Capital P Pragmatism is argument. Your administration at its best has argued for its policies in the fairest possible way: You've carefully constructed arguments built on the most accurate descriptions of reality you could muster, articulated them so that anyone with a functioning rational mind could understand them, invited others to test those arguments and descriptions, and offered to improve them where they were found wanting, even give them up altogether in the face of better information or better arguments. By doing this, you showed that you understood that America's biggest problem didn't involve specific policy questions, even important ones like health care: It's the democracy itself and its ability to function in a rational and effective way.  That has been your greatest gift to us, in my opinion.

Of course, there's been a lot of small p pragmatism going on, too. Yes, the same sort of horse-trading  and trucks of money (tax incentives! subsidies!) that corrupt Iraq and Afghanistan corrupt us, too. And then there's that inherent enemy of rational argument -- ideology. The stew of ideology and horse-trading -- I'll act in the public interest on this, if you'll act against the public interest on that -- has undermined democracy here in the most profound way. Just listen to us for a moment. How many Pragmatic arguments do you hear? I know; you're going to say it's not that bad. That's another thing I like about you, and I'm not just trying to butter you up! But come on, the wildest three minutes of the Mahler 9 (I'm personally thinking of the part that sounds like the soundtrack to a French Foreign Legion movie) makes more sense than any of the 5-4 majority opinions of the Roberts court. Now I AM digressing.

You're getting impatient: What about the NEA? I think your budget is small p pragmatic when it comes to the NEA. We're dealing with something symbolic here, and you've decided to cut it a little to show your opponents that you're serious about this budget trimming business. That won't appease them. They need to eliminate it for their own symbolic reasons. We're going to run a $3 trillion+ budget next year and the 2+ Spiderman Units we're spending on the arts aren't a matter of substance (they weren't in Kansas or Texas, either, remember?). I think maybe you're horse-trading, though, because you don't have a good argument for the arts in general or a good public policy reason for supporting them.  I want to give you a Capital P argument.  It's one I've made before, and I've already begun it by describing things the way I have.

Deep down, I think the arts are central to the repair, renovation and re-creation of our life together in America. They aren't a decoration or a sidelight. They give us an ongoing description of ourselves. They suggest solutions to our problems. They grieve and roar in pain and anger. They know when things aren't fair, and they speak out. At least at their best, they do. And then they encourage us to think and feel (catharsis!) along with them. This sense of social cohesion, a sense of the whole, this common sense, is mostly missing from our national lives, and it has made democracy almost impossible to conduct. And if we are going to repair our current fractured state, it will be because the arts have helped us do it.

Most arguments for support of the arts I find either tangential or tepid.  But I don't think we can have a functioning democracy without arts to feed and nourish us.  I don't think we can have a vigorous economy without arts to inspire and model our creative response to the world. I don't think we can have healthy individuals without the insight and space for insight that the arts provide. Sure, there are direct economic benefits to art activity. Yes, kids who receive regular arts classes do better on standardized tests than those who don't. And sure, we benefit inherently from living in an environment that is more "aesthetic" than less. But what's at stake in this is more crucial than these byproducts of a healthy shared culture.

The arts remind us that we are in this together. That we aren't alone in our particular thoughts and feelings. That things can be made right and whole, if just for a moment.  They remind us that the individual can do great things. And somehow, they resolve the great tension of American life, that between the rightful autonomy of the individual and the responsibilities that come with belonging to a group. The arts speak to us as individuals and they form communities at the same time. Honestly, I can't imagine a good outcome to our dire problems -- as a community, a nation, a planet -- without the complex lessons the arts teach us.

My great concern is your great concern -- the democracy itself. It's almost impossible to make a successful frontal assault, by argument, on the comprehensive ideologies that have come to dominate our discussions, our politics, our government.  And even less on the horse-trading. The arts offer an indirect route toward shared experience, shared values and mutual respect -- in the dark of the theater for reasons we can't quite fathom we lay down our ideologies for a moment and consider the action on the stage on its own terms. I'm thinking of Lynn Nottage's Ruined (you saw it, yes?) that involves rape in the Congo and the way I heard audience members trying to come to terms with it in the lobby after it ended. They did not apply ideological principles; they used their own experience and thought to guide them. For a moment at least, they were American Pragmatists -- open-minded, searching, rigorous, with both the individual and the common good in mind.  I could talk about other aesthetic experiences that have related outcomes (movies, dance, music, poetry, etc.), but maybe you get the idea. The arts are the end-around of culture (just to throw in a football term): they allow us to make progress by taking off first in a surprising direction.

I could go on, but if you haven't gotten the drift by now, another paragraph isn't going to help.  Our cultural life is splintered into a million pieces right now and much of it is organized around the emptiest spectacles that Hollywood and the NFL can muster, snack food dangled in front of us to make us consider buying expensive gizmos of one sort or another. This culture as it stands doesn't have the resources to repair that which needs to be repaired -- the common ground, the public interest.

So, back to the budget. Given the state of things, two Spiderman Units for the NEA is not sufficient. How about 20 Spiderman units? 200? That would begin to equal the investment in the arts of the European democracies, the investment they have decided is in the public interest. But all I'm asking for here and now, small p pragmatist that I am, is the status quo. No cuts. You can make that argument. As a practical matter the effect on the budget deficit is non-existent, even if you eliminated the whole thing. But sometime, somewhere, we need someone -- you -- to say that a public investment in the arts is in the best interests of the country. And we need you to mean it.

Thanks for listening. And good luck!

Barry Johnson

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