Trump Admin Wants to Defund the NEA and Drop Giant Bombs Instead
It is said that after Pablo Picasso visited the cave of Lascaux in France, his face was drawn, his flashing black eyes uncharacteristically downcast. He softly said, “We have invented nothing new.” After visiting Altamira in Spain, its “wonderful beasts” having been re-discovered by eight year-old Maria Sanz de Santuola, he declared, “After Altamira, all is decadence.”
20th century sculptor Henry Moore was inspired by sculptors who worked a thousand generations before him; Spanish artists Miró, Tapies, Millares, Merz and Miquel Barceló formed the Altamira School inspired by ancient cave artists.
Judging by the handprints left behind by the ancient artists, not all who painted in caves were men, as seems so often to be the case among sculptors, painters, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, and even photographers in more recent eras.
It’s hard to imagine any form of art created today that would last for 35,000 years.
Especially not in a world where leaders would prefer to increase military budgets by $54 billion to provide a dizzying array of armaments, and twice the amount of the entire National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget, on developing and manufacturing the “Mother of All Bombs/Massive Ordnance Air Blast” (#MOAB). This $16 million (individually-priced) behemoth could wipe Altamira, Chauvet, Lascaux and all the other Neolithic sites from the face of the earth in an instant, along with every living man, woman, child, puppy, kitty, tree or plant in a 1-mile radius.
Whenever I hear someone bragging about making millions or billions, or how great any military achievement is, or what a mark a man like Napoleon made on history, I think about the lions in Chauvet cave. They look like they were all painted at the same time, but carbon-dating has found that they were painted by different artists as much as 5,000 years apart.
Much has changed about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) since an old controversy fueled the initial “public decency-inspired” suggestions that the agency be de-funded in the late 1980s. The 1980s were a decade of deliberate controversy, giving rise to Britain’s Turner Prize, named after J.M.W. Turner, who famously shocked early 19th century bluenoses, including the Queen of all Prudes, Victoria, with wild, out-there expressionistic paintings.
Today’s NEA would not provide funding to the artwork that fueled the 80s controversy and de-funding craze: Andres Serrano’s photo “Piss Christ.” Serrano has said he didn’t mean to spark the huge controversy resulting from the photo’s exhibition in a publically-funded gallery (the photographer had also received individual, direct funding from the NEA).
The NEA of the 80s had a reputation for nepotism, bi-coastal elitism, and little connection to diverse communities. A lot of that was deserved. Plenty of high-profile funding went to friends and relatives of administrators and favored members of Congress, and Manhattan gallery artists who didn’t need any extra money. Artists working in “flyover country” had little to no hope of receiving a coveted grant no matter what the quality or nature of their work. These problems weren’t just true of visual arts, but all of the arts, including dance, music, performance, and emerging art forms.
So much has changed. Now, all 50 states receive NEA block grants, and the funds are spent in modest amounts on local arts programs and communities. Individual artists no longer receive grants, eliminating the gender, geographic, ethnic and other biases observed in the 80s. The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers wrote a “must read” article about a 1 1/2 day trip through Indiana highlighting local artists and projects that show a vibrant, down to earth, worthwhile arts renaissance in the state, all receiving modest, reasonable funding from the NEA.
We do not need to have the same conversation over and over again. “Piss Christ” was exhibited five years before my daughter was born. I have had 3 different careers since my 80s expressionism-inspired shock-tastic, 6-foot by 6-foot painting “Babies on Fire” ended up on the cover of my first short fiction collection.
We need to talk about why we are having this conversation at all. I refuse to believe that the average American would fail to look up at the lions in Chauvet cave in wonder, or fail to see the worthiness of quilters, musicians, and a block of artist housing rescued and renovated from derelict wrecked bungalows.
We do all need to talk about why there is even a question that $3,000 shouldn’t be provided to Viki Graber to build a 30-foot woven tunnel using traditional arts (basketweaving) by a river in an Indiana state park, and a $16 million massive bomb, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever built, is casually dropped on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan. We need to talk about why there is no official discussion of $56 billion “extra” to our Defense budget and there are numerous members of currently-serving military families on Food Stamps and loudmouths think that it is “too much money” to spend to let Viki stay in an unheated cabin while she builds the woven tunnel by the river in the park. This is not a “stupid waste of money,” “conservatives.” If some kids and parents get something out of it and people learn about the traditional basket arts of which Viki is the 4th generation making them, it adds something to our world.
The NEA did have some problems in the 80s. It was bureaucratic, non-responsive and didn’t do the best job of spending its budget, which reached a peak of slightly less than $176 million in 1992. The 2016 NEA budget was $147.9 million.
The FY 2016 U.S. Defense budget is $582.7 billion.
The NEA made a goal of providing some funding to every U.S. Congressional district during the 2000s under the leadership of Dana Gioia, a brilliant poet who is now California’s state Poet Laureate. I have always loved Dana, not just for his beautiful poetry and spirit, but because he agreed to help me try to get a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature for Ursula K. Le Guin. Obviously as can be seen, I was a failure in that venture as in so many other things, but I did learn through the process that the nominations for that “prize” are pretty messed-up and the prize itself is not very meaningful these days, just as the NEA process has been poorly-managed from time to time since the agency’s modest beginnings in the late 1960s.
The current NEA programs are not only responsive, diverse and well-managed, they are doing something for all of us far beyond the agency’s absolutely miniscule — as compared to the U.S. Defense — budget.
Cutting the NEA budget is a symbolic, not a realistic solution to America’s massive spending problem (and that, is very real). It is a matter of priorities and values.
When presented with the facts about the #MOAB and the dozens of other more-costly U.S. Defense budget “programs” and procurements, I am certain that fewer than 5% of Americans would agree that these funds were well-spent, essential or important. If most Americans were fully-cognizant that many currently-serving military family members had to receive SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits to get by, they would possibly say “Let’s spend our funds on our actively-serving personnel and Veterans instead of myriad research and development programs or massive #MOAB bombs.”
If we make a comparison between the budgets and ROI of these various government entities, it’s easy to see that the NEA has not only made significant, important positive strides since the Newt Gingrich days of the 80s, it’s getting a massive ROI back from a minimal personnel and administrative budget. In 2015, the agency reported that 33 million people attended more 35,000 concerts, readings, exhibits or live performances funded by NEA grants, and NEA-funded broadcasts reached at least 360 million viewers or listeners. This is a cost of 38 cents per person who enjoyed art, music, dance, poetry, literature or a play thanks to our taxpayer dollars.
The #MOAB recently dropped was meant to kill an estimated 36 ISIS members in Afghanistan. We will disregard any others estimated to have been killed but I get a “taxpayer dollar cost per ISIS death” of $444,444 on that recent venture.
One of my favorite writers, Oscar Wilde, famously said,
“A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
Oscar concluded his battle with Paris hotel wallpaper as a very poor man on November 30, 1900. At that time, the United States’ Army budget was $134 million ($4 billion in today’s money) and there were 100,000 active and reserve members enlisted.
Today there are 795,000 active duty and reserve members of the U.S. Army with a total budget of $244.9 billion. This is an increase of 6,100% in funds expended in equivalent dollars.
I read the same articles “defending the NEA” years ago when Newt Gingrich picked up the banner to eliminate funding because of the idiotic “Piss Christ” controversy. The fault of that can be laid at Gingrich’s feet, at Bill Clinton’s feet, and at the feet of all those people at the NEA who so thoughtlessly provided funds to “favorites,” ignoring the thousands of communities, people and artists across the country. They were vulnerable to Gingrich’s attack. All it took was one ugly, distasteful photo as a slap in the face to millions of faithful Christians.
Then people worked hard, including Dana Gioia and countless people in arts councils and volunteer organizations across the country, and succeeding Administrations didn’t revert back to old ways of funding friends and relatives. Only 36 hours, and the Washington Post’s arts editor could drive across Indiana and put together a breathtaking article about the artists and organizations working miracles for next to nothing.
This is 2017, not 1987.
I don’t think it’s the NEA budget that should be questioned. I think it’s a big, fat, unauditable behemoth of nearly a trillion dollars a year expenditure that’s never realistically questioned, a behemoth that can’t even see to it military children are properly fed and that is making billions for fat, murderous brutes who don’t even live in this country.
Oh — and by the way — the direct grant to Israel for “the Iron Dome” and other military expenditures is $38 billion or 24 times as much.
Every year, the U.S. government parcels out more money than the current NEA budget to Liberia, Ghana, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and a dozen other countries with no questioning whatsoever. Those are the countries in the $150 million NEA range: far more than this is provided to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries. Colombia gets $235 million a year. Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Kenya each receive over $500 million a year. De-funding just one of these countries and reallocating the funds could quadruple the NEA budget. I know from working on international charity research that most funds of this type don’t benefit the residents of these countries, they are siphoned off — some by in-country corrupt governments, but most — to millionaire and billionaire friends and relatives of corrupt officials in this country.
Congress itself deliberately obscures how much it spends on its own offices, activities, staff, salaries, travel, food and benefits, but a 2013 “low ball” estimate of salaries and office allowances came up with a total of over $1.5 million in direct costs per each member of Congress, for a total of $805 million — so about 6 times the NEA budget.
Some of my friends have been talking “French Revolution” and it may be no accident that I most-recently wrote two books for which I needed to research that history, a time and place I had known little about.
No NEA or grant funding is needed to support popular entertainment like Mel Brooks’ films.
And Mel’s hilariously true message definitely resonates today. Not everyone who works for the government is “evil” or “lazy.” Dana Gioia, appointed to head the NEA by President G.W. Bush, worked very hard and accomplished many things, including expanding the Read Across America program and bringing NEA support to the entire country, not just the coasts and favored friends. Jane Chu, appointed to head the NEA by President Barack Obama, also has worked and continues to work very hard, leading the organization to accomplish great things.
Learn how to appropriately call your member of Congress. This link will help you find your representative.
Say “Please do not defund the NEA. I am aware the budget is very modest and will not make a difference in balancing the federal budget. This is the wrong agency to de-fund as a symbolic gesture. It makes a positive difference in our district. Please consider an increase in funding. Thank you very much.”
They say I am a fool. They say I cannot write. They say my work is worthless. They say “We want to read facts!”
You just did. Of course it’s a little bit of money. It is “the principle of the thing.”
I think Picasso was somewhat wrong in what he said while leaving Lascaux cave.
“We have invented nothing new,” he said.
No, he is wrong. There are many new things, including photography, film, animation, and what I am doing right now.
It is the value we have lost, I think. Those long-ago artists crawled through tiny cave openings and faced untold danger to paint their magical images in the dark. Some of the animals they painted are no longer living: cave bears, cave lions, mammoths, aurochs. Those who have studied the paintings think the images were perhaps a form of Neolithic film, for in the flickering light of an ancient lamp or torch, the animals come alive, and the paintings seem to move.
There were no #MOAB bombs in those days, no cell phones, no electric lights, no intercontinental ballistic missiles, no nuclear warheads or submarines, no McDonalds, no Red Bull energy drink.
There was the land, there were the animals, there were the rivers, the rocks, the streams and above, the sun and the stars. It was a world in which people could enter a secret underground world and paint the same image not 5 years or 50 years, but 5,000 years apart, and the image would look to the casual observer as if the same hand done it.
Today, we are so “civilized” we can spend the salaries of 400 teachers without thought to kill 36 ISIS terrorists with the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever invented, a bomb so big it had to be dropped from a cargo plane. Wonders! Magic!
Call your representative. It’s the least you can do. If you know a friend of the Trump family, apply that pressure too.