How sniping the arts is Trump’s revenge kill

In this March 16, 2017 file photo, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks at the White House in Washington. The White House is instructing Cabinet heads and agency officials not to elaborate on President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts beyond what was in the relatively brief submission. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

My mother, who was a professional opera singer and is now a voice teacher and choir director, taught me to value art, and she had to, because this country does not believe in art’s inherent worth.

She read me Harry Potter, lent me books, some from my father’s collection – Graham Greene, William Faulkner, George Orwell, Mark Twain – and exposed me to classical music at a young age.

None of this made me well-rounded, quite the opposite. It focused my passion on the pursuit, protection and practice of art, which is essential to my existence, and manifests itself in music and literature.

I found a hero in a matriarch who berated my school superintendent to the point of making her cry because of her proposal to cut arts and music funding when I was a sixth-grader. The lesson imparted to me during that contentious time is one that has proven to be true over the course of history, and remains so today: when money is needed, the arts are the first to go.

Scapegoating the arts and humanities is easy in the United States, with its government’s lack of oversight on the financial sector and a culture that equates the accumulation of wealth with the execution of good deeds. Art of all shades would have collapsed within this country’s capitalist framework were it not for the individual efforts of artists, academics and patrons.

Culture and art progress for the purpose of profit, and if this is not the case, if it’s more organic, and unfunded, creativity has a harder time surviving or receiving exposure.

Eliminating monetary backing from the arts is a hallmark of repressive regimes. Take Zimbabwe, which looked to monitoring the arts in their attempt to curtail free speech. With language like “frivolous,” American art has been reduced to being “inessential,” two terms that are owed to America’s idolization of money and ignorance of the cathartic, healing and teaching power of art. America’s aversion to history, and acknowledging it, is another well-documented shortcoming.

That’s where organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEA & NEH) are supposed to pick up the slack. The problem is, these organizations have converged with Donald Trump’s looming presence, which effectively consumes all empathy and expressions of humanity in its wake.

The Trump administration chose to abolish the NEA and the NEH in his suggested budget, in addition to removing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, shaving science funding and eradicating the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The NEH and NEA combine for $300 million out of the United States’ $1.1 trillion budget, accounting for 0.01 percent of the total budget. To add to the absurdity, the budget stipulates a $54 billion increase on defense in 2018. This amount of money would allow the NEA and the NEH to function for another 183 years, and would bring Pentagon spending to more than $600 billion.

Trump, his surrounding cronies and his supporters are apparently indifferent to the financial subsidies and honors these organizations bestow upon our brightest artists and scholars. The inexplicable increase in military spending does not phase the followers, either.

Trump’s budget is a siren call to the far-right.

Another fascinating aspect of this is that it’s the first time a president has been in favor of entirely ending the endowments since they were instituted by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Trump’s own arts endowment liaison, Mary Anne Carter, said she would never have taken the job were the endowment to be purged. She has been silent since the news broke.

In sum, Trump has opted to increase a military budget that, Politifact notes, already spends more than the next seven countries do, combined, and in order to pay for it, he’s cutting programs for the poor, the arts community, academia and the public sector in general.

Hm. Do these groups sound like every liberal hotbed in the country? It is not inconceivable that a Republican president would make decreases Democrats disagree with. But when they are to this degree, and with this specificity, the goal of the budget is clear: to not only dismantle American liberalism, but individual liberals.

The budget is smothered with Steve Bannon’s sweaty fingerprints, the man who, with the help of Breitbart, has been waging war on the Left, which he views as a scourge, for decades.

Nothing positive will come from this budget. It is unfettered capitalism, unconscious greed, military industrial fetishizing and misguided hatred of elitism incarnate. There is no cogent thought process behind it. Rather, it functions as resistant, in that it’s anti-liberal and anti-intellectual (which have come to mean the same thing). It is a budget steeped in ideology, so much so that the word “artless,” while true, does not begin to cover its nature.

The name of Trump’s budget is, “A Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” Well, you’ve done it this time, Trump voters. You’ve made America great again by trying to rid our country of Philadelphia’s “Philadanco” and Dallas’s “Black Dance Theatre,” two NEA programs that promote culture in underserved areas. You’ve voted for a man who wants to rid our country of preservationist efforts in Kentucky, as well as theater jobs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, two tasks the NEH has taken on. You are behind a man who would like to destroy a project by the Massillon Museum in Ohio, funded by the NEH, which purports to “record stories, scan letters and photograph the uniforms of American soldiers who died in World War I,” according to the New York Times. You voted to obliterate endowments that assist in arts initiatives in Alabama and North Dakota, that support the Library of America, “Archaeological excavations of Jamestown” and “arts education in schools, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods,” per Slate.

You and your king have restored this nation to its former glory.

Neither the NEH nor the NEA are perfect, and this has been cause for alterations to the two in the past. Because of continued cuts to government funding, the reliance on private donors has ironically done what Republicans were afraid of, and increased elitism in the endowments. Any thorny policy back and forth goes over Trump’s head, though. He’s decided to delete.

The egregious recommendations made by Trump (or, more likely, by his band of ideologically-driven advisors) in his “blueprint” are sure to be felt in conservative corners of the country as well. Funding for the NEA and NEH has gone toward efforts to promote art and history in impoverished urban and rural areas alike. Trump and his ilk have opted to burn down a modicum of the national budget responsible for historical, cultural and artistic advancement due to little more than a vengeful whim.

Why? Trump’s budget is a breathing act of payback from social conservatives, directed toward Democrats for controlling art, culture and higher education for decades. It stinks of anti-intellectualism, the brand that John F. Kennedy bemoaned in his famous speech at Vanderbilt University in 1963: “The educated citizen knows how much more there is to know…that knowledge is power, more so today than ever before…The educated citizen has an obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, to promote exploration of the unknown…to support the advancement of research and to assist at every level of government.”

American artists have been subjected to pressure from the federal government before. It happened to Hollywood during McCarthyism and it happened to painters during the Cold War. Artists are usually liberal, which explains why attacks on our already ludicrously-low arts budget have come from the Right (Reagan was the first to bring arts funding to the altar). There must be Republicans out there who do not support Trump, Bannon and Pence’s cultural crusade. Please, stand up. 

Conservatives are hitting liberals in their stronghold, the one place where they can take refuge even when dark things – like Trump’s election – come to pass, that slice of solace found in movie theaters, galleries, libraries, laboratories, museums and classrooms. In the process, they are turning our utilitarian country into one that cares even more about business and bottom lines than it already did.

The question, then, is what will we do about it? We could be weakened, or we could grow stronger. In the coming days of the struggle, don’t forget what we fight for.

Update 2:05 p.m. March 22, 2017

This story has been updated to reflect a longer, more comprehensive opinion. The print version of this story was originally published by mistake.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu.