It’s three fighter jets. Or the cost of putting up the POTUS’ family in New York instead of Washington for the next four years. Or 1/1000 of the U.S. military budget. For just slightly over a buck and a half per citizen per year, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities fund over 50,000 annual events throughout the country. They’ve made possible Ken Burns’ documentary on The Civil War. Sponsored publication of American classics in the Library of America series. Funded institutes on rural and urban design. Kept local theater alive in hundreds of communities. Helped teach kids to write, draw, and paint.
In 2006, the NEH also gave me a small summer grant to spend some time in Kokomo and Elwood, Indiana, researching a hunch about the American plate glass industry and its effects on Chicago architecture. Without that grant, Chicago Skyscrapers would never have happened. Admittedly, finding out that the largest plate glass factories in the world once graced the Indiana countryside isn’t the same thing as curing cancer. But multiply that by hundreds of scholars, artists, performers, and designers getting small boosts, being able to devote a few weeks here and there to questions about who we are as a country, or what it means to be an American, or even just to create in our world, and you get things that are of tangible value, even if they don’t immediately reflect a fiscal gain.
The difference between those two things is really one indicator of the depth of our political divide today. Do we even bother to spend 1/12,000 of our national budget on such questions? Some of us think that’s a good investment, and that rewarding the top 5% or so of scholars and artists practicing today (and yes, that’s how competitive the NEH and NEA grants are these days) is likely to pay off in new knowledge or meaningful experiences that will make us, if not immediately wealthier, more thoughtful and appreciative as citizens, and more aware of the complexity and depth of the world we find ourselves in. Today’s proposed elimination of these two agencies is another symptom of an epochal decline and fall in American culture.
We read the front page, the saying goes, to find out what our country has done wrong. We read the arts page to find out what our country is doing right. The balance between the two is being lost, and this is cause for genuine despair.