Maybe you think that tree hugging, starving artists don’t play a role in your life. But if you go to the opera, dance at your fave bar, see movies or binge-watch TV, you’re proof that the arts are as woven into our lives as breathing. As is the case with breathing, you likely don’t think about it unless you’re becoming short of breath. President Donald Trump is threatening to make us breathless. His administration wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, various media outlets have recently reported. (The White House hasn’t confirmed or denied the reports.)
The NEA and the NEH each received $148 million, only 0.003 percent of the federal budget, during fiscal year 2016. Yet, though their funding is only a minute part of the federal budget, the support of these agencies has been crucial for artists, poets, musicians and small publishers and community groups nationwide. Why should we, especially the queer community, care that the NEA and NEH are at risk of being axed? Because the arts are what differentiate us from animals. Historically, LGBT people have turned to the arts – for consolation, entertainment, illumination, protest and enlightenment – from Bette Davis in “All About Eve” to James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” to Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Without the arts, the vital fabric of our life will be ripped to shreds.
Given the anti-gay, anti-immigration, misogynistic and racist views of many in the Trump administration, I can’t help but wonder if Trump’s wish to abolish the NEA and NEH isn’t politically motivated. Since spending on these agencies is a tiny percentage of the federal budget, it’s ludicrous to claim that eliminating them is a cost-cutting measure, Sarah Browning, executive director of Split This Rock, a D.C.-based national poetry organization that works for social change, emailed me. “Instead it’s a direct attack on dissent,” she said, “Artists and writers and librarians and museum staff these are the folks who raise questions, imagine alternatives to the unjust status quo and promote critical thinking.”
The organization received $40,000 from the NEA this year. A small sum, but a significant boost to its modest, non-profit budget, Browning said. The funding helped Split This Rock to provide writing and performance workshops for school students and to offer workshop and publication opportunities for adult poets. “These programs feed the soul,” she added, “they build our cultural democracy.”
The arts are as American as apple pie. It’s hard to imagine our cultural life without the arts. As I write, it’s near halftime during the Super Bowl when Lady Gaga will perform. It’s hard to imagine stepping back from a national commitment to the NEA and NEH, Hiram Larew, a D.C.-area gay poet emailed me. “It would feel like we are repudiating our love of the arts celebrated in Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty and even our Star-Spangled Banner, said Larew, author of the poetry collection “Utmost.”
Arts are a hallmark of a civilized society. “The arts are the only record we have of human sensibilities since the beginning of time,” Grace Cavalieri, founder and producer of “The Poet and the Poem” for public radio, emailed me, “art distinguishes masses of people from what we now have as ‘civilization.’”
Without the arts there is no civilization, Cavalieri said, “Just a mass of living forms slugging through the daily mud of existence…ISIS has no funding for the arts.”
Though the NEA and NEH budgets are tiny, eliminating them would be devastating to many small arts groups from theaters to museums nationwide. As Clarinda Harriss, a poet and publisher of BrickHouse Books told the Blade, “ceasing to nurture our artists would be a sign of toxic cultural decay.”
President Trump, don’t eliminate the NEA and NEH. Let’s maintain our cultural democracy.
Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer is a regular Blade contributor. Her collection ‘The Uppity Blind Girl Poems’ was published by BrickHouse books.