What’s the role of public art when the very idea of the public seems under assault? When the country elected its first black president, many saw chance to redefine “American culture.” It felt for many like the White House could finally become a platform for representing those who had historically suffered erasure, dismissal, ridicule or caricature in the public sphere, could now be represented in their fullest, most genuine selves. From Stevie Wonder gigging at the President’s house party, to the pitch-perfect droppage of sarcasm bombs on Between Two Ferns—the presidency seemed strangely, alarmingly…kind of cool for once.
Eight years on, under President Trump, we now know it was too good to last. Though cultural curmudgeons have been threatening to pull the plug on National Endowment for the Arts and related resources for decades now, many fear that Trump might actually follow through on this.
According to a draft plan the Trump administration appears to be considering, arts funding may be one of the first casualties of Trump’s impending culture war. Featuring his signature combination of aggressive vulgarity and warped white-Christian “purity,” Trump seems poised to claw America back to a two-dimensional identity hovering between ignorant bliss and angry anti-elitism.
The defunding plan favored by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which Trump may look to as a guide, targets the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities as bastions of government “waste.” A combination of privatization—spinning them off to the corporate sector—or simply zeroing out their already paltry budgets, is seen as fiscal prudence. Yet this cesspool of federal profligacy somehow manages to employ over 4.7 million people and generate over $700 billion annually for the economy. Much of this is now in peril, facing with the potential loss of federal support. But for communities of color and historically underrepresented artists, the loss of state support represents a much heavier burden.
While Washington is often associated with the "establishment," since the New Deal, some of the most progressive public art has come from federal resources. The infusion of arts funding that the Roosevelt administration provided for writers, artists, dramatists and other creatives who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression created new platforms to highlight the stories of the ordinary Americans: of urban black neighborhoods and the forgotten poor of the Dust Bowl, of southern folk artists and Harlem’s avant garde, of the struggles of Japanese American prisoners at Manzanar, and Mexican migrant workers in Imperial Valley. This was the first opportunity for the margins of America to be foregrounded in its central public narrative.
So it’s not surprising when the Trump administration threatens to take an axe to the one of few dedicated federal resources that has ever invested in unheard, untold, and invisible American stories. The folks that brought us Sesame Street, and who have supported a rising generation of urban playwrights in Hell’s Kitchen, may soon find themselves struggling much, much harder to earn a living.
Does that mean these artists will vanish without federal funding? True artists will persevere, with or without government support. But what they do stand to lose is the validation of being incorporated into the national collective story. No, validation isn't everything, but it is vital, marking a kind of public consensus on the dignity of a body of creative work. By contrast, as Suzanne Nossel of PEN America explains: "Even apart from the essential resources at stake, the signal sent by this gesture is a slap in the face to artists, writers, researchers, and scholars who are learning that the Administration seems to consider their work worthless." The question of the relative "worth" of the arts is also particularly cruel in light of the contrasting worldviews at play. In numerical terms, the money saved by cutting the federal arts budget is the equivalent of perhaps the installation of golden toilets in all of Trump's hotels.
So The Trump administration represents a segment of the country that finds real art to be “elitist”, “arrogant,” or detached from “real America.” But that’s code for an underlying hatred of identities that no longer speak to what they think “real America” is about.
But in response to the threatened defunding of the arts, poet Bob Holman (who, as self-styled Minister of Poetry and Language Protection of the arts advocacy group U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, has led grassroots storytelling programs across the country), sees a renewed role for the arts in Trump’s America.
Our nation is plowing huge sums into corporate tax-breaks and the world’s largest prison system. Since 2001, the United States has spent more than $8 million an hour on the War on Terrorism. With a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion, why not allocate $1 billion—a tiny fraction of one percent—for jobs that nurture cultural democracy and reduce strife?….
Practicing the empathy, creativity, and social imagination needed to strengthen our bonds following November’s election, we can save our communities, rural and urban, and shape a livable, more equitable future.
What are we going to do about this? What can we do? Now, it may seem preposterous for a president like this one to be keen on empathy or creativity. But the sad thing is no one may even bother to challenge him to do so. It’s rational to assume Trump won’t seriously invest public resources in the arts, but let’s be clear about why not. The President isn’t worried about elitism in state funded cultural production; he’s worried that artists will be able to see through his lies. While claiming to speak for a forgotten country, Trump encourages his followers to forget who they really represent.
—February 3, 2017