Civilisation on the chopping board

Trump's budget cuts to the arts is a mode of divide and conquer. It is a strategy we need to resist, says Jonathan T.D. Neil

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

The Trump administration has released its budget proposals for 2018, and as expected, on the chopping block are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – the big three pillars of what conservatives and Republicans have long denounced as the federal embodiments of liberal elitism, political correctness and media bias. For those of us engaged with the arts in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts is the banner that cannot be allowed to fall.

There is little doubt that we will muster every argument that we believe might thaw what we believe to be the cold hearts of our new legislative masters – eg that the arts contribute billions of dollars to the US economy (US Bureau of Economic Analysis; americansforthearts.org); that the arts are leaders in rural economic development (ruralgeneration.org); that the arts provide proven, cost-effective health treatments (National Intrepid Center of Excellence); that the arts are essential to educating creative thinkers and raising overall academic performance (artsedresearch.org).

All of this is true, and so we will write letters and tweet about it to our congressmen. We will organise sit-ins and marches. We will mount messaging campaigns, and they will be beautiful and entertaining and piercing, because we’ve got the artists and designers and dancers and musicians on our side. We will believe that we are doing the right thing, that we are on the right side of history, that our righteousness is authentic and true and so deserving of the fight.

And we won’t be wrong, but we will be making a dire tactical and strategic mistake.

Trump’s budget is the beginning of divide and conquer. It is the start of a protracted negotiation not just with Congress but with the American people, and it has all the markings of Trump’s standard operating procedure

Trump’s budget is the beginning of divide and conquer. It is the start of a protracted negotiation not just with Congress but with the American people, and it has all the markings of Trump’s standard operating procedure, which is to go ‘big’, to ‘maximise options’ and to ‘get the word out’. Every big proposal to come out of the Trump campaign or White House has been designed this way, from the border wall with Mexico to the projected growth of the US economy. In every instance, the starting salvo is regarded as extreme or outlandish. It’s designed to be so, because this is the anchor, the point of reference that sets the boundaries for the rest of the negotiation.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Trump’s first joint address to Congress, during which he was lauded for not coming off as crass, vulgar or unhinged. That he was applauded for finally appearing remotely presidential was a function of his prior behaviour anchoring everyone’s expectations to the crass, vulgar and unhinged character that he is.

Furthermore, Trump isn’t proposing to end funding for just the NEA, the NEH and the CBP, he’s calling for the elimination of 16 other independent agencies – such as the African Development Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – and for gutting the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent), the State Department’s international development programmes (29 percent), as well as the Agriculture (21 percent) and Labor (21 percent) departments.

Such a wide array of targets does a number of things. It gives the Trump administration all of the options it needs to give and take in its negotiations. It sets all of the variously vested interest groups scrambling after whatever dollars and attention they can get. (We in the arts will be just one of many constituencies vying for our small piece of the paltry discretionary pie.) And it ensures maximum media exposure through maximum outrage and anxiety, which guarantees that the anchors are being set far and wide.

We know the arts are instrumental. Even the US Congress understands this. Title 20 of the US Code, which established the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities (of which the NEA and NEH are parts), ‘finds and declares’ that ‘an advanced civilization... must give full value and support to [all] branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future’, and that ‘the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.’ In this, the ‘encouragement and support’ of the arts and humanities are ‘appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government’.

We need to remind Congress of this. And then we need to do and demand more. We in the arts need to form coalitions with reporters, with scientists, with scholars of international affairs and professional political operatives, with NGOs that provide crucial assistance to impoverished peoples and regions around the globe, with lawyers, with labourers and with advocates for the most vulnerable among us. (This used to be called the left, but perhaps it needs a new name.) Their causes and issues need to be ours. We need to protect funding for their agencies and programmes and staffs and beneficiaries as if it was funding for ourselves. And then we need to demand more of it, much more of it. It’s time to pitch the anchors in the other direction. 

From the April 2017 issue of ArtReview