The 2018 federal budget proposed by the White House called for the elimination – elimination, not reduction – of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I guess the swamp Trump vowed to drain includes the arts.
Last month the Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives, hardly a liberal commune, rejected Trump’s priorities and passed a bill that continues funding for those three agencies. The House bill includes $145 million for each endowment. That represents a $5 million cut to each agency; a cut, yes, but a far cry from Trump’s hatchet. Don’t dare anyone suggest a budget increase. The House bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Arts in the U.S. do have a credible economic case to make, in addition to their cultural and moral importance. In 2015, according to a report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts contributed more than 4% to our nation’s GDP, coming in at $704 billion. Compare that to agriculture and mining, which combined contributed 3% to GDP.
Being a liberal enclave does not assure support for the arts either. This week voters in King County, the area that includes Seattle, voted down a .1% sales tax increase to improve access to arts, science and heritage programs. 55% of voters rejected the proposal. Besides reservations about increased taxes, voters had concerns about how the funds would be distributed.
The majority of artists in Seattle, indeed throughout the U.S., are impoverished. I cannot name one stage actor in Seattle who makes a living only on her stage earnings. And Seattle is a dynamic theatre town! I did some quick research on the annual payroll for the Seattle Seahawks football team and Seattle Mariners baseball team. Each payroll runs north of $120 million. Add in the Sounders soccer team and you have an annual Seattle sports payroll in excess of a quarter of a billion dollars. And that is just for the players. Coaches and administrative staff are in addition. Not to be overlooked are the grand stadiums those highly-paid athletes perform in, which were partly funded by taxes. Just as for any family’s expenditures, how a society spends its money reflects that society’s values and priorities.
What is it about American history and culture that saps our support for the arts? Is it because the Enlightenment drove a wedge between art and religion and our roots, planted as they were by Puritans and Pilgrims, who distrusted art as the devil’s work? Or did our enthusiasm for untrammeled capitalism spill over to the arts? (“The worth of the arts shall be judged by their profitability.”) Or perhaps the arts are just collateral damage in the far-right’s zeal to slash and burn anything that smacks of “government.”
Or could the problem be class resentment? We like to pretend we are a classless meritocracy. Ask an inner-city black teenage boy applying for jobs about that. Or better yet, visit Trump territory and order a grande caffe mocha with soy and sense how fast the barbs get flung behind your back. Art is for the elites, Nascar for the deplorables, to use the word Hillary most wishes she could take back from her presidential campaign.
Travel with me now to Germany. I’ve been learning a little about its arts scene as a result of German interest in my play, Das Ende, which is about the German composer and dramatist Richard Wagner and his Ring cycle. According to Thomas Schmidt, a theatre professor and veteran arts administrator in Frankfurt, German government funding is $2.6 billion for theatre. That does not include any of the other arts. Contrast that with the NEA’s entire budget of $150 million. (This is not a direct comparison since the NEA’s budget does not include state and local arts funding.) Germany’s population, which is forking over the taxes to fund its arts, is one-fifth the size of ours.
Music is another area where Germany supports the arts with tax-supported funding and public attendance. According to the German Orchestral Association, more than 18 million people attend classical concerts in a year there. That attendance is considerably more than for soccer games in Germany’s main professional league.
Last month President Trump visited Hamburg for the G20 conference. The program one evening was Beethoven’s Ninth “Ode to Joy” Symphony. Trump apparently was enjoying himself, as his head was seen bobbing to the melody. Trump and fellow world leaders were enjoying their Beethoven in the new Elbphilharmonie, a stunning concert hall designed by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron and costing 860 million euros. Alex Ross, the New Yorker magazine’s classical music critic, had nothing but praise for Germany’s newest art palace: “The entire place exudes loftiness, in terms of both height and cultural aspiration. Nevertheless, because of public funding, tickets are more affordable than they are at the Met or the New York Philharmonic. Youngsters in sweatshirts and jeans mingle with the burghers.” (One feature is a two-and-a-half-minute ride on a curved escalator that terminates with vertiginous views of the harbor and city; see this video.)
As I contrast Germany’s support of the arts with our own, perhaps I ask the wrong question. Would it be more insightful to ask why Germany is generous rather than seek reasons for our antipathy? Might it just be that German citizens, acutely aware of their country’s descent into hell in the 20th century, recognize that art appeals to our better angels, and for such nourishment they are willing to pay?
Seen beside Germany’s generosity to the arts, the U.S. shambles like some Third-world nation, in decline. To close with a word our President likes to use in his Twitter posts – shameful.
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