Defending the arts with the NEA on the brink of extinction

There has already been word filtering from the new administration that in order to balance the budget there would need to be a purge of liberal welfare programs like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as well as a call to privatize the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). But the cleansing is less financial than moral. The expenditures for these programs are so tiny in the scheme of things that it’s hard to make the case they stand out fiscally. Rather, they stand out as representing a set of values that the new administration and many Americans find insufferable. What offends these policy makers is anything wasted on values they themselves do not share and cannot conceive.

As the news has trickled out the response has often been surprise at how fragile a foothold these programs have. So much effort has been spent clawing for a share of the pie that the underlying problem of resistance to the arts and these other liberal frameworks has been largely ignored. It’s like someone arguing with the neighbors from their second story window while their house is burning beneath them. Our efforts to beg money from the government has deflected us from facing the fact that many many people have no real love for the arts. We congratulate ourselves on the small victories and ignore that we are actually losing the war….. We have been winning the wrong battles.

Others have convincingly written about what this all means and how we got here. Two essays in particular stood out for me in the last few days. Barry Hessenius wrote a sober yet ultimately hopeful post on his blog that is well worth reading. You can catch that here. Doug McLennan wrote an insightful analysis of some of the background issues that drove us to this point. You can read his post here.

It is certainly a wake up call that few were anticipating. It’s one thing to know you are disliked. It’s something entirely different to realize that they want to wipe you off the map, extinguish your beliefs, and crush your values. It’s downright scary knowing that as an artist they want to kill what makes you you. But this is the new reality and we’d better figure out what brought us to this crossroads and how we can move beyond it with our dignity and wellbeing still intact.

I wrote a response to Doug’s essay and I’ll repost it here. He makes some really good points, so you should read what he has to say. I fill in a few of the blanks and take it one step further. This is what I said:


This was a really interesting essay. For me it speaks to a kind of confusion that plagues us in so many facets of our lives. I especially enjoyed when you broke it down in your comment to Howard that “jobs and healthcare for all are the consequence of greatness, not the way you become great.” What we so often confuse are one way of taking an issue with other possible ways of looking at it. I’ll call the one you just highlighted mistaking causes and effects. As you put it, greatness causes there to be jobs and healthcare. They are the effects of greatness. What we confuse is taking greatness to be an effect of these other things. As if greatness were caused by having enough jobs and adequate healthcare.

You are right to make this distinction, because taking our eye off the real causes and focusing instead on the effects, even taking them to BE causes, puts the cart where the horse should be. Often we can’t properly tell our apples from oranges. It is important to know whether one is treating symptoms or the disease. If you focus on the wrong thing the patient sometimes needlessly dies…..

Another common confusion that you address in the essay is mistaking value and worth. We are so consumed with consuming that the commodification of our values always seems justified. We have simply traded our real values for what they are worth. We have auctioned off value to the highest bidder. We have put a price on everything that matters, as if it (and we) can all be bought and sold. What a strange culture!

I’d like to suggest another confusion that gets us into trouble: We also mistake ends and means. We are so hypnotized by these other confusions that we can’t see where true value lies. We spend all this time marketing the arts as instrumental and have abandoned the idea that the arts themselves have value. In other words, that the arts are not merely good for something else but are good in themselves. We have traded out the intrinsic value of things like the arts for the suggestion that with the arts you can bolster other social goods. All of which may be true to some extent, but it comes with a cost. It is no more true than that you CAN commodify values or seek the effects of effects and causes of causes. And the cost is no less horrific than turning our values into a stream of cash….. Thank instrumentality for that too. Is it any wonder that the NEA and NEH are threatened?

These confusions interfere with our thinking all the time. We confuse signs with ingredients, big with better, the necessary with the sufficient, meaning with truth, the map with the territory, trees with the forest, a job with a calling, strategy with tactics, precision with accuracy, differences of degree with differences of kind, and a whole host of other distinctions. We are not immune to making these mistakes. Important points of view are being swept aside in some mindless preemptive rush to settle on what we think is right. We need to step back from the headlong race to the cliff’s edge. We need to get a better handle on these perspectives, which ones help us and which do us harm. We need to investigate better and deeper, and at the same time unlearn the poisonous habits of our minds. Value is not a commodity. Greatness is bigger than our small ambitions. And means are not more important than ends.

It’s a different question for WHY the arts have intrinsic value, but I will leave you with this:

“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” -John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1780)

It took admitting the importance of the creative arts to justify these other pursuits. They were the means to that end. And if it took three generations or longer to bear fruit, so be it. We plant the seed and till the soil not for the seed but for the plant which may grow from it. And now we are contemplating erasing the NEA and public support for the arts. As you point out, the excuse of doing so as a way to balance the budget is a smokescreen for us having lost the ideal of the arts’ value in themselves. Rather than aiming toward a world in which our children’s children can study poetry, painting, and music we no longer count those things as value.

THAT is our problem. How did we get here? How did we lose sight of the value that to Adams drove three whole generations in its direction? How did that aspiration die? I suspect the bait and switch occurred when we began staking the value of the arts on their instrumental benefits rather than accepting Adams’ claim that the arts themselves were worth fighting for. It’s the same deflection that mistakes carts and horses. Instrumentality has substituted value for worth. We have sold the intrinsic value of the arts for the hope that their instrumental value will make the right difference. And it has failed.

There is some fundamental blockage that prevents this administration and many Americans from aiming at art, from valuing it, or from safeguarding it in our lives. This is what we are not understanding. And we will continue to reap the benefits of our ignorance until we figure it out.

Things to think about, at least.


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Defending the arts with the NEA on the brink of extinction

  1. We are watching these events unfold from Canada and feeling your pain. How sad it is to see rights, programs, advances suddenly become vulnerable to the whims of a charlatan.

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