With the news of Trump’s executive orders on immigration, another key decision could be overshadowed—the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) are at risk of being defunded, while the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) could be privatized. This would eliminate 2300 arts and 882 humanities grants, saving a total of $741 million [1]. Though excessive government spending is certainly an issue, the arts should not be the focus of political concern.

The goal of these budget cuts is, ostensibly, to save money. Granted, the cost of each of these funds is below $200 million annually, less than the budget for a single Trump hotel [2]. All three combined represent only 0.016% of all government spending [3]. Clearly, these cuts will save very little.

Of course, very little difference is not the same as none at all, and you could argue that when it comes to eliminating inefficient spending, every dollar counts. Certainly, many of the projects funded by these organizations have doubtful practical, or even artistic, value. The list of grants described as “silly” or “wasteful” includes pieces such as a video game based on Thoreau’s “Walden Pond,” or a dance project called “Doggie Hamlet” involving competitive sheep herding [2].

But any large-scale program is bound to have hits and misses. For every target of ridicule and every “Doggie Hamlet,” there are also wildly successful grants like “Treasures of Tutankhamen,” which attracted millions of tourists to museums across the country [1]. Government funds were involved in sixteen Pulitzer Prize-winning books and the creation of the Sundance Festival, which sold over $95 million in films last year [3][4].

Evidently, for those keeping track of the accounting, arts and humanities funding is a worthwhile investment. The culture and entertainment industry adds over $700 billion to the American GDP, including a $24 billion trade surplus. While it is hard to tell what portion of this is the direct result of government support, cutting thousands of grants would surely do significant damage. In addition, these agencies support low-income communities, which are the target of 40% of NEA funds [1]. Public broadcasting like PBS delivers educational programs to families who may not otherwise be able to afford them. Defunding these agencies will save a pittance, but cost a fortune.

The heart of this issue is therefore not about economics. Arts and humanities funding doesn’t cost money so much as it costs votes. The problem is a sense of “cultural elitism,” as the right-wing Heritage Foundation calls it: a sense that the NEA and NEH do not respect the views of most Americans. In particular, the Heritage Foundation points to such pieces as “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays,” writing that “A radical virus of multiculturalism has permanently infected the agency, causing artistic efforts to be evaluated by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation instead of artistic merit.” [5] The Foundation seems to believe that these projects are pushing a left-wing political message which does not merit taxpayer funding.

Such comments misrepresent the purpose of the NEA, NEH, and other such agencies. They do not care about politics; they care about self-expression, from arts therapy for veterans to small film studios in the Appalachians to local radio stations for rural Nebraska [2]. The Heritage Foundation may not appreciate it when this self-expression happens to involve race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but that is not a legitimate argument against arts and humanities funding.

The fact is, publicly funded projects are in many ways responsible for the cultural and social heritage which the Heritage Foundation claims to be so proud of. They create intangible value by stretching the boundaries of expression and improving well-being, and in many cases also create tangible value to the tune of many millions of dollars.

This issue is probably best summed up by a quote from Robert Wilson, who testified in front of Senator John Pastore in 1969 regarding the building of a particle accelerator. Pastore asked Wilson if this accelerator had any national defense applications. Wilson replied,

“It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.” [6]

Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/arts/design/donald-trump-arts-humanities-public-television.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/01/donald-trump-arts-and-humanities-budget-cuts

[3] http://www.vulture.com/2016/01/list-of-movies-sold-at-sundance-2016.html

[4] http://fortune.com/2017/01/19/trump-arts-economy-cuts/

[5] http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1997/04/bg1110-ten-good-reasons-to-eliminate-funding-for-the-nea

[6] https://history.fnal.gov/testimony.html

Op-eds are opinion articles that reflect the views of the author, but not necessarily those of the Editorial Board or of The Reckoner as a whole. Please note this important distinction when reading this article.