Eliminating funding for the arts and humanities rips at our cultural fabric

Possibility of complete elimination of arts and humanities programs poses threat to American values

What does America mean to you?

Every ASU student will respond differently to such a question. Namely, things like freedom, democracy, and diversity come to mind. But one thing that gets lost in the fray is the importance of arts to America’s cultural ethos.

Whether it be our long history of innovative filmmaking, our poetry or the Great American Novel, America has certain cultural values that simply can not be ignored. The art we create is not just domestic either— it is broadcast all over the world stage, where it showcases the diverse and innovative nature of our country.

So naturally, I was alarmed when The Hill reported that the (then) Trump Administration transition team had proposed a number of major cuts to the federal budget, including completely eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The main role of both agencies is to provide grants to those participating in the arts and humanities across the United States. For the Endowment for the Humanities, that means libraries, museums, colleges across the United States. For the Endowment for the Arts, that means helping to fund artists and art-related projects all across the U.S.

To cut funding for the arts and the humanities is to cut at the fabric of American culture itself. These are the programs that help build our libraries and museums, that help provide innovative artists with the funds they needed to aid their creative expression. Those things just wouldn’t be there to the extent they are without any government funding.

Louis Mendoza is the director of ASU’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies. He has worked with the National Endowment for the Humanities before, including a couple stints as a co-principal investigator in selecting teacher awards for secondary school teachers. Mendoza says that both agencies are very important to the arts.

"Each of them play really important roles in this country with respect to supporting arts and research, and studies of our culture and history,” Mendoza said. “They not only look backwards in our nation's history, but also fund cutting edge research.”

Mendoza was not especially surprised about the recent report, given that there has long been a debate about whether the government should give funding towards the arts. He says for many in the conservative movement, there is a notion that funding the arts is just funding liberals and/or cultural elites. 

Such a thought is ridiculous, if only because it assumes that all artists are some hippie east coast liberals. Like every other profession, there are artists of all beliefs and creeds, conservative, liberal, and beyond. And that's one of the thing that makes our country great. 

Mendoza is right in that this is certainly not the first time that there have been attempts to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts’s funding for an artist who created a controversial photograph of a figure of a small crucifix submerged in urine, known as Piss Christ, ignited a congressional debate about arts funding. The controversy eventually led to a reduction of the agency’s budget from $162 million to about $100 million, although it eventually rebounded.

Mendoza says that highlights of such controversial pieces of art were often just means to cut arts funding.

"They use one example to want to simply eliminate all government support for industries like this,” Mendoza said.

Ultimately, Mendoza says that while private funds do go to the arts, having a neutral source of funds from the U.S. government to fund artistic expression is extremely important.

"If we believe that culture is important, that intellectual creation is important, if we believe that we want to have a neutral source of funding, government should in fact be involved in this because it's for the country's own good."

The National Endowment for the Arts and The National Endowment for the Humanities cost taxpayers about $300 million dollars per year. That may sound like a lot, but in a federal budget which falls around $3.7 trillion dollars every year, it is practically nothing.

Many conservatives say that funding for the arts is inefficient, and that the government shouldn't be involved in it at all. And maybe that would make sense if billions of dollars were going to arts and humanities at the detriment of social services or other important departments in need of funding.

But at a relatively small cost in comparison to the rest of the federal budget, this funding creates grants throughout the United States, whether it be at the art studio, in the museum or in the poetry seminar, all in the name of the artistic expression that makes our country great. 

Artistic expression is what America was built on— it captivates me, and most likely has captivated you too at some point in time. Cutting funds to artists who likely won’t survive without them is not what America is about.

Reach the columnist at Marinodavidjr@gmail.com or follow @Marinodavidjr on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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