The Trump budget is actually a big disappointment to anyone who wanted to see Republicans take a hatchet to federal spending. Trump’s request for $1.151 trillion in discretionary spending in 2018 is actually slightly more than the $1.145 trillion President Obama had projected we would need for the same year.
So why are people hyperventilating about it? Why is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wailing that this is what it must have felt like in the last days of the Roman Empire?
That’s right, we’re about to go the way of the Romans because we’re not spending enough on bread and circuses.
Partly, this is the same Kabuki theater we get every year, in which anything that is not a massive increase is portrayed as a draconian cut. But the main reason people are upset about this budget is because it targets programs which are pretty insignificant in terms of actual spending but are culturally and politically important to anyone who is left of center: public funding for broadcasting, art, and the humanities.
The Trump budget proposes to zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. That’s why Nick Kristof thinks this is the end of civilization, because unless the federal government shunts money to these activities, we all know that they will completely disappear. There will be no more art, no more ideas, no more broadcasting.
What’s that I hear you say? The NEA and the NEH were established in 1965, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, and somehow human culture existed prior to those dates? Astonishing. It’s almost as if people, not governments, create art and ideas.
The reason why these specific government programs are considered so necessary to the left—and so repugnant to the right—is actually pretty obvious. Everyone knows it. Government funding for art and ideas is well known as a giant slush fund for the political and cultural left. Nobody has any doubt what political spin PBS and NPR are going to put on their news coverage. (“NPR” is practically a synonym for self-important upper-middle-class liberalism.) The National Endowment for the Humanities is yet another subsidy for the universities, which have become miniature one-party states. And a review of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts reveals numerous examples of politically tinged art that ranges from the tendentious to the downright propagandistic—from the Environmental Film Festival and “climate change-themed public art installations” to a play about anti-gun lesbians.
Needlessly to say, no such funds go to pro-Second Amendment plays or celebrations of traditional marriage or—God forbid!—movies expressing skepticism about global warming. Everybody knows this is how it works, so spare us the hyperventilation. If you make public art partisan, you can’t complain when it becomes a partisan issue.
Far from being some kind of cultural or artistic progress, this partisan politicization of art is a reversal of centuries of progress. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, artists and intellectuals were largely dependent on royal and aristocratic patrons, or on commissions from the Church—and they frequently chafed under the political restrictions and artistic conventions imposed by those patrons. By the 19th century, however, the wealth made possible by the Industrial Revolution, combined with a vast expansion in the educated population, opened up a wide commercial market for independent writers, scholars, and artists. Rather than seeking a powerful patron, they could support themselves with the sales of their books or art to the rising middle class.
Artists and intellectuals had achieved their liberation from the necessity of being servants of power. So naturally they rushed to revive the institution of patronage and find a new power to serve. They think it will be better this time because they are the new aristocrats who will control their own patronage—or at least people like them, people sympathetic to their outlook, will control the government purse strings. Which bring us back to the point I began with: government-funded art and ideas tend to support only a certain kind of art and ideas—art and ideas that reinforce the existing establishment.
And what an uninspiring establishment it is. Aside from the fashionable lefty politics of federally funded art, what strikes me most about it is the general dull mediocrity. The defenders of government-funded art talk as if it’s supporting the next Michelangelo or Mozart. Instead, it’s funding a lot of cloying little plays that sound as interesting as a root canal. “Set against the backdrop of the 2008 US presidential election, the play follows a racially diverse group of Harvard intellectuals who interact personally and professionally for several years, each confronting issues of racial bias and stereotyping.” Oh, yay, a lecture about race. Because we never get that anywhere else.
To be sure, some of this public money goes to old-fashioned, uncontroversial recipients like your local symphony or opera house. But that’s the most galling part about this. The people screaming about how culture and art cannot possibly exist without government support are usually the same kind of people who have spent the past fifty years promoting the “counterculture” that was dedicated to tearing down everything that came before.
Not only did art and culture exist before 1965. It was generally better, more beautiful, more meaningful, more sophisticated. In the 1950s, mass audiences tuned in to opera on the radio and Shakespeare on television, and publications like the University of Chicago’s Great Books series became commonplace on the shelves of earnest, aspirational members of the middle class. You can still find them in used bookstores and antique shops. Then the counterculture of the 1960s came along and chucked them all out as the dead remnants of the past.
The counterculture never succeeded in creating a vibrant and appealing new high culture. But it has largely succeeded in depriving the arts of a younger generation of audiences by excluding the previous thousand years of cultural achievement from their education. They grow up largely unaware of history in general, and especially of the history of art and music. This leaves them without the intellectual tools to appreciate it or grasp what it’s all about.
Money is not the problem. The problem is the absence of any real conviction that the top achievements of Western Civilization are important enough to pass on. A smattering of federal funding is not going to make up for the death of the highbrow and for things like the mass abandonment of classical music.
In the mid-1950s, “The New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast drew a listenership of 15 million out of an overall population of 165 million.” Today, on selected Saturday afternoons you can go see The Met Live in HD at theaters across the country. I go to them regularly, and I am always disappointed to find that there is hardly another person there under the age of 50, even in a university town.
That may seem a bit like the collapse of Roman civilization, but it didn’t start with Donald Trump and it has little to do with the flow of federal funds. We are a wealthy and educated society, more so than ever before in our history. Yet too many people treat support for culture the way they treat charity for the poor: not as something they personally need to do, but as something that ought to be done out there somewhere with somebody else’s tax money by a government bureaucrat.
If we wanted to pay for high culture, there could be an enormous market for it and plenty of money for its private support. If that isn’t happening, that’s because our high culture has been abandoned by the supposed cultural elites, who are too busy writing Beyoncé thinkpieces. For them to complain that culture is dying because the feds aren’t doing something about it comes across as crocodile tears.
If we’re concerned about the survival of culture, we don’t need political slush funds like the NEA, the NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We need our own attention and effort. Culture, like charity, begins at home.