Can Mitt Romney Really Kill Funding For The Arts And Sesame Street?

As the Internet recently discovered, Mitt Romney has decided that it would be a good idea to eliminate all federal arts funding. When asked in an interview with Fortune Magazine where he would cut to make his budget plan viable, Lil’ Mittens responded:

[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs — the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.

Perhaps the most prominent federal arts funding organization, The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has had its tussles with Washington in the past, and conservative politicians often object to certain types of work getting the federal stamp of approval (see Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscenity trial, the NEA 4, and David Wojnarowicz’s getting kicked out of the Smithsonian in 2010). But the government/artist relationship hasn’t always been that way.

The National Endowment for the Arts was created as a bi-partisan effort by Congress in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson. Federal arts funding had been available before as a part of the WPA (the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project), but those programs were meant to employ jobless artists and writers after the Great Depression. This was most famously taken on between 1935 and 1944 by the Farm Security Administration, who employed photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks (who, incidentally, has a show in the lobby of Tisch right now) to travel the country and document the effects of the economic crisis.

The NEA, however, was founded to fund artists for reasons more philosophical than their physical need for food. It came from an era in which President Kennedy, a huge arts supporter at whose inauguration Robert Frost read a poem (though not the one he intended), recognized the “hundreds of thousands of devoted musicians, painters, architects, those who work to bring about changes in our cities, whose talents are just as important a part of the United States as any of our perhaps more publicized accomplishments.” Funding the arts was once seen as essential to supporting the idea of American freedom (ca-CAW) because artists are supposed to have a special sort of free expression which allows them to operate from outside the cultural milieu.

One form of censoring that free expression is to remove the tools artists find necessary – i.e. the ca$hmoney necessary for supplies/publication/food/shelter/paint-splattered overalls/whatever. As Harry Hopkins, an administrator of the New Deal who had a hand in the Federal Arts Project, explained it: “They’ve got to eat just like other people.”

To put it into perspective, the US’s defense budget for FY 2011 was $1.735 trillion. The NEA’s budget that year was $154.69 million. That means that the NEA’s budget was 0.00891585% of the defense budget. Let’s review: Lil’ Mittens could cut less than one 1000th of a percentage point from the defense budget and continue to fund the arts at the (insufficient) level the government is now. So clearly, Lil’ Mittens’s decision to defund the arts is not a fiscally motivated one.

Even ignoring the dollar amount that supports artists who apply for grants from the NEA, the idea that our federal government in some way supports artistic expression is critical to a very popular idea within the GOP: American exceptionalism. We have an exceptional commitment to freedom of expression in this country, and defunding the arts would severely undermine that commitment.

And also, PBS?! Are you forreal?

1. (How high could their budget even be? Have you ever seen the Antiques Roadshow?!)
2. #WarOnElmo
3. If you kill the Antiques Roadshow, you will literally kill my mother. Parent-murderer!

(Image by Julia Berke)



One Comment

  • Britton T. Burdick
    September 6, 2012

    Artists in general act as a mirror held up to a country’s culture: they reflect the crises, struggles, and triumphs that a society goes through. However, defunding federal subsidies is hardly tantamount to “censorship.”

    As you quoted, Artists “have got to eat just like other people.” Last time I checked, everybody else had to work for their bread and butter, not wait by the kitchen table for their to arrive by a government owned truck, cooked by a government employed chef.

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