The handwriting was on the wall even before the inauguration. We should have foreseen the imminent demise of the National Endowment for the Arts when President-elect Trump offered the chair of that body to Sylvester Stallone. (Ironically, one suspects that Stallone would have been a spirited defender of the NEA for however brief its continued existence might be.)
But brief is the operative word. The new Congress has made it clear that the arts funding body, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are all doomed in the next federal budget.
The endowments were created in 1965 with a broad base of support on both sides of the aisle in Congress. The impetus behind the funding (never more than miniscule, so claims of fiscal responsibility ring comically hollow) was the desire to help cultural institutions survive, making arts and culture available to regions and populations that might otherwise not have access, to fund arts education, scholarly research in a range of fields that might not otherwise produce enough revenue to self-sustain and to create a body of art — literary, performing and visual — that would reflect the vibrant creativity of the American people.
The bipartisan nature of the initiative is a reminder of a markedly different time in American public life, a time when my father, a life-long Democratic Party activist, could explain to my 10-year-old self that his closest friends were Rockefeller Republicans, “because there are more important things in life than political parties, and friendship is at the top of the list.”
It was also a time when Americans — even members of Congress and the cabinet — didn’t measure the success of a tax-funded venture solely by its financial returns, when the so-called free market wasn’t the yardstick by which everything is judged.
In a sense, this turn of events is a perfect storm for those who now control all the branches of the federal government. They can claim concern for the budget deficit as the immediate cause of the cuts. They can offer ideological justifications for letting the marketplace determine the future of artistic endeavor, humanities scholarship and the balance of broadcast content. They can proclaim their commitment to ideological neutrality by destroying the supposedly left-leaning public media. They can pat themselves on the back with one hand, all the while selling off public bandwidth and broadcasting air at knockdown prices to their friends in the private sector.
Why, the question must inevitably be asked, is this a concern to readers of The Jewish Week? Where is the Jewish content in this column?
In fact, there are many Jewish issues at stake in the proposed elimination of the NEA, NEH, PBS and NPR.
It would be belaboring the obvious to claim that many of the scholars, artists and arts institutions that receive federal funds are Jewish, even disproportionately so. The reality, though, is that many of the programs under the axe are designed to promote a greater diversity of voices read, seen and heard in American arts institutions. The issue is not so much the inclusion of Jewish writers, painters, choreographers or humanities professors; rather, it is about inclusion of the viewpoints they represent, even the ones squarely in the mainstream.
Does anyone honestly believe that broadcasters outside of the New York metropolitan market would consciously choose to program the wealth and diversity of Jewish-themed shows that the CPB in its many incarnations has provided? Who will make up the funding shortfall for Jewish arts organizations that will inevitably follow the death of the endowments? I have already spoken with arts programmers in New York who are pondering that very question with dismay.
What the soi-disant libertarians don’t factor into their balance sheets is that a supposedly free marketplace of ideas is by its very nature designed to leave minority voices muted if not silenced altogether. In a battle of competing toothpaste brands, that may not have massively deleterious effects, but in a democratic society, those voices must be protected, nurtured, sustained.
To be blunt, as the film and television critic for this periodical, I may deplore the blandness of much of the Jewish programming on PBS, but replacing it with silence would diminish the American polity even more than it would my paycheck. While the latter would certainly make me unhappy, the former would be tragic.
George Robinson’s column appears every other month.