One of the questions in our newly configured nation is: what’s going to happen to the National Endowment for the Arts?
We have a Republican administration that’s talked about potential broad cuts across government (one article suggested cutting the NEA and the the National Endowment for the Humanities entirely). The idea that the arts will be a symbolic battleground seems tragically unavoidable.
So what do we do in the arts community in the blue Californian bubble and beyond?
Number one: let’s recognize it’s not about the budget.
The annual budget for the NEA is less than a third of one percent of the Federal budget. This is a symbolic gesture not a fiscal one. Like so much of our current politics it is designed to create outrage and tempt distraction. Afterall, it won’t be just the arts that will be under assault. As Douglas McLellan wrote in Arts Journal, “It’s bigger and more insidious. It’s a vision of a country that doesn’t believe in collective public greatness. It’s the commodification of American values reduced to the profit motive.”
So number two: it’s about the arts but it’s also much larger than that.
The challenge, for the arts, will be to articulate those ideals in the broadest, most inclusive framework possible. Here’s where the arts need to bear some of the responsibility for the pickle we’re in.
While we may have finally reached the precipice, this is an erosion in our cultural foundation that’s been occurring over decades. In a recent keynote at Center Theater Group, Diane Ragsdale charted this decline across the past three decades as a shift in the justification of arts from “culture for the culture’s sake, to culture for the sake of solving social problems to culture for the economy’s sake.”
We, in the arts, have chased after the magic metric that would justify our work rather than doing the difficult work of articulating something larger and more profound. We, in the theater community, have opted for easy answers rather than difficult conversation both in our work and in our discourse.
So what can the theater do?
For starters recognize that the unmediated experience of art is a precious and vital gift more valuable than ever. Bearing witness to an event with your own eyes and being given the opportunity to think critically, emotionally, and empathetically is not a luxury, it’s a survival skill.
Theater can, if done well, capture the spirit of something greater than the individual self. It can remind us that there’s something more important than profit and that’s being human. Theater can, as it does in a Greek chorus, provide a collective morality and conscience.
What the theater can’t do, what we can’t do, is be lazy.