In the Absence of Federal Arts Funding

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by Earl Lewis

Since President Lyndon Johnson and a bipartisan Congress created the national arts and humanities endowments, no president has called for their elimination — until now. We should pause and think about what our country would be like in their absence.

In 1965, Douglas Turner Ward, a Southern-born, Northern-educated playwright, produced a satirical story of a town that wakes up to learn its black residents have disappeared. In “Day of Absence,” the white townspeople — played, in pre-“Hamilton” cleverness, by black actors — come to terms with their segregated world. There are suddenly no blacks to labor or clean; no blacks to be hated and used to establish one’s importance.

That same year, the U.S. established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, federal agencies designed to strengthen the possibility that scholars, artists, museums and other cultural caregivers could innovatively examine the world we share. For five decades, both endowments have done just that: served the interests of the nation. Even throughout the disagreement surrounding the funding of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and the “NEA Four” in 1989-90, our leaders, in a bipartisan fashion, recognized that the arts and humanities foster “mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of persons and groups,” as the establishing act promised, and are thus “vital to democracy” and an “essential” recipient of federal support.

Today, President Donald Trump has put those investments and their democratic contributions at risk, with a budget proposal that terminates them, forever.

The value of the NEA and the NEH to the nation’s affairs can be measured in innumerable ways. Their grants, fellowships and awards, to writers, museums, artists, communities and teachers have empowered two generations of ideas that might otherwise have never come to light, be they from red states or blue.

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