Slouching Toward Bethlehem: American Barbarism

“The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them … Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Thus spoke Sir Winston Churchill about the special, vital place of arts and culture in the national life. Churchill was a staunch defender of the values and accomplishments of Western Civilization: liberal democracy, the rule of law, a vibrant press, and the fine arts. As noted in a past post, Churchill was a respected author and an artist of some talent. Ironically enough, President Trump names Churchill as one of his historical and political heroes.

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Is this our current moment? If so, we’re failing to answer the call. Poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917 (Courtesy of Library of Congress).

Certain figures within the Trump administration subscribe to the theory that a declining Western world is under attack by militant Islam and a reinvigorated China. For a moment, let’s presume that this idea is true. If American and Western civilization are besieged and endangered, shouldn’t we study, promote, and cherish what makes us unique, essential, and daresay superior? Namely, our history, our culture, and our art. These images and stories can empower and inspire us to struggle and fight for our people, our nation, and our way of life.

During the darkest days of World War II, the forerunner to the Arts Council of England was founded in Great Britain to promote British culture in 1940. While consumed by the Allied war efforts and preparing for America’s inevitable entry into the conflict, Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in March 1941. Clearly, art and culture matter, even in wartime.

However, the Trump administration and Congressional Republications perceive little to any value in culture. They certainly do not believe that the government bears any role or responsibility in supporting culture. This is reigning conservative orthodoxy. Reports continue to surface that all–yes, all–funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting sits on the chopping block. If American civilization is under threat, why are we aggressively stripping it of any value? What are fighting for?

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Another false conviction is that art funding just goes to big cities and effete elites. In fact, eliminating the NEA, NEH, and CPB would cripple arts organizations and PBS stations in smaller, less prosperous urban areas and especially rural communities. Thriving metropolises, such as New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, have deep and diverse donor bases and strong cultural infrastructures.

A rural community might experience live theater by attending a summer Shakespeare festival funded by a modest NEA grant. A small-town public library might be able to digitize its local newspaper thanks to a NEH program. Residents of an isolated hamlet might be able to watch an orchestral performance on their local PBS station.

If the federal government withdraws from the project of educating and enlightening the American public, such communities and such people will likely lose access to culture, the arts, and high-quality television and radio programming. Such a loss will require those respecting and desiring the arts and culture to leave for a big city, perpetuating the brain drain and further weakening the cultural and civic infrastructure of such communities. The downward spiral of huge swathes of America will continue.

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts operated on a slim budget of $146 million dollars. Many summer blockbusters are backed by more money. In comparison, the French Ministry of Culture posted a budget of $3.2 billion dollars (US) for 2017. According to my rough calculation, France spends 95% more on the arts than the United States federal government. Mind you, the United States population is over 324 million; the French population is 65 million: the American population is five times that of France.

If our culture is teetering, shouldn’t we do all we can to support it and even strengthen it? Shouldn’t we attempt to shape a shared identity, to tell the stories of our history, to proudly demonstrate that we are not the barbarians. That we are civilized.

If we are merely barbarians, maybe we shall meet the fate of all such cultures. Few examples of our words and art shall survive. We shall be forgotten.

 

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