#91, we need the NEA and NEH to know how to imagine ourselves as a nation
This #100hardtruths was shared with me by my friend and mentor, Laura Wexler, the esteemed feminist scholar of photography and Principal Investigator of the NEH-supported Photogrammar Project:
“Fake news has it that we must sacrifice the NEA and the NEH for better stewardship of our national wealth and interests. It is claimed that these agencies are wasteful and unnecessary. But in fact, they are among the most important investments our society can make. By their means, we increase our chances to understand who we are, and thus to envision how we might better proceed. Their conceptual roots are in the alphabet agencies of the Great Depression when a staggering economic crisis called for a political shift in the way that the United States cared for its population, in some ways not unlike the present moment.
A few hours after his inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt swore in his entire cabinet en masse, so as to hit the ground running. In the next 105 days, in the depths of the emergency, in un-ending special session, Congress created and passed the Emergency Banking Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the Truth-in-Securities Act, the Glass-Steagall Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. The new president was able to persuade millions that they had “nothing to fear, but fear itself.” In all, there were 15 major bills. It was a vigorous and astonishing three and a half months.
The contrast with the current 100-day count-down could not be more stark. From the shocking disarray of presidential appointments to the ugly attempt of Congress to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, to the amplification of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, to the spate of executive orders designed precisely to undo whatever could be undone of what remains of the New Deal’s legislation and spirit, Trump’s first 100 days are the Bizarro version of the earlier period.
Today, at day #91 of the Trump administration, we have plenty to fear, including fear itself which is shaking millions awake at 4:00 am. Among the weighty judgements our new president must make is how to apportion federal funding. Hanging in the balance is funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts, among others. These programs, many of which were proudly created in the 1960s in an echo of the Federal Arts and Writers’ projects of the 1930s, are on the chopping block of Trump’s proposed budget. Defenders have rushed to explain that redirecting their relatively meager funding will do very little to relieve the national debt, while they pay for themselves many times over through the amplification they provide for public history and public art. So, for instance, Graham Bowley wrote in The New York Times on March 16, 2017:
The two-endowment agencies each receive about $148 million a year now. The budget for public broadcasting, currently $445 million, has been more consistent over the years. Together they still account for only $741 million, or much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending, an amount supporters say is too small to make a difference.
Mengqi Sun wrote in the Christian Science Monitor on March 17, 2017:
Though the budgets of the four agencies are negligible in the larger scheme of federal government spending – $148 million each for NEA and NEH, $445 million of CPB, and $230 million for IMLS – the federal dollars are often used to leverage state, local, and private funding.”
And Michael Cooper and Sopan Deb wrote in the New York Times on March 17, 2017:
Proponents of preserving endowment grants are increasingly speaking of them in terms that many Republicans can love – as investments that spur job creation; as public-private partnerships that award grants that are matched by private donations; and as programs that help returning veterans or people who live in rural communities.
But these defenses, though factual and earnest, and maybe even necessary, are themselves a species of “fake news.” To our adversaries, no matter how small we make ourselves, it will never be small enough. However little we claim to cost, we will still be too expensive, and however much we claim to multiply value, we will be worth too little. The premise is fake. We are aligning ourselves with the disrespect of our adversaries while attempting to gain their regard. We are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs while being shoved into a corner. It is hurtful to see.
The real news makes a much larger claim: that the Federal government benefits from the CPB, the IMLS and the NEA and the NEH not because they save money but because they support another economy: that of the nation itself. This larger expenditure is in the currency of self-recognition. For calculations about the NEA and the NEH, neither the “E” (money) nor the “A” and the “H” (arts and humanities) are as important as the “N” (national). The reason to fight for the NEH and the NEA is not because we need them in order to have arts and humanities, which we will have in any case, but because we need them to know how to imagine ourselves as a nation. As in Betsy deVos’s hands the voucher system systematically aims to destroy the public schools, in Trump’s hands the destruction of the NEH and the NEA aims to voucherize the public itself. But the public cannot be supported by special interests and wealthy individuals because those are specific and exceptional rather than representative actors.
During the Great Depression, under the direction of a brilliant young economist named Roy Stryker, Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration sent more than a score of American’s most accomplished documentary photographers out into the field to take photographs that would show Americans to one another as “deserving” of government aid. This was done, if you will, under the sign of “fake news,” that is to say, the economic argument that New Deal programs of social support were saving far more than they cost. In point of fact, the enemies of the administration did not allow most of the programs to reach their full potential. No matter what the factual ratio of cost to benefit, state supported welfare was seen as creeping socialism and as something to be beaten back.
But the real news is what happened anyway. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, John Vachon, John Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Esther Bubbly, Marion Post Walcott, and many others took the opportunity to work extravagantly beyond bounds to make a collective portrait of the spirit of the American people that is unsurpassed, one of our greatest national treasures.
I am Principal Investigator of the NEH-supported Photogrammar Project, codirected by Lauren Tilton and Taylor B. Arnold. Photogrammar has made an interactive, geospatial map of the more than 170,000 photographs produced between 1935-1945 by the Farm Security Administration and its successor, the Office of War Information. Because Photogrammar makes this enormous archive of images so easily searchable, it is possible to see at scale the extraordinary extra expenditure these artists laid out in the work that they did, work that had no need to be as fine as they made it. Most of the images were circulated in newsprint-quality reproductions or in government reports. Much less effort would have sufficed. And yet, the government got more.
Why? Because the FSA photographers became committed to telling the real, as opposed to the fake, news. Because they did not economize. Because as government employees, on modest salaries, they learned to recognize the need for true extravagance – to reimagine a nation for the regular everyday people injured and insulted by the structural violence that buffeted their lives.”
- “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval,” Graham Bowley
- “What America without the NEA and NEH would look like, and why that matters,” Mengqi Sun
- Republicans Start Lining Up to Fight for the N.E.A. and N.E.H., Michael Cooper and Sopan Deb
- Photogrammar Project