Art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning. ~ Aristotle
It’s not only artists and philosophers who understand the value and power of art and artistic endeavors, how the same inspires us and changes our lives for the better. Winston Churchill, UK’s former Prime Minister and British Army officer, many years ago said, “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.”
Imagine a world without art, without culture? How do we exist in a world void of culture? How do we express ourselves? How do we comfort ourselves? How do we rid ourselves of ruinous emotions? How do we redeem ourselves?
We can’t, we don’t, we won’t. Our primal urge to create works of art, however, will not end by way of Trump’s blunt spear, but it seems our new administration and our intellectually, culturally, socially and morally challenged POTUS aim to point us toward a second Dark Ages.
But it won’t happen. This morning, I attended a cultural conversation about arts and humanities led by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse—a longtime ardent supporter of the arts and the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—and hosted by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. In the audience were many artists—writers, poets (including Rhode Island’s poet laureate Tina Cane), storytellers, musicians, actors, painters, photographers and the like—all of whom are understandably anxious about Congress’s zeroing out of funding for the arts.
Of the NEA defunding, Whitehouse said that the “bottom line is a horrible budget out of [POTUS], but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter.” The budget process, he said, has become a theatre, and the real bottom line “is where the budget meets the road [which is] at the Appropriations process.”
And a glimmer of light. Because the road has paths that lead to alternative funding. And because Senator Whitehouse, as well as Senator Jack Reed and other RI representatives believe, know, that our artistic community is integrally linked to our state’s economy. And because the NEA’s budget is only 4/1000s of our entire budget. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities each have budgets of approximately $148 million a year. Add in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at $445 million (as of the end of January 2017), and combined we spend only $741 million dollars on our arts and humanities programs, which is “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.”
It was roughly six years ago that NEA’s then acting chairman, Rocco Landesman, praised RI’s artistic community. “There are three key ingredients for the arts to thrive:” said Landesman, “a local tradition of the arts, a committed philanthropic sector, and political leadership that ‘gets it.’ … The arts are flourishing in our state,” he said, and that “is a great testament to the dedication and support that began with Senator Whitehouse, and indeed, all of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation.”
Six years later, Senator Whitehouse is still fighting for the arts. It was an encouraging moment (yet sad) when the senator promised that “[Art and Humanties] programs are going to be significantly cut, but only over our dead bodies.” Saying that “arts are a critical part of every young person’s education,” he reminded us that through art, young minds learn to think creatively and critically, which translates to better scholars and collaborators. Though we already know this, don’t we?
Seems our youth do, too. At the meeting, two fifth grade girls (twins) from Warren asked the final question: “Why can’t we do so much more art in elementary school?”
The U.S. owes it to itself to sustain and encourage the arts and humanities. We know this, our children know this. But how to convince our country, our communities, of the importance of the arts? “You can’t bargain with these people, Whitehouse says. “You can’t stand up to a bully by saying maybe if you take my lunch money I’ll keep my hat.” While congress may be driven by statistics, the senator says that they’re also driven by the power of story. Nothing is more powerful than story. “Tell your story. Go to your passion,” says Whitehouse. “Show individual cases where what you do makes a difference; [by using] emotional appeal in your argument [you can] control the narrative in Washington.”
Defunding cannot silence us, cannot break us. Tell, show, your story from the top of every mountain to the bottom of every valley. Write, speak, act, paint your story. Let Congress know how the arts have impacted your life.