This week I’m going to see a half dozen films at the annual RiverRun International Film Festival in the town next door. It isn’t Sundance or Telluride, but it brings our neighborhood a chance to see over a hundred films.
This year some are from far-flung places like Bolivia, Cuba, Tunisia and France. Others were crafted by graduates of the local School of the Arts. There are animated films, documentaries and dramas. A few have big name stars, but most are tiny independent films where artists of the future get their start.
This festival, like others around the country, is good for the local economy and for the local population, bringing it entertaining and educational films we would otherwise have no chance to see. And RiverRun, like so many arts organizations — purveyors of dance, arts education, theater, visual arts and museums, is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
It is one of 128,000 given over the last 50 years. Most, like this one, are relatively small, but the prestige of such a grant probably helps the recipients raise funds elsewhere. It’s a kind of arts seal of approval, and over 40 percent of the grants go to regional or local arts organizations like RiverRun.
The cost for both the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the vast sea of government spending, is a drip, about $1 per American, a fraction of what they’d pay for a small Coke or popcorn at the multiplex. For this minuscule drain on the budget, the NEA has helped bring film festivals like ours to many locales, Shakespeare to school kids in 3,900 small towns who might never see live theater otherwise and tens of thousands of other boons.
The NEH does similar work to fund research, education, museums, archives, libraries and individual scholars in the humanities. Their grants have helped preserve and digitize six million pages of early American, historically-important newspapers, to underwrite the tour of shows like The Treasures of Tutankhamen, the making of historical documentaries like “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, the publication of the Library of America volumes, and scholarship that has led to the award of 15 Pulitzer Prizes.
Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate all funding for the NEA and the NEH, but a panel he appointed to study the matter concluded it was money well spent and he relented. Newt Gingrich, who was gung-ho to spend money on NASA’s more far-fetched pipe dreams but uninterested in supporting the humanities and the arts, also tried to kill these programs, but failed. Too many people in too many places around the country spoke up for them.
Now, the barbarians are at the gates again, led by vandal-in-chief Donald Trump. He once vowed to preserve several priceless art deco architectural carvings when he was angling for permits to tear down a landmark building to make way for one of his gaudy towers. But as soon as he got the permission, he decided it would be costly to removed the friezes carefully so reduced them to dust before anyone could blow the whistle.
This is hardly a surprise coming from a man who lives amidst cultural plenty and yet is on a lifelong fast. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” But Trump put himself on the bread and water diet. We know he never reads a book, has no familiarity with American history or literature, does not frequent museums, galleries, opera, the theater, dance companies, libraries or the symphony though they are all just an elevator ride away from his artless aerie.
Millions of Americans would love to have, for just one day, the opportunity to partake of the intellectual and artistic riches available to Trump for the last 70 years. Most live in cultural deserts, comparatively speaking, and many would find it hard to afford the price of a ticket for the haute cultural events that surround him.
Luckily, the NEA and NEH bring a smidgen of these riches to regular folks like many of his voters everyday. But Trump aims to put a a stop to that. His budget calls for the extermination of he NEA, NEH and Public Broadcasting. Why not? He is a soulless man who would never miss the absence of all the sustenance they provide, but millions of Americans will. Some men may live by bread, and golf, alone, but lots of people need the food for their hearts and minds that the arts and humanities provide.
In Shaw’s “Heartbreak House,” Ellie Dunn says her soul hungers and is asked what her soul eats. “Oh, a lot. It eats music and pictures and books…In this country you can’t have them without lots of money; that is why our souls are so horribly starved.”
For half a century the NEA and the NEH have been running a soup kitchen for American souls. For a rich barbarian with no appetite for culture to shut them down is a crime against not just the arts and humanities, but against the people who hunger for them, and the many young people who have yet to learn what they are missing.
The benefit is great and the cost trivial. A year of funding for either organization is what the Pentagon spends in two hours, what one man, Trump, declared as income on his 2005 tax return, ten percent of what Americans spend on Valentine’s Day candy, two percent of NASA’s annual budget, or the price of one nuclear bomb.
Chances are, wherever you live, a local artist, scholar, school, college, library, arts organization has benefited from NEA and NEH grants. Call, write, email or visit the office of your local representative or senator and tell them not to kill NEA, NEH, Public TV, National Parks and all the other programs that enrich American lives.