Cutting Federal Funding for the Arts Wouldn't Kill Them; Might Make Them Better

One bright spot in Donald Trump's very bad, very insane budget plan is his willingness to cut taxpayer-funded culture.


How bad is Donald Trump's budget plan for fiscal 2019? It's a disaster area, which somehow cuts a lot of little-bitty stuff while growing already-bloated federal outlays from an estimated $4.2 trillion this year to $4.4 trillion next year:

Washington Post

Give the president credit, though. He's diverted attention from his overall increase in spending and gigantic increases in deficits by driving critics crazy with proposed cuts to programs and agencies they love, such as the EPA, the Small Business Administration, food stamps (SNAP), and, of course, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and the Humanities (NEH).

From a representative writeup, at Hyperallergic, a newsletter that is "sensitive to art and its discontents":

[Like last year, the budget plan calls for] eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), among other programs. President Donald Trump's budget proposal includes a spending increase for the military, border security, and the ongoing opioid crisis, with his proposed budget for defense in 2019 swelling to a whopping $716 billion.

Although it's Congress that passes the federal budget each year, and the president's recommendations are merely that, this is the second year in a row that Trump has called for the elimination of the NEA and NEH. Trump's 2019 "Major Savings and Reforms" document calls for slashing the NEA's budget from $150 million in 2017 to $29 million in 2019. The NEH would similarly be cut down from $150 million in 2017 to $42 million in 2019.

The document cites as justification that enough funding exists outside of the federal government to keep the NEA's projects afloat…

We can agree that Donald Trump's budget priorities are stupid at best and philistine at worst. But there's still no question that federal funding for the arts is a bad idea for a number of reasons. For starters, it is true that philanthropic giving for the arts continues to rise. According to Charity Navigator, "total giving to charitable organizations was $390.05 billion in 2016 (2.1% of GDP). This is an increase of 2.7% in current dollars and 1.4% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2015." Those figures are the most recent and for the arts, things are better still: "Arts, Culture and Humanities saw an increase of 6.4% to $18.21 billion."

And that $18 billion is just for charity aimed at the arts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends around $2,900 on "entertainment," a category that includes movies, museums, concerts, and the like. Whether the NEA gets cut to $29 million next year or stays at $150 million doesn't really matter when you consider the amount of money we're willing to shell out for concerts, plays, galleries, you name it. I can sympathize with individual groups and artists who might see their funding cut, but that's not the same as saying the arts will suffer.

As Jim Epstein argued last year at Reason, federally funded services such as PBS and NPR are actively blocking innovative shifts to the internet and related platforms that make production and distribution cheaper and easier. Watch below:

When it comes specifically to the NEA, there is simply no question that federal funding is unnecessary to keep arts groups afloat. But that's not even the best argument against state-sanctioned culture. Back in 2011, Meredith Bragg and I also argued that

…Publicly financed art is easily censored art. Last December, the National Portrait Gallery almost immediately pulled a four-minute video called "A Fire in My Belly" after complaints from the Catholic League and politicians such as Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who objected to images of ants crawling over a crucifix. It's hard to imagine a private museum so quickly and cravenly pulling an offending piece. But when the taxpayer is footing the bill, the most easily aggrieved among us yields a thug's veto. Indeed, in February [2011], scandalized Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) even called for getting rid of a 1922 statue in New York City due to what he says is its sexist portrayal of women.

Given my druthers, I'd love to see Donald Trump recall his awful budget and issue a new one that is full of across-the-board cuts, especially to the big-ticket items such as defense, homeland security (really should be renamed the immigrant-removal service or something more honest), and a slew of mostly useless domestic programs that accomplish nothing more than padding the deficit. That's not going to happen, of course, any more than Trump is likely to get his way in terms of cutting the NEA and NEH budgets. But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't talk honestly about the likely results of such cuts, either.

Related: "3 Reasons Not To Fund Art with Taxes"

NEXT: Wired Thinks Free Speech Has Been Tried and Failed

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  1. I agree, Nick. But if I had a choice between funding missiles or funding crayons, I would go with the crayons.

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  2. There’s a lot going on in that picture.

    1. Bob Ross looks awful good for having been in the ground for over a decade, that’s for sure.

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  3. “Might Make Them Better”

    As an example: this was federally funded

  4. “Thug Veto” ALL government art

  5. Christ some people are so fucking stupid. You “vote” for art with your dollars, not with the government. Just go home and don’t poison anyone else with your lunacy

    1. Lunacy is the secret to success.

  6. I got into a fun argument once with a co-worker who bragged about being a communist, “not a Stalinist”, who wanted government to pay all artists to make art, as in regular pay for being an artist. I asked who got to decide who was an artist? The artists themselves, of course! So then I’m agonna paint circles all over the walls and call it art. Pay me! That’s not art! Sez who? Says me, says the communist/not Stalinist. But I say I’m an artist and that means I am knowledgeable about whether I am an artist.

    She never once twigged how sarcastic I was being, never once tripped over the logical nuttiness of the whole scheme. And she had a PhD, but it was on the role of women in the 1917 revolution, so there’s that.

    1. You could also point out to her that when government funds art, they inevitably exercise control over it.

      I recently got into listening to a 20th-century classical composer named Gyorgi Ligetti. He was Hungarian but fled to Austria from his native land. Why? Because the communist government wanted to dictate to him what kind of music he could right. His pieces had to sufficiently celebrate the worker’s paradise (in the opinion of some bureaucrat) or he would not be allowed to produce them or have them performed.

      We’re not talking about music with lyrics here. It’s strictly instrumental. I don’t even understand how instrumental music can even qualify as being pro- or anti-government. Leave it to some commies to figure out though.

      1. Music that was too experimental or theoretical was often decried as Jewish or elitist. Some governments preferred music that ended with a powerful resolution. Music that petered out or ended pathetically didn’t portray the finality of the Communist Revolution or the strength of the Worker.

        Socialist Realism was a related movement in the visual arts. Interestingly, Communist art was pretty conservative, especially considering how experimental art was in the West at the time.

  7. I doubt this is any more than a ploy to get people fired up about cutting Sesame Street, which distracts from the issue of the budget in general.

  8. Why does Nick think it matters how much the arts are funded privately? Funding the arts is simply not a legitimate role of the state, full stop.

  9. “A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!” – Robert Heinlein

  10. Our govt. should make a budget for all classes of people. But, sometimes it only helps to the upper class families. And, whenever they try to help the lower class then it doesn’t suit for the upper class. So, this gap will remain forever. And, we should understand the conditions of our nation.

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  11. Yeaaah, PBS seems to bring in plenty of cash from their stupid pledge drives. We don’t need no stinkin’ government funding.

    The thing about small insignificant things the government spends money on is that they really do add up when combined and over time. These are the very tiniest of dumb things, but many 1 billion a year, 5 billion a year etc things exist… The thing about these dumb little programs is that very few people will ever miss them when they disappear. Special interests? Sure. But not most people. And even the special interests will probably only have a single program they like cut, so it likely isn’t enough to push somebody to vote one way or another over.

    But combined it could cut hundreds of billions over time. It’s tough to wrangle, but killing entirely small things is in a way a very painless and stealthy way to cut spending. Clearly the big guns like defense, SS, need to be tackled, but taking some small wins is fine too.

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  15. especially to the big-ticket items such as defense, homeland security (really should be renamed the immigrant-removal service or something more honest), and a slew of mostly useless domestic programs that accomplish nothing more than padding the deficit

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