Political art

The know-nothing Bush administration makes one more attack on the arts. What you can do and why you should do it.
By EDITORIAL  |  February 13, 2008

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Tucked inside President Bush’s stinker of a 2009 budget — which, among its many inadequacies, compounds the essential dishonesty of his war in Iraq by grossly understating the costs of that fiasco, as well as of the war in Afghanistan — are a series of proposals that would shamefully cut funding for the arts.

Those Bush cuts would cancel out this past year’s congressionally sponsored gains in federal arts funding, which, though long overdue, are still woefully inadequate.

Also included in Bush’s budget, almost for good measure and for the eighth year in a row, is an attempted assault on public broadcasting, an emblematic target of right wingers’ scorn for anything that doesn’t cater to lowest-common-denominator culture.

Taken as a whole, these measures reveal a conservative penchant for stupidity. A stupid public is a compliant populace. And compliant voters trend right wing. Let them watch O’Reilly and listen to Limbaugh. It is triangulation, Republican style.

The goal of wing-nut Republicans, and more than a few conservative Democrats, is to abolish all federal support for National Public Radio and public television. But federal support for powerhouse public broadcasters such as WBUR and WGBH bridges the gap between solid and subsistent programming. For smaller outlets in rural or less affluent communities, government support is the difference between hand-to-mouth survival and oblivion.

Thanks to the leadership of Massachusetts congressman Edward Markey, odds are that this attack on smart programming will be defeated. Still, the long-term threat will not evaporate. If reactionary forces have demonstrated anything in recent years, it is that they will not be deterred by defeat. Persistence in pursuit of bad ideas is their perverse virtue.

In addition to “zeroing out” public broadcasting, Bush wants to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Of the major arts allocations in his budget, only the Office of Museum Services, which includes the Washington-based Smithsonian, receives a modest bump — for needed structural repairs.

Still, nothing exemplifies the right wing’s embrace of public ignorance more than its opposition to funding arts education in the schools. This position is beyond primitive. Even cave dwellers probably delighted in the animal figures they painted on their walls; not Bush, who has once again denied funding for school-based arts programs.

So ingrained is Bush and the right wing’s suspicion of culture and the arts that they ignore the very real and positive contribution the nonprofit arts community (in other words, not Hollywood and not Broadway) makes to the national economy.

It may not sound like much, but more than one percent of the American workforce is supported by nonprofit arts groups. That means more people make their living from the arts than from accountancy and law. The field of arts employs more people than the nation’s police forces, farms, and fisheries. Arts workers outnumber computer programmers, postal workers, and firefighters. When viewed in the proper context, the number of arts workers is staggering.

Undeniable too is the economic impact of the nonprofit arts sector. Total spending exceeds $53 billion by organizations and $80 billion by audiences. The tax revenues they generate exceed $10 billion for the federal government, $7.3 billion for states, and $6.6 billion for cities and towns. This impact is even more pronounced in Boston. In 2002, the city’s so-called creative industry — its seventh largest industry— added $10.7 billion to Boston’s total economic output, and $12.7 billion to the greater metro area.

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