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Opinion: Cutting Funding to Arts isn't Good Business

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My sister, Danni, is a portrait artist in D.C. Believe it or not, the city isn’t a bad place to be one. If you walk through the halls of any government building, the walls are usually covered with oil paintings of one former chief administrator or another, and more than a few of those were painted by Danni. She actually has a better setup than a lot of New York or Los Angeles artists in the sense that she doesn't have to pay some blood-sucking gallery owner 90 percent of the take. And if you factor in all the law firms around here that like to have their partners immortalized in oil, Danni does OK. She doesn't get the same critical accolades as, say, an NYU dropout who dumps goat urine on her head while reciting free form poetry about patriarchy or whatever, but I’m pretty sure she doesn't care about stuff like that.

She knows more than a few artists who have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and she has always given them the same advice: Once you get the grant, take a few days and churn out either a portrait of Reagan or a depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg, and make it bigger and broader than anything else that you do with the grant money. Make sure that you have it ready to unveil at a moment's notice in the event that some grandstanding politician decides to make a Jesse Helms-type stink about how the NEA should be abolished. After all, the Iwo Jima sculpture at Arlington Cemetery is technically a government-funded work of art too, but politicians never seem to talk about how we should stop funding art of that sort. So to be on the safe side, if you are making art on the government’s dime, throw a gun or two in the mix.

Threatening the purse strings of the NEA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, NPR and PBS is a time-honored tradition for conservative politicians. In fact, during the debate Wednesday night, Governor Romney promised to cut funding to PBS, which I’m going to go ahead and assume means that he would also cut the funding to NPR.

As an aside, Americans seem to have a ridiculously inflated idea of how much money PBS and NPR take in. A recent survey indicated that folks believe that NPR and PBS funding accounts for five percent of the federal budget. That would be $178 billion. I know that premise to be completely false for one reason - I have had to sit through those excruciating pledge drives that happen about once a month on all of the local NPR and PBS affiliates. Anybody who tries to sell you an Tom Baker-era Doctor Who tote bag or a Benny Hill Show coffee mug for fifty bucks certainly doesn't have five percent of the federal budget to play around with.

In real life, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets about $420 million a year, which is about .01 percent of the budget. The NEA and the NEH got $161.3 million last year to divvy up between them, which is certainly a lot of money. In fact, $161.3 million is enough to buy one and one fifth of the 196 F-22 Raptor jets currently in our arsenal. So if you take all the 2011 funding for the CPB, the NEA and the NEH, it would only take you 58 years to equal the amount of money that we spent on super advanced warplanes that can’t seem to get enough oxygen to their pilots. Antiques Roadshow might put you to sleep, but at least it doesn't do so because of asphyxia.

The conservative argument against such funding is that anything that can’t make a profit doesn't deserve to survive. They can gussy it up all they want to with free-market genuflection, but when you boil it down, survival of the fittest is exactly what they mean. Cut these guys loose from our purse strings, and if their product is any good then it will survive just fine. But when they say things like that they are entirely missing the point of what all this funding is supposed to be for.

With regards to the NEA, expenditures on American art and culture are absolutely valuable, and I mean that in both the heart-warming and literal definitions. The supplies that Mark Rothko needed to create his paintings would have been the 1950s equivalent of $60 and a trip to Home Depot. Those canvases sell for a little under $90 million nowadays. I believe that’s called “a good return on an investment.” The federal government gives away millions in small business grants every year, and when they do, they are taking a gamble that somebody can create something profitable and worthwhile. As far as I’m concerned, NEA grants accomplish the same thing.

And sure, I can dive into the strictly for-profit world to be entertained if I want. I can turn on the TV, watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and have advertisers tell me to buy an “ab-roller” or Axe body spray and end up hating myself and all of humanity, or I can drive over to the federally subsidized Kennedy Center and watch Dr. Lonnie Smith crush it on the Hammond organ with his trio. I can go the Archives and see the actual Constitution without paying somebody $30 for the privilege. I can go to the Smithsonian and see George Washington’s actual, honest-to-god uniform for nothing. I’m happier about my tax dollars going to all of that stuff than I am about my cable bill going to Honey Boo Boo.

When it comes to NPR and PBS, conservatives level the additional charge of rampant liberal bias, presumably because nobody on the staff of The NewsHour or All Things Considered is frantically searching for footage of a pre-teen Obama planning a bank heist with H. Rap Brown like they are on Fox News.  

But while we are considering the notion of bias, maybe we should take a moment to also consider how NPR and PBS work. They are not beholden to advertiser dollars, nor are they beholden to ratings. If you turn on PBS, you are likely to get the news. If you turn on any cable news station, you are likely to get a 45 minute play-by-play of some meth-addled cleetus leading the State Police on a high-speed freeway chase. That’s great and all, but PBS doesn't have the budget for that sort of thing, so they just have to stick with the facts.

Thank God.