Trump's War on the Humanities
Tiara Sharma | April 14, 2017, 11:59 a.m.
On March 16, Donald Trump released his first federal budget plan — “America First" — becoming the first president to propose fully eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This plan would also privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds vital public television and radio stations such as PBS and NPR. With the funds saved from cutting the NEA and NEH, Trump proposes that Congress boost military spending by 10 percent, or $54 billion.
He also insists on a six percent increase in funds for the Department of Homeland Security, including $2.6 billion to begin construction on his infamous border wall.
The total annual budgets for both the Arts and Humanities endowments are approximately $300 million, a small fraction of Congress’ $1.1 trillion of annual discretionary spending.
It is nothing short of remarkable to think that a politician could entertain the thought of slashing this $300 million in order to build a wall that represents everything that art and the humanities force us to unlearn.
The NEH and NEA give grants to countless local stations, art groups, and non-profit organizations who mobilize communities around art, music, literature, and theatre. In a report advocating for the elimination of the NEH and NEA, The Heritage Foundation, a conservative political think-tank called the endowments “welfare for cultural elitists.” However, the local organizations that benefit from the Endowments must match their federal grants with their own private fundraising. Therefore, the federal grants are simply a way to incentivize and support community efforts to fund public art and humanities.
As an English major, I am a firm believer in the ability of literature and art to open our eyes to the complexity and resilience of communities. The narrative that art is a means to unite people has been regurgitated over the centuries. While I do not disagree that art has the unique ability to facilitate connection and understanding, I think this can be a limited evaluation of art’s potential.
The humanities push people to become better thinkers and creators and to see the world through a critical eye. They also provide a unique perspective into the crossroads of fields such as politics, religion, art, literature, and philosophy, ensuring that we constantly examine our surroundings through a pluralistic lens.
The humanities are symbolic of the fact that no art is entirely singular and monolithic; writers and artists constantly influence each other, thus making the study of intertextuality so enriching. A text or piece of art can at once embody innovation and tradition, contemporaneity and antiquity.
What fascinates me more is how art has served as a tool of resistance for marginalized communities, a conduit for survival under conditions of oppression, and a assertion of ownership of both one’s own identity and one’s production of art.
One of the NEH’s and NEA’s most important roles consists of dismantling the myth that art is only for the privileged and granting marginalized communities the ability to participate in the arts. In fact, 40 percent of NEA-supported organizations are based in high-poverty neighborhoods and 33 percent of NEA grants serve low-income audiences.
This year, 3Arts, an organization that offers fellowships for disabled artists among its programs, the Chicago Hip-Hop Day Festival, and Project STEP, which teaches classical music to children of color in Boston, all received NEA grants. In addition, the NEA awarded a fellowship to Lin-Manuel Miranda to help him write "Hamilton".
Although the NEA and the NEH should increase the number of grants that benefit low-income communities, abolishing these Endowments, contrary to what The Heritage Foundation believes, ensures that art will cater only to the elite. Any president with common sense and any concern for the nation’s future would strive to reform the Endowments to implement even more outreach programs instead of abolishing the Endowments altogether.
The NEA and the NEH are two of the most valuable investments this country has made. Millions of Americans turn to their local public radio stations to stay informed about local, national, and international news and to access free news and cultural programming. The NEA’s and NEH’s funding actively shapes the lives of individuals of all ages in thousands of communities across every Congressional District in the nation.
In the words of Glenn Seaborg, head of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1965, "We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or aesthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer."
Tiara Sharma SC '20 is from Boston, Massachusetts. She plans on majoring in English and maybe Philosophy.