The Arts as a Public Good Are Under Attack

New President Donald Trump has done many more repugnant things over the past few months. I'm sure he will add to the list, every day, for the foreseeable future.

But I couldn't let this one slip by given this site's ostensible interest in the arts: Trump is planning to give conservative stalwarts one of their many wishes early on in his term by zeroing out the budgets for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I guess he really likes pledge drives.

There is likely to be a very tangible effect to those changes, but since I'm not an expert on the exact kind of work the NEA and NEH fund, I'm going to focus on the symbolic message being sent here. And make no mistake, this is an almost entirely symbolic message, because from a budgetary perspective cutting the NEA and NEH is a useless measure. According to the first Washington Post article I linked to, it will get Trump and the Republicans 0.074 percent of the way to a 10 percent cut in the federal budget.

And what is the symbolic message? Put bluntly: that the arts don't matter at all when it comes to the public good. To which I say, great, so happy to be in the hands of Zack Snyder and Michael Bay. 

How else are we supposed to interpret the message sent in eliminating these programs entirely. They are not significant enough financially to make a real difference if austerity is your true aim. If it were simply about the nature of the work it funds, then you would go in and overhaul the program itself - changing leadership, altering the mission, etc.

Donald Trump disturbs me for many, many, many reasons, but right near the top of that list is his apparent and total lack of empathy. The value of the arts is multi-faceted, but, especially where the general public is concerned, its ability to generate shared understanding is right up there. To quote the great Roger Ebert

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day.
The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.

Donald Trump is not a decent man. His capacity to see himself in the shoes of anyone else is non-existent, and, so, in that sense, the elimination of the NEA and NEH makes perfect sense. If you have a pathological inability to even attempt to see the world through someone else's eye - if your big takeaway from Citizen Kane is that Charles Foster Kane's problems would have been solved by "find[ing] another woman!" - then I suppose this all makes perfect sense.

What I can't fathom is how so many people apparently share the same values.