“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”–George Washington
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”–John Adams
“I cannot live without books.”–Thomas Jefferson
Despite these words of wisdom from America’s first three Presidents, this country has historically lacked in its support of the arts. Better to work all day in the fields or factories than to spend leisure time enjoying the finer things in life. Better to read the Bible than be corrupted by literature written by heathens. Better to close one’s eyes than to open them up to new worlds and new possibilities through the arts.
When schools face budget shortages the first things to go are the arts programs–bands, art classes, photography clubs, and more. All the sports are kept because those supposedly build character, which they can, though those involved in the arts know that the arts do the same. The arts in this country have always been underappreciated and underfunded.
Yesterday, Alaska became the first state to shutter its arts agency, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, after Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, vetoed nearly $450 million dollars from a budget the legislature had already cut by millions (he also cut over 40% of the state’s support of the University of Alaska, $50 million dollars in Medicaid spending, and most of the state money for public broadcasting, among other things). He cut the Council on the Arts’ entire budget of $2.9 million, $700,000 of which was state funding. The veto also prevents the agency from accepting National Endowment for the Arts matching funding of $700,000 and private foundation funds of $1.5 million dollars according to the Anchorage Daily News.
Clearly, if this cut were solely to balance the budget, other funds would not have faced the chopping block, as that money is from other sources that have nothing to do with Alaska spending its own money. The intent was obviously to gut the agency because the governor, like many conservatives, believes that state government is too big and shouldn’t be involved in support of the arts. Unfortunately, the legislature did not have enough votes to override the veto, which indicates that they agree with Dunleavy, even if those in the rest of Alaska may not.
Republicans in Congress are of the same ilk. They have worked to cut funding for public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts for years. Other right-wing governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin have worked hard to destroy public institutions like colleges and to defund support of the arts. Walker’s first budget proposal after getting elected included a two-thirds cut to the Wisconsin Arts Board.
Artists have always scared politicians because artists tend to speak their minds. Cartoonists skewer politicians when warranted. Writers pen novels that satirize them. Songwriters and poets encapsulate their foibles in short verses. Visual artists paint them as they truly are. It is no wonder that among the first people imprisoned by fascists are artists of every sort. It is no wonder that authoritarians do their best to silence those whose purpose in life is to find their truth and reveal it to others.
What politicians like Dunleavy don’t understand is that art will survive long after his term of office is up. Artists will find ways to fund their work and if they can’t, they will find ways to create it without spending money. Money does not make art (though it can make it easier to make art). The finished product may not be as lavish or polished as the public has come to expect, but its raw beauty will still come through and still resonate with those who seek deeper meaning in their lives.
Artists have always suffered and they always will. What this kind of budget cut does is make the citizens of Alaska suffer with less art, less awakening, less connection with their humanity, just like their governor.