Sunday, February 7, 2010
Following What Money There Is
In Delaware author Victor Thaddeus' unpublished novella "Leo Rex," from the late 1930s, there is buried in it the suggestion that there ought to be, and very well could be, a U. S. Department of Arts and Culture, which would enjoy equal status with the Departments of State, Treasury, Interior, Commerce, and War as part of the President's Cabinet. This was not a notion that Thaddeus held alone. Many, who, like Thaddeus, were members of the various Federal Arts, Writers’, Theater, and Musicians' Projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during FDR's Administration in the late 1930s, thought those projects might evolve into a new United States Department of Arts and Culture. After all, many developed countries have Ministries of Arts and Culture that serve in the highest echelons of government, including the former Soviet Union and Cuba. Why not in the United States, the most "developed" country on the planet?
While the FWP (Federal Writers' Project) did not accept works of fiction, Thaddeus' novella was accepted as a piece for a dramatic adaptation for the local Theater Project. All those in the various Projects, whether they painted murals, wrote, worked in the theater, or played a musical instrument, got paid for their work. It was a real living.
The various Projects never got the opportunity to evolve into a Department of Arts and Culture. The Second World War came along, supplanting the WPA and gobbling up a lot of budding artists, writers, and cultural workers into the Draft, and the idea of such a noble seat in the President's Cabinet evaporated.
After the War, soldiers came home war-weary to social problems endemic to peacetime conversion, to the launching of the "baby boom," and to a slowly growing social and political paranoia that would blossom into a Cold War that would bury any serious cultural endeavors in a heap of McCarthyite, HUAC-driven cultural conformity and emotional mass apathy. Television put people to sleep in what former FCC Chairman Newton Minow in 1961 would call a "vast wasteland." For many, Minow’s warning was a wake-up call to the plight of our country's cultural health.
In 1965 the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was created by an act of Congress and in 1967 the Public Broadcasting Act was enacted, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) was founded in 1970. Finally, after nearly a quarter century of mind-numbing 1950s cultural vacuity, some sort of public funding for the arts was established. Though not on the scale that the WPA had funded and supported the arts, the establishment of these institutions did coincide with the cultural flowering of the counter-culture. The multiple events may have sent nascent right-wingers of the day into a lather.
The Roe v. Wade decision from the Supreme Court in 1973 provided the opening wedge issue that galvanized the right wing for the culture wars that have been raging ever since. Things sprung into high gear in 1981 when Ronald Reagan attempted to abolish the NEA, but it gave right wingers like the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina the claim that they didn't want their tax money paying for public programming of the kind or content they disapproved. Incrementally, they made enough reductions in public funding for public broadcasting to lead to the interminable fund-raisers being broadcast on public radio and television today which drive many viewers and listeners back to that vapid vast wasteland.
Funding for the arts is a different matter. According to my experience and from what I've observed at close range from other arts organizations, public funding provides only enough money to place an organization into a fund raising-mode, so that the organization is spending valuable time and effort raising the remainder of the funds needed to produce artwork. For individual artists, of whatever discipline, public funding is usually a pittance, even with the largest awards. And it has been my experience, regardless of the quality of the writing itself, that one must be careful of what one writes about. What it all means is that for the individual artist, keep that day job, and for arts organizations, be prepared to put some arts projects on the back burner in order to spend time and effort scrounging around for patronage. This is a far cry from the kind of funding and support established during the New Deal.
For funding of artists, writers, thespians, musicians, and composers, as well as for organizations of and for artists of all kinds, a Brand New Deal is needed; maybe even one which some conservatives in "red states" or under the spell of the "Tea Party" can accept for whatever positive cultural contribution they can make to their constituents. Regardless of whatever reaction might come from the reactionaries, might this be a relevant issue for all artists, writers and poets, thespians, and music makers to adopt and make an effort to achieve? Or might it be better to keep that day job and spend that spare time leftover from the creation of artwork to go around begging for patronage from the fat cats?