By Alyssa Rosenberg
One of the things that’s struck me most since I started at ThinkProgress is the question of how to build a progressive arts policy. Most of the conversations that bubble up to the national political debate are about funding, most recently, public broadcasting funding in particular. It’s not that I don’t care about arts and broadcasting funding, because I do, but it strikes me that an easy way to lose the debate is to cede ground to the point that we’re debating a question as basic as “should the federal government fund the arts” rather than starting the conversation by talking about what outcomes we’d like to achieve, and then how best to get there and what it’ll cost.
It’s both the blessing and the curse of arts policy debates that people have contact with the arts and highly personal investments in arts programs, and that paradox was on full display yesterday at the House Appropriations hearing on the National Endowment for the Arts FY 2012 funding. It’s wonderful that Jose Serrano is still touched by the experience of performing Chekov as a teenager, and that he can hold himself up as a success story when lawmakers single out individual grants as silly-sounding. Similarly, it’s helpful that Mike Simpson, who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over NEA has very direct experience with access to arts as an equity issue. But those small-bore, personal commitments don’t necessarily add up to an overall arts policy framework that would be helpful in sorting out priorities at a moment of intense budget crunch.
Similarly, a conversation based in the personal case for the importance of the arts also opens the debate up to a lot of discussions of personal irritants. That’s how we end up with a hearing where Jeff Flake and Betty McCollum end up talking about whether university presses and institutions like the Yale Repertory Theater are actually funded by university endowments or if the universities are just their financial agents. It’s not that the question of whether universities are taking a cut off NEA grants for administrative expenses before passing the funding along to the intended recipients is unimportant, but it’s not exactly a core issue.
As was Flake’s attempts to anger the powerful accordionist lobby by complaining repeatedly about an NEA grant to the International Accordion Festival (which is, in fact, a thing). “Whatever kills off the accordion, whether it’s the market or not, should get our applause,” he said. “There are some things that need to go extinct.” Serrano pointed out that such a stance isn’t going to win the NEA any supporters among “Argentinians, Polish-Americans, or Norteño musicians.” Maybe we can get Weird Al on the case:
At least having a sense that we should subsidize accordionists is a policy priority one step more detailed than the most basic question of whether to fund or not to fund. But if we’re building our arts policy on piecemeal passionate testimonials, we risk it suffering death by a thousand little cuts.