Having first slandered the National Endowment for the Arts, the good biblical folks who will soon be in charge of Congress now mean to stone it to death for its sins.
The sins are few and minor, but ever since the political and religious right discovered that retailing horror stories was good for their fundraising, they have used a handful of NEA misjudgments (and have crudely misrepresented a larger number of sound judgments) to discredit the agency.
In truth, NEA’s thousands of grants go overwhelmingly to aid the nation’s established cultural institutions - museums, opera and ballet companies, symphony orchestras - and to bring quality cultural experiences to small towns and rural areas largely bypassed until NEA took up their cause.
NEA is damned as an elitist indulgence and a money sump, but most of its effort goes to making art more accessible, not less, and it costs us a lousy 64 cents a year each, for goodness sakes.
In short, Republicans mean to do massive damage to the nation’s cultural infrastructure just to save pocket change and nail the ideological point that government shouldn’t do anything nice.
But there’s greater damage pending than even that, for killing NEA would do violence to the credibility of democracy itself as a sustainer of its own received civilization.
Western culture, from the time of the ancient Greeks, developed with crucial subsidies from the aristocracies and religious institutions that were the public sectors of their day.
How, then, is a democratic people to take up that obligation? Well, democratically, of course, just as NEA does.
Preoccupied with nation building and development, we were late coming to that responsibility. Even with NEA, we are supporting the arts at levels only a third to a tenth of those that European governments provide.
You know, when we set up this startling nation, with its revolutionary premises, we made an implicit pact with history.
We did not disavow the great accomplishments of western civilization. Ours was not a revolution of destruction. It was a revolution of construction.
We envisioned a better stewardship for our heritage. A democratic people would step in. We would sustain our heritage without the tyrannies of crown and mitre.
We promised a political management that, in addition to bringing the blessings of a new order, would maintain, advance and enrich the treasures of the old order.
The attack on NEA is part of a larger war against enlightenment values. Values that cherish culture as a community enterprise, that understand democracy as having durable business in the common interest, that see far more promise than risk in supporting creativity and that understand poor work will fade while the great work of any era will join the cultural inheritance of the next.
The arts are far from the be-all of our pact with history, but one measure of our fidelity is in the quality of our political engagement with them and our willingness to protect their enduring values from the corrosions of the malicious and the opportunism of the indifferent.