Politicians overlook the value of the arts

Trump’s budget threatens vital community programs.
Trump’s budget threatens vital community programs. Charlotte Observer

One of the most popular electives at my high school is creative writing. Special education students sit next to Advanced Placement students, freshmen work alongside seniors, all doing the hard work of learning to clarify and communicate their thoughts in their writing.

Just as they do in their other art, drama, and music classes, students learn not only skills but something valuable about the role of art in our lives – how it is the foundation of what and how we know, how it opens our eyes and minds to possibilities.

Sadly, not everyone believes in the value of the arts. In the proposed 2018 Trump administration budget, four independent arts agencies are slated to be eliminated: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Compared to total federal expenditures, their combined budgets are minuscule. The NEA, for example, represented a mere .003% of the federal budget in 2016.

“When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or the single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told the TV show Morning Joe last week. “We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

Underlying Mulvaney’s quip is the assumption that coal miners and single moms – the working class and the poor – don’t benefit from the arts. However, all 50 states make use of NEA grants to provide such services as art therapy for veterans, community orchestra performances, and fellowships for young and emerging actors, writers, dancers, and artists. Berea, Kentucky, for example, used a $30,000 NEA grant to fund a program that teamed up early childhood specialists with artists to work with rural preschoolers and their parents to close the academic achievement gap.

Money from the Institute of Museum and Library Services invests in infrastructure for libraries in rural America, funding broadband connectivity and digital literacy learning which boosts employment.

Without the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, rural or smaller markets would lose their radio and TV stations. The National Endowment for the Humanities helps in the preservation of historic and cultural artifacts, such as the photographs and films of Appalachia.

The arts are also an important driver of the economy. Staunch conservative Mike Huckabee argued in a recent op-ed that “the arts are a $730 billion industry, representing 4.2% of our gross domestic product — more than transportation, tourism, and agriculture. The nonprofit side of the arts alone generates $135 billion in economic activity, supporting 4.1 million jobs.”

A second assumption underlies Mulvaney’s comment — that the arts are rarified, elitist frills of no interest to coal miners and single mothers. That’s not only insulting, it’s a serious lack of understanding of the way the arts enrich all our lives. Whether we create art or appreciate the art of others, our world is better with literature and music, with dance and sculpture, with all the imaginative ways humans have devised to communicate with each other.

Art teaches and delights, and more than that, it connects us. Even my students know that. Now it’s time that politicians did, too.

McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: