In the light of the recent challenges to the National Public Radio (NPR $32 million in 2010), as well as the appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA $161.3 million in 2010) coming out in favor of a #SupplyDemand model for arts, and the likely eventual targeting of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH $171.5 million in 2010) and Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS $35.2 million in 2010) and the entire Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($420 million in 2010) for elimination (again) by the radical right, it seems like it is time for America to reconsider the real position of American Arts, Humanities, Literature, Museums, and Libraries. The thing is, all these agencies together add up to less than 0.02% of the total Federal Budget. That’s less than two hundreths of a percent!
I also ask you to briefly consider the much larger Federal Agencies of Department of Education (ED $67.3 billion in 2010), the National Science Foundation (NSF $6.926 billion in 2010) and the National Institute of Health (NIH $32 billion in 2010) and the Department of State (DOS $48.69 billion in 2010). I’m including these agencies because to me, they are the ones dedicated to sustaining and advancing our culture and intellectual capabilities, and together, they account for less that 5% of the total 2010 Federal budget of $3456 billion (or $3.456 trillion). That's less than 5% of effort to the things that arguably matter the most to people’s quality of life: personal happiness and fulfillment. There are 308.4 million people in America. The entire 2010 Federal budget allots to $11,365 dollars per person per year. $568 was spent per person on Education, Science, Health, and Ambassadorships; and $2.27 was spent on the Arts, Libraries, and Public Broadcasting. And, in case you didn't know, over of $7,000 per person went towards National Defense (20%), Social Security (20%), and Medicare and Medicaid (23%).
This chart is from Wikipedia, and I pulled these numbers from the agencies websites postings of last year’s appropriations and did some crunching myself. You can dig into the current Federal budget numbers at the GPO or you can look at the lovely interactive version of Obama’s recent $3.69 trillion budget that the NYT published here, which though not broken down by agency, makes pretty clear visually as to who gets a lion’s share of the Federal pie.
But let’s also look at the for-profit side, the “industry” side of Arts and Culture. The US Census has an industry category called "Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation," a $189 billion dollar industry (in 2007) where the average salary was $28,311 and the average revenue per employee was $81,890. While it’s probably not an accurate picture of everything that one might consider American Arts and Culture, I point this out to show that this sector really depend almost nothing financially on the Federal Government.
So why is the only time we talk about the value of Arts and Culture at the national level is when Federal Funding to certain targeted non-profits are threatened? Well, maybe we pay attention also just a little when the National Medals of Arts and Poet Laureate are announced. But they’re not nearly as big as the Oscars or Grammys.
See, I think there is a larger issue here, one that transcends party politics: it’s about the percieved value of American Culture. And I’m not talking about family values, although that’s a component of it. America itself has become an incredible mix of radicalized sub-cultures, politically, religiously, ethnically, socially. So the only things we can focus on collectively are very huge, life-threatening issues: defending ourselves against foreign threats and preparing for when we are old and disabled. It seems to be all driven by fear. We can’t seem to agree one bit about any issue beyond that, because we don’t have anything that is nationally shared value to lift us beyond that fear. Obama won because he spoke to us of hope, but hope alone was too thin to last. It’s more than just hope that we need. It’s shared meaning, created over the long haul. Created through cultural processes, education, arts and entertainment, the publishing industry, gaming, even religion, and all the different ways that culture is made, shared, and studied around the world.
There was a time that we could rally around the idea of democracy, and the personal freedoms that the Constitution promised us. But now, those very concepts seem warn and tired, much too vulnerable to corruption and abuse. In education, the implicit goal is the pursuit of knowledge. Many scientists and intellectuals look towards the pure pursuit of reason as the new ideal for the continued rise of the West, and this reason and the scientific method has become almost as fundamentalist as the religious extremists that it so vehemently opposes (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.). What the arts, literature, history, humanities, and culture offer (high and low, formal and informal, professional and amature) is another method of understanding the world: the goal of which is the pursuit of meaning. Meaning is different from knowledge, and meaning is created. Knowledge is posited, tested, repeated, and proven. Meaning is intuited, crafted, designed, found, pieced-together, and exceptional. Knowledge is what everyone who has an informed opinion agrees to agree must be the right answer. Knowledge is what keeps us connected to each other, on the same page. Meaning is what makes life worth living in a personal sense. We need both. The boundaries and scope of both realms are changing and growing, all the time. That’s the kind of growth we need, not the blind expansion of the economy of goods and services. Of thoughtless products and things.
What would a government look like that attended not only to our bodily fears of old age, disease, war, and dying; but to our needs for the pursuit of the higher, more important functions of human life: the pursuit of knowledge and meaning? What if we had a Department of Knowledge and Meaning, instead of a Department of Homeland Security? What if it combined Science, Culture, and Education (including Library of Congress), and had combined support at least equal to that of National Defense, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid? Even if the funding didn’t substantially change, or even if was cut a little, wouldn’t you be a little bit more proud of being an American, or hate us just a little less if you were not? Wouldn’t it be better to provide a national focus on living well and fully and creating tons of new knowledge and meaning to the best of our ability today, then to throw money at a healthcare and pension system that can’t ever really stop death, in the long run?
What if the Constitution was amended: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Knowledge, and Meaning?"
Who’s with me? What legislator will advance a “U.S. Federal Department of Knowledge and Meaning,” and combine all those struggling agencies into one big pie that doesn’t have to be argued about ad nauseum every year? Even if it’s unfunded at the first, the motion itself could be a symbolic win: as the Federal funding for everything cultural and intellectual (including science and health research) is pretty much irrelevant right now, anyway. While the Federal Government alone can’t do it, it can provide incentives and set a tone that others in the much larger private sector might follow. Let’s reshape America as a noble, thoughtful, considerate, creative, and culturally vibrant land.