Support the NEA! (With These Totally Lame Email Campaigns)

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Look at the hundreds of thousands of people celebrating in Tahrir Square. Yes, there was violence a week ago, yes, it was regrettable. Actually, regrettable is a regrettable, distancing word. The violence against journalists was absolutely reprehensible. It gives me chills.

But the people — everyday people, working people, average people, largely young people — sought change, fought for change and won change, and for the most part it didn’t require army columns or years of civil war or tens of thousands of dead or wounded to win it. That there were thousands of wounded and hundreds of dead is horrifying. All lovers of freedom must, in this hopeful moment, honor the grace of the martyrs who sacrificed life and limb in the name of liberty.

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And then there’s America, where political passions usually take the shape of fickleness, hollow rhetoric and, all too often, apathy. When it comes to the arts, for example (you knew I was leading up to this), we seem unparalleled in our ability to lame and pathetic at the same time.

As CFR readers know, more than one state arts agency is on the chopping block, and if it isn’t a question of eliminating the agency, it’s a question of how deeply into bone the ailing patient is to be cut. Those like me who research and report on such items are relatively few, of course. Fortunately, there have been of late some good articles about what the vast diminution of public arts appropriations will mean to the overall economy. But as Ian David Moss points out on the Fractured Atlas blog, the push-back against the trend is somewhere between under-the-weather and ICU.

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Let me lay this out bluntly, for with all due respect to Moss, bluntness isn’t his strong suit. We’re terrible at advocacy. I know, I know, I know — we have these powerful organizations like Americans for the Arts (with which the CFR enjoys a nice content-sharing relationship with), and I am not suggesting that such organizations aren’t doing what they can as they can and where and when they can. Yet as I read Moss’ post today — which points out that the State Arts Action Network page on AFTA’s site is strangely empty (how do you mobilize by being members-only?), and that the website of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies is, as Moss puts it, “mum” on the state arts funding crisis, I became all the more appalled. Unlike the liberty-loving men and women of Tahrir Square, we in the arts think we can combat tanks and missiles and nukes with twigs and rubber bands and emails.

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I’m being unfair. The Arts Action Fund, which is a valued arm of Americans for the Arts, issued an all-hands-on-deck request to send 50,000 emails to Congress. The message of the emails is to stop the GOP House majority from enacting a midyear cut of $12 million to the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s on top of a more ominous GOP proposal to eliminate the NEA entirely next year, as the culture wars zoom, much as I predicted here on the CFR, to the top of the radical-right’s reactionary agenda.

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Well, 50,000 emails isn’t going to cut it. When in recent history has 50,000 emails done anything? What concrete proof can anyone offer than 50,000 emails will ensure the kind of generational sea-change difference, the kind of tectonic cultural shift, that will allow arts and culture in the U.S. to break out of its perpetual defensive posture, out of its siege mentality? I don’t doubt, as Americans for the Arts states, that more than five million U.S. jobs exist by dint of the cultural sector. So why should it be acceptable to them — or to you — or to anyone — that less than one percent of those five-plus million job-holders are being asked to support their sector with an email? And where, meanwhile, is the full and creative use of artists themselves — actors and writers and dancers and musicians and architects and teachers and video artists and flash-mob-generators and scientists and performance artists and muralists and composers and choreographers and so on — in the cause? Why can Egyptians gather by the hundreds of thousands and we’re satisfied with making our case through 50,000 emails?

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Because we’re fat and over-entitled, that’s why.

If you think I’m being harsh, if you think I’m being unrealistic, if you think I’m being unfair, look at the email campaign also being organized by the Performing Arts Alliance and you tell me if you think this is the best, the very best, that the sector can do. That this is all we have. That this is all we are. That this is all we know. Tell me if that’s the case. Tell me if this is what gives you, my fellow cultural creatives, pride in who and what you are, if these efforts leave you satisfied.

If they do, how sad for you as a moment of triumph unfolds half a world away.

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