President Donald Trump, before and since his inauguration, has repeatedly condemned artists and journalists, describing the cast of Hamilton as “overrated,” and attempting to discredit so-called “fake news.” President Trump’s behavior has left many worried given the lack of respect he’s shown towards artists and their right to offer legitimate alternate perspectives to powerful politicians. Whether or not one supports President Trump’s election, his blatant contempt for those who criticize him weakens the foundation of American liberty. The ACLU states that “freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others. It is at the very heart of our democracy.” The United States has historically supported these values, at least officially in its Constitution, and has often been a safe haven for artists who could not express themselves in their own countries. The recent executive travel ban has destabilized the idea of the United States as a beacon of artistic free speech and has pointed to the historical weaknesses of the enforcement of these values. Recent diminishing or delegitimizing statements about artists require us to reaffirm the right to free speech, not because artists should necessarily oppose the current administration, but because a multiplicity of voices and diversity of opinions is essential to the American democracy.

On November 18, 2016, the cast of Hamilton, the critically-acclaimed Broadway musical recounting the founding of the United States, politely addressed then Vice President-elect Mike Pence who was present in the theater that day. The show itself is deeply political, portraying the United States as a land of immigrants and casting Black and Hispanic/Latinx actors in the roles of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, among others. The production thanked Mike Pence for his presence, apparently considering his attendance an “opportunity to express our feelings,” said Jeffrey Seller,the lead producer of the show, and asked the left-leaning audience if they would refrain from booing. “We have a message sir and we hope that you will listen to us.” They asked the incoming administration to protect American values and inalienable rights for all. Beyond their important message, they also “encourage[d] everybody to pull out [their] phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide.” Indeed, this gesture did not matter solely because of its content, but also because it was a demonstration of artists’ right to free speech and the significance of their discourse. It also called for a direct and civilized discussion with the President, utilizing Trump’s favorite means of communication — social media — to do so.

In response, Trump infantilized the cast’s gesture and discredited their professionalism, asking the actors to “apologize!” and calling them “rude.” Trump also confused the meaning of artistic production, suggesting that the theater should remain a “safe and special place,” which is exactly what the cast had intended to preserve. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Vice President Aaron Burr and delivered the message, tweeted back to Trump saying that “conversation is not harassment […]”

The recent executive travel ban has destabilized the idea of the United States as a beacon of artistic free speech and has pointed to the historical weaknesses of the enforcement of these values.

Artists matter not only as entertainers who lift spirits but also as an interlocutor for politicians and a competing voice through which the public can form its own opinions. Artists — as well as many activists and media groups — make a valuable contribution to the political environment. The public is not only informed by the diversity of voices present but also exposed to new topics of conversation that occur through interactions between art and politics. For example, politicians can lean on artists during their campaigns in order to reach a larger public. Hillary Clinton notably had many pop culture figures on her side during her campaign: Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Cher, and Steve Aoki were just some of the musicians who directly spoke on her behalf. Other artists, like Taylor Swift, took their time before siding with a candidate and were criticized by some for not taking on a clear role in politics. Adrienne Elrod, the director of strategic communications for the Clinton campaign, argues that “these artists have a powerful ability to energize, excite, and mobilize our base,” and that therefore, it’s it their responsibility to use their art as political tools.

Beyond the fact that the support of famous people can help win elections, this is also a clear endorsement of artists’ power over crowds. Although some may argue that they want to remain neutral before a heterogeneous public, it is impossible to depoliticize artistic work inasmuch as it is produced and received in a politicized society. Taking a neutral stance is in itself a political statement. Trump himself, despite his condemnation of artists, also played the game, receiving support from artists like Wayne Newton and Ted Nugent in his campaign. He also asserted that there would be “plenty of movie and entertainment stars” in attendance at his inauguration, suggesting that he was aware that their support legitimized his power. Trump’s appeal to artists to gain public support suggests that the United States is a country fundamentally accepting of artists’ wide reach and supportive of their intellectual diversity, whatever their ideas.

Although the US officially supports these values, Trump illustrates a more marked ambiguity in the US’ image as a model of free speech. Both censoring and using artists to protect his own interests, Trump reflects the history of American government control over artistic expression. The Obama administration may have put forth artists on the political scene, but one example of controversies between government and artists is the response to Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist Natalie Maines comments about President George W. Bush in 2003. Famously, the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted after having criticized the President nine days before his administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. On March 10, 2003, at the opening of their Top World Tour in London, Maines, a native of Texas: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Following her statement, boycotts ensued in the US, making the Dixie Chicks drop out of the Billboard Top 100 the next week when they were No. 10 before their statement. Due to the relentlessness of her critics, Maine had no other option than to issue a public apology on March 14. While the US’ protections of artistic free speech have been the foundation of the image of the country as a beacon of free speech, Trump’s recent controversies are a reminder that this one-sided idea of the US is partly a myth.

Indeed, Trump’s recent travel ban has made us reevaluate the US’ role as a safe haven for international artists. In the past, artists from other nations, such as Iran and Iraq, have often found a platform in the US, but recently, artists from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — were temporarily banned from the United States, sparking controversy and questioning if the US has ever been an unconditional patron of the arts. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi became the symbol of the US’ reexamination of freedom of expression, among many other rights that were infringed by the ban. Nominated at the Oscars 2017 for his film, The Salesman, the director announced that he would not come to the ceremony even if an exception was granted by the President. While he previously thought that it was important for him to come and communicate to the US about his work and political beliefs, he condemned the division and “enmity” created by the Trump administration’s ban. Farhadi was not the only one to express his discontent with the US’ shift from a nation that encouraged him to “express his opinions” to one where the presence of certain people is “accompanied by ifs and buts” for religious or ethnic reasons.

Other artists also had a strong reaction to the threat against freedom of expression that the ban posed. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, protested Trump’s executive order by hanging up works from the permanent collection by artists from the countries affected by the ban. The Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi, the Iranian video artist Tala Madani, and the Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid are some of the artists that they exhibited to show their protection of the right of artists of all backgrounds to voice their opinions and sentiments. The museum reaffirmed American values with a clear message written next to each work: “[…] This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”

The US, since Trump’s inauguration, has given signals to its population and to the international community that it no longer welcomes intellectual diversity — or rather, has uncovered the US’ equivocal history as to its control of free speech. Publicly attacking artists voicing their discontent, Trump has endeavored an operation of delegitimization of artists’ power. Meryl Streep, in her speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony — for which she was attacked by Trump, calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” — addressed the advantages and issues with public figures. “This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone on the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing […] Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose,” she declared on January 8, 2017. Artists, like politicians, are inherently powerful because they have access to a public platform. The question is not whether one agrees or disagrees with what notorious individuals say, but whether all people who have this privileged channel of expression make the most of it and create, by complementing and confronting each other, a web of points of view that add nuance the public’s political opinions. Artists have a responsibility to express themselves and to spark discussions among one another; ultimately, they, as much as politicians, have the obligation to secure their right to free speech.

 

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Almost every year since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Committee has handpicked the figures that their voters believe represent the superlative in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology. These laureates are then added to the annals of history, to be forever remembered as one of that period’s best and brightest, master of their respective trades. Indeed, past winners include many figures whose names are commonly found in history books across disciplines and across the world: Marie Curie, Jimmy Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King. However, this myriad of names was forever altered when, last week, the first prize ever given to a sing-songwriter was awarded to Bob Dylan in the Literature category for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”

This unprecedented decoration in a field usually reserved for novelists, poets, and the occasional philosopher predictably sparked immediate debate and controversy. Members of the literary and editorial community spoke out emphatically both for and against the nomination, arguing heatedly over the merits and downsides of choosing a musician to represent a community of writers. While some argue that Dylan embodies the belief and emotion of an entire American generation, others claim that the committee’s choice is both unfair and disrespectful towards those who rightly deserved the award. The public contention over Dylan’s nomination will substantially affect the trajectory of the award, as well as the legacy of the recipient himself. The choice of Dylan to represent the literary community’s finest both reinforces the subjective nature of a merit based system and highlights the tendency of the Academy to push the boundaries and standards for otherwise limited awards.

In many instances throughout history, the Academy has redefined the position of the Nobel Prize in intellectual and scientific communities, and has chosen some highly controversial winners. Most recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize after less than a year into his Presidency: they cited his potential to bring about change as the impetus for the choice. This led to general outrage in the international intellectual community, and even prompted Obama himself to claim, “I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of such great leaders.” The committee also expanded the Literature category in 1997, when Dario Fo was chosen for his performance art pieces along with his written works.

In a sense, choosing Bob Dylan as the winner is simply a way of reinforcing the Academy’s efforts to push the boundaries of what is considered literature, especially because there is no section for music that he could be honored in. This has been done before in the other categories; after John Nash won the award for economics in 1994 for what was actually a combination of sociology and game theory, the category expanded to include these tangential fields, as well as the academic circles accompanying them. Some also saw Dylan’s win as a victory of inclusion for what is considered “low culture” – forms of popular and consumer culture not usually recognized by intellectual awards such as the Nobel or Pulitzer. As LA Times Journalist Carolyn Kellogg stated, “The Nobel, in recognizing Dylan’s work as literature, acknowledges that artists create works of popular culture with just as much care, control, courage and genius as Ernest Hemingway did sitting down at a typewriter.”

This categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers.

However, while choosing Dylan does seem to insinuate a stretching of the Literature category, we have reason to doubt that this decision will lead to an overall inclusion of music as part of the literature prize. After the Academy released the nomination, it stressed that Dylan was picked for his written word only, and not the musical aspects associated with it. According to Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius, the justification for the award follows the argument that poetry has been accompanied by music since the classical tradition. She argues, “We still read Homer and Sappho [without music] and we still enjoy it. And the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

But this categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers. First of all, it presents him with an award that is supposed to recognize a lifetime achievement while honoring what is technically only half of his work. It seems artificial to attempt to separate the lyrical aspect of Dylan’s compositions from the melodic since they were conceived as a single, whole work. It also sidelines the achievements of those whose portfolios are produced solely in the literary field, effectively eliminating traditional writers —such as Philip Roth, who was considered a favorite for this year’s choice — from contention for an award that was created for them. It implies that “a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention.”

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not this is true must be left up to the individual. The anachronism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has always held some truth, for better or for worse, and once a piece of art is created, the producer will never be around to justify it. Therefore, while criticism and analysis of certain works may have broad, sweeping trends, there is always room for a dissenting opinion. This subjectivity also makes presenting awards for the “best” of anything very difficult; someone will always think that another piece deserves the honor. In the end, the Academy has the power to expand their categories at their own discretion; they will always be able to justify testing the limits of the boundaries they set for themselves by simply adding on to the pre-existing precedents for the awards. So while Dylan may not be a traditional choice to represent the best of today’s literature, by giving the Nobel Committee the power to give the award at their own discretion, we have placed in their hands the ability to shape the classifications for winners as well.

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Separating the art from the artist” is an almost impossible — yet arguably necessary — strategy many fans and critics must employ to enjoy artistic beauty created by flawed human beings. People yearn to idealize art as an untarnished embodiment of the artist, often unwilling to believe that many artists lead tarnished lives. This conflict has come to the forefront of the debate surrounding the recent release of The Birth of a Nation, a film that is the brainchild of Nate Parker, who directed, produced, and starred in it. Parker takes on the dominant role of Nat Turner, playing an idealized, hyper-masculine hero seeking to bring his people out of slavery. However, because Parker appropriates and assumes the persona of Nat Turner, separating the film from Parker’s sexually abusive past becomes incredibly difficult, which is furthered by the films problematic portrayal of gender roles and its lack of emotional depth. As a result of these interwoven complexities, Parker’s proven misogyny and alleged sexual abuses manifest themselves onto the film reel, crushing the political empowerment The Birth of a Nation attempts to inspire.

Meticulous scrutiny is required when evaluating The Birth of a Nation, a film many expected to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. After its premier, the film was immediately labeled a landmark drama that would move to action people of all stripes engaged in contentious debates about race in America. Parker quickly became a hero for the black community as both a challenger to Hollywood’s #OscarsSoWhite status quo and a fierce advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement — he himself stated that the film was created for the “young man who didn’t have heroes growing up.” Parker appeared to have accomplished these goals when Fox Searchlight purchased the movie’s rights for a record $17.5 million, indicating Hollywood’s efforts to clean its hands of its racist history. Because of these lofty expectations from the black community, the movie industry, and an American public seeking to reconcile its racial fractures, The Birth of a Nation assumes a critical responsibility as not “just a movie,” but a vehicle for social change. In both regards, however, it flounders.

The Birth of a Nation illustrates the development of Nat Turner as he witnesses a number of horrific encounters: the brutal rapes of black slave women by white men, the traumatic sight of a white girl playfully pulling a slave girl on a noose, and the gruesome force-feeding of a slave unwilling to eat. Through these agonizing experiences, Turner becomes radicalized, leading dozens of slaves in an all-out massacre of white plantation owners that led to their own deaths at the hands of the military. The last scene depicts Parker, who survives, turning himself in and looking to the heavens as he is hanged.

The content of The Birth of a Nation presents several issues. First, Parker utilizes women in the film as nothing more than props propelling the plot forward, most notably through their abhorrent rapes. As Nat Turner’s wife Cherry Ann and her friend Esther are assaulted and raped by white men, Nat Turner becomes a “constant, morally unambiguous hero” driven to retributive action against his slave owners. While this happens, the women quietly disappear into the background. The women depicted in The Birth of a Nation, mainly Nat’s wife, mother, and grandmother, simply serve as his enablers, saying yes to his marriage proposals, remaining silent when Nat declares war against the white man, and quietly sewing stitches onto his back. They are given no independent voice and no character development, while Nat commands control of the movie for its duration.

Although the issues of his sexual assault scandal are convoluted, Parker’s ideology and its manifestation in both his life and on the screen cut deeper into the wounds that The Birth of a Nation seeks to heal.

Additionally, Parker sanitizes and idealizes Nat Turner, obviously intending to depict a perfect hero and a perfect redemption story. Although historically Nat Turner hides out until he is caught, he nobly turns himself in in the film. Although Nat Turner’s actual main impetus was his religious fanaticism, in the film he rationalizes his radicalization with far different justifications. As Turner’s nuances are ignored, he is reduced to a simplified gladiator hero, privileging overwhelming bloodshed to thoughtful storytelling.  As a result, it is difficult to accept The Birth of a Nation as a legitimate counter to #OscarsSoWhite on its artistic merits, even without raising the question of Parker’s personal history.

Through all the personal baggage that Parker brings to The Birth of a Nation, the poignancy of the movie is predictably, yet appropriately, minimized in the larger discussion about feminism and the black community. The film, reflecting Parker’s own history, seems to view solidarity as a masculine product for feminine consumption. As a result, reconciling The Birth of a Nation with all of its political and social baggage becomes incredibly difficult, mitigating its purported cause by silencing over half of its population.

Parker’s highly publicized rape scandal concretizes criticisms of his own misogyny manifested in the film. After the alleged rape, Parker and his roommate abused the victim, hurling sexual epithets at her and calling her with harassing messages, contributing to the victim’s eventual suicide in 2012. To this date, Parker admits no wrongdoing in the incident, but calls himself  a “grown” and “changed” man. There is no doubt that The Birth of a Nation’s cinematic sexism is deeply rooted in Parker’s personal sexism. Although the issues of his sexual assault scandal are convoluted, Parker’s ideology and its manifestation in both his life and on the screen cut deeper into the wounds that The Birth of a Nation seeks to heal. It thus becomes almost impossible to uplift The Birth of a Nation as a revitalizing force for Black Lives Matter, as the lives of black women simply do not matter to Parker within and outside the film.

In tandem with issues of sexism, Parker’s hyper-masculine portrayal of Nat Turner creates another wedge in The Birth of a Nation, this time drawing a line of legitimacy between black heterosexual males and black homosexual males. Parker, who himself said in 2014 that he would never play a black gay man in order to “preserve the black man,” exemplifies this ideology by playing the stereotypical macho hero, a domineering patriarch seeking bloodthirsty revenge. Parker thus presents a deeply misguided perspective on the importance of black hyper-masculinity, a subgenre heavily criticized for decades in blaxploitation films. By essentially labeling gay black men as less than men, explicitly in his personal statements and implicitly through the film, Parker forces even more alienation within his own community, weakening the very unity he seeks to build. Parker thus implies that the cause of social justice within the black community must be achieved by heterosexual black males who exude the machismo of his Nat Turner, while every other subgroup silently cheers them on from the sidelines.

Parker strives to make The Birth of a Nation about more than himself, attempting to uplift the black community from the violence it faces today. However, by narcissistically uplifting himself through the camera lens and disregarding both black women and gay men, Parker dangerously diminishes the immense value that Nat Turner could bring to a modern audience. Even if the art can be separated from the artist, the film itself is a failure. Rightfully, the film flopped in its debut weekend.

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Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of the Supreme Court, the same Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of such cases as Roe V. Wade, United States V. Nixon, and Furman V. Georgia, once passed supreme judgment on breasts. Specifically, those of Ann Margaret Taylor in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. That obscure little footnote of US obscenity jurisprudence is actually about American as you can get, right alongside which president freed the slaves or Babe Ruth’s earned run average. Americans love freedom, but they also love sex and violence (see: Tarantino, Quentin). But even more so, they love to pretend they don’t, and the censorious judgment that along comes with it.

Despite loving to celebrate freedom, Americans can be more prudish than the average European on issues from homosexuality to religious identity. Yet for most of our modern history, Americans have had fairly lax censorship and obscenity laws. “Obscenity,” Bertrand Russell once sniped, “is whatever happens to shock some elderly and ignorant magistrate.” Swap out magistrate with industry rep, and you have a pretty good handle on censorship in the United States. In most other countries, however, government bureaucrat would be a far more appropriate switch. Yet the United States, as any drunk on the Fourth of July will tell you, is not like many other countries.

Consider a tale of two cities: Rome and Hollywood. In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato tried to release the film Cannibal Holocaust. Later analysis of the film has drawn parallels between the gruesome “torture porn” aspects of the movie and the media coverage of the Italian terrorist group known as the Red Brigades. The film is literally oozing with gore and sex. The most famous poster of the movie has a still shot of a raped woman impaled on a stick, an image which prompted Deodato to actually be put on trial by the Italian government for making a snuff film.

Italy, along with many other countries, found Cannibal Holocaust so horrible as to ban it, but the film was released in America. In point of fact, the film opened in 1984 with an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Even more interestingly, the American government did not react whatsoever in regards to the film’s release.

The MPAA, the primary rating authority for films in the United States, is a member of many Americans’ favorite branch of government: none. Along with its ratings division, the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), the MPAA is a private, independent trade organization of the largest Hollywood studios that does, upon closer examination, look like a bit of a cartel. They are not an officially licensed body of or by the US government to rate, classify, or censor films, but that doesn’t stop them from being the de facto censorship body of the film industry, even as a self-regulating trade group. Movies in America are a private enterprise, from start to censor.

The US government has occasionally bumped up against a perceived tide of immorality in films over the years. In the case of Jenkins V. Georgia, for instance, Georgia authorities had deemed the film Carnal Knowledge as obscene material until the Supreme Court overruled them. But by and large, no, the government does not have a heavy hand in the censorship of film.

When censorship does occur, however, it takes on a uniquely American flavor. The system that the MPAA uses is actually a purposeful model of economically enforced censorship. The government does not ban a film, but the MPAA might be able to stop it from a successful release.

In the endless battle to win the box office (or at least break even), directors will often try to cling to a PG-13 or R rating in order to reach the largest audience possible, especially since films that go up to that terrifying next level (NC-17) rarely are able to even find a theater to house them. Like Cannibal Holocaust in 1984, they can still be released, but that doesn’t mean they make money once they’re shut out of the only profitable venues. Studios can even choose to release films without a rating, but it almost guarantees a straight to video release.

This style of self-censorship seems to directly clash with American objection to speech suppression. A brief examination of the fallout after North Korea (or someone else) caused Sony to pull James Franco and Seth Rogen’s The Interview reveals that the American people love their freedom of speech a lot, even when that speech is composed of really bad jokes (I don’t even mean poor taste, just bad).

Perhaps we accept it because of its roundabout nature: it feels more indirect than the NSA surveillance we’ve become accustomed to. Or maybe simply because it’s done privately. By letting a private trade association screen and rate our films, we have thus succeeded in effectively privatizing censorship, the last great bastion of Big Government monopoly.

But beyond all shadow of a doubt, it’s not the universal mode of operation. To this day, films deemed too obscene are banned in pluralistic democracies. Australia’s Classification Board works with the Attorney-General’s Department to certify and de facto censor films on the mass market, Canada’s vast network of provincial censorship boards represses at the regional level instead of a national one, and the independent British Board of Film Classification operates as a public-private partnership to screen and block movies. In the United States, films may not be officially banned, but they are little more likely to see the light of day than if such a ban was in place.

Commercial exile can certainly be just as powerful as a governmental censor, and in many ways, represents a far more dangerous version of such: by outsourcing our censorship, we forget that it exists just as much here as Europe, Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. Even privatized, Big Brother is still watching.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the United States allotted one-hundredth of one percent of its discretionary spending to the arts, at a little over $146 million. That money went to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the federal government, founded in 1965, which offers grant money and other support to artists and non-profits. Americans hold divergent beliefs about the appropriate level of government involvement in the creation and promotion of the arts, as a discussion of the NEA exemplifies.

The strategic plan of the NEA envisions “a nation in which the arts enrich the lives of all Americans and enhance the livability of communities” and notes “the arts’ transformative power.” With these guiding principles in mind, the primary role of the NEA is to fund arts-related projects through grants to individuals and organizations across a number of disciplines, including dance, visual arts, literature, design, opera and other music, and media arts. Recent awardees include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program, which provides free music lessons to at-risk students in East and West Baltimore, the Mississippi Museum of Art, which will use the money to create a public art trail through Jackson, LAND studio, which aims to transform East Ninth Street of Cleveland into a hub of art and design for the enjoyment of pedestrians, and the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which offers New York City and New Jersey elementary school students instruction on the composition and performance of operas.

Supporters of the NEA see its role as essential. Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, told the Chicago Tribune, “I was a little press writer when the National Endowment for the Arts came to my rescue and gave me an award. I couldn’t buy a light bulb. Almost more than the money, the awards are important because they show that someone believes in you.” Actor David Selby said in an interview, “That’s the reason support for the National Endowment of the Arts is so important. It enables those ventures that aren’t viable commercially to be done.” These artists view the NEA as vital to their success, as providing inspiration and monetary support that would not otherwise exist. Without the NEA, then, we might not have many of the works we hold dear – especially amongst communities and individuals who do not have the money to fund their own work. If only wealthy citizens and organizations have the means to pursue artistic projects, American culture would look drastically different. Therefore, the government may have an obligation to level the playing field and encourage diverse participation.

The NEA grants also provide three important external benefits: jobs, revenue, and education. Government support of the arts “creates an economic impact of $135 billion… supports 4.13 million jobs in multiple industries…[and] generates $22.3 billion in federal, state and local tax receipts.” Furthermore, “Research confirms a positive relationship between arts education and academic success for both elementary and secondary students.” Thus, NEA grants amount to an indirect government stimulus of the economy and help to promote education. According to its supporters, then, the NEA backs needed programs and spaces with tangible economic, cultural, educational and aesthetic benefits — benefits that could disappear if the federal government were to cut funding. That outcome seems increasingly more likely as the NEA’s budget stood at around $167 million in 2010 but has decreased to $146 million in 2014 — nearly a 13 percent reduction. For comparison, the defense budget for 2014 is over $600 billion.

Opponents of public funding for the arts — typically conservatives — do not share these concerns, believing that, in light of the mounting national debt, the arts could be sufficiently and more appropriately funded by private philanthropy. The external benefits of the arts, they argue, could just as easily accrue from private funding. In 2011, a group of 150 Republicans proposed a budget plan that would cut funding for the NEA to zero. Asked about his plans to cut support for several program —  including the NEA, Amtrak, and the National Endowment for the Humanities — then-presidential contender Mitt Romney said, “…those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.” Sarah Palin has been less complimentary: On a 2011 Fox News segment, she told host Sean Hannity, “NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn’t be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14 trillion debt that we’re going to hand to our kids and our grandkids.” In this view, the government should have no involvement in funding the arts.

Intensifying opposition to the NEA is its history of support for controversial art, including Karen Finley’s nude performances, Andres Serrano’s photographs of a crucifix submerged in urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of homosexual sex. These works caused some uproar and led Congress, in 1990, to pass an amendment to the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act that declared that the NEA must take into consideration “general standards of decency and respect.” Despite the new standards, the NEA has drawn lasting criticism as being sacrilegious, pornographic, disrespectful, motivated by shock value, and running counter to traditional values. Opponents do not believe that immoral art should be funded by citizens’ tax dollars; they see these projects as more appropriately funded by private donors. This, when combined with the fact that for every $1 of federal funding, the NEA receives $9 of funding from private and other public sources, lends credibility to conservatives’ faith in private philanthropy.

In response, defenders of the NEA contend that art should not have to be moral or universally acceptable to receive public funding. These limitations, they argue, run counter to the mission of the NEA by stunting artistic exploration. Furthermore, controversial pieces engage the public by inviting critical thought and discussion.

Each side of the debate envisions a very different relationship between the government and the arts. Should the government prioritize cultural development? Americans have yet to answer. However, because funding for the NEA amounts to such a small percentage of the federal budget, and because of the proven benefits of a culture rich in arts, the case for government involvement seems stronger.