State of the Arts: Why Culture Matters for Obamanomics

With a large group of House Republicans now calling for the elimination of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, arts lovers would have welcomed a brief endorsement of the importance of culture in President Obama's State of the Union address.

But given recent developments on the Mall, it's hardly surprising that any mention of the benefits of our nation's commitment to the arts was omitted from the President's propitiatory, let's-work-together speech. The arts are usually considered too peripheral for inclusion in a rundown of the nation's most pressing concerns. And now, with the controversy over the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibition roiling the Mall, the arts have become, once again, a political hot potato.

There are also compelling arguments why, in these contentious times, our country needs the arts for more than their intrinsic value (which should be argument enough for support). I'm not talking about their value in stimulating the economy and jobs -- the quantifiable rewards that are always trotted out to appeal to practical politicians.

At a time when the President has been stressing our nation's need to "out-innovate... the rest of the world," the role of art in stimulating creative thought -- both for those who create it and those who experience it -- should not be discounted by the budgetary number-crunchers. And at a time of alarming -- some say, lethal -- uncivil discourse, the role of art as a force for civilization and civility should make it more worthy than ever of public funding for the public good.

If only President Obama had followed the lead of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in a recent discussion with CNN's Candy Crowley, echoed the views of many who are shocked by the absurdity of Republican suggestions that eliminating federal funding for arts and humanities agencies can make a meaningful dent in the deficit.

Slashing funding for NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- proposed by the Republican Study Committee (consisting of more than 175 House Republicans) -- would trim the federal budget by a miniscule three-tenths of one percent of the annual $250 billion that the group hopes to save through its long laundry-list of recommended reductions.

Here's what Powell had to say about this:

You can't fix the deficit or the national debt by killing NPR or the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Arts. Nice political chatter, but that doesn't do it.

Instead, this retired four-star general recommends cuts in military spending, saying that he does not believe that "the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can't be touched."

Arts funding is certainly not sacrosanct and is apt to be adjusted as part of a government-wide effort to reduce the deficit. In the likely event that cultural support is trimmed but not eliminated, the President's smoked-salmon punchline may acquire new resonance for arts mavens. As all bagels-and-lox lovers know, the most skilled practitioners behind the deli counter slice it extra thin, making a little nova go a long way.