The Trump administration’s proposed plan to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities—two federal agencies dedicated to sustaining arts and culture in America—has been a rallying cry for artists across the country.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, who currently serves as president of the Dramatists Guild of America, offers his opinion on why he thinks the agencies were targeted, and shares ways to organize and take action to protect America’s cultural legacy.
Why do you think the NEA and NEH, which account for only .003 of the U.S. annual budget, were targeted for elimination under this administration?
Doug Wright: The arts function as a collective social conscience. Artists are, by their nature, truth tellers. Across the millennia, artists have told damning truths about war, politics, and the darkest reaches of the human heart. Corrupt men have a reason to fear us, and so they'd like to see us silenced. This has nothing to do with money; the NEA is .003 of our annual budget. The military spends more on paper clips. This is all about demonizing artists and the work that we do. We mustn't forget that.
What kind of impact do you foresee the elimination of the NEA and NEH having on theatres across the U.S. and in New York?
DW: It will continue the dangerous, downward spiral presently occurring in our culture. Arts teach us the value of empathy, which is currently in egregiously short supply. Thanks to The Diary of Anne Frank, an African-American girl in Washington Heights can learn what it felt like to be trapped in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. Thanks to The Laramie Project, a quarterback in Van Nuys can experience what it feels like to die alone on a fence in rural Wyoming, and feel his heart grow in its capacity to feel on behalf of others. Without the arts, we lose this crucial capacity. Who knows? If our current President actually curled up with a book, he’d improve his painfully limited vocabulary. The quality of our thoughts and our ability to express them are intimately linked. The more exposure we have to the arts, the more nimble we become intellectually.
Among modernized, post-Industrial nations, we will be one of the only countries that doesn’t contribute to the spiritual and emotional health of our citizens through the arts. We will continue to lose our standing in the world. We already run the risk of appearing coarser, less noble, and increasingly amoral under the new administration. Killing the arts would confirm the worst fears of our international allies.
With the NEA and NEH on the chopping block, what are some ways we can take action now?
DW: At the Dramatists Guild, we've been in communication with fellow agencies like PEN and The National Coalition Against Censorship. As the glorious Women's March proved, there’s strength in numbers, and I think we need to build bridges between arts organizations so that we can present a unified front. It's an “all hands on deck” moment.
Artists should call their local lawmakers and lodge protests. They should engage the press. And over the next four years, they should use the platform of their work—their plays, their operas, their paintings, and their music—to address their frustration with the government's shortsightedness. If arts funding is cut from schools, they should volunteer. In interviews and outreach, they should make the case for publicly funded art whenever they can. The Endowment’s own website is a great place for facts and figures; artists should familiarize themselves with the statistics and use them in interviews, in public forums, even over the dinner table.
An official petition has been created at WhiteHouse.gov to preserve the NEA and NEH. Click here to sign the petition.