(Indianapolis Star, March 22, 2017)
The White House’s proposed budget for 2018 would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This exclusion will make barely a dent in federal spending. The NEH and NEA receive only .001 percent of a nearly $4 trillion budget. Compare the estimated cost of $38 billion required for a border wall between Mexico and the United States with the $148 million that supports the arts and humanities. The administration is making a statement about what it is we value as a nation.
There are those who believe by eliminating these agencies, they are “targeting waste.” They suggest that the arts are not really necessary; they do not rise to the level of national security that requires increased government resources. But the defense of democracy requires precisely what the arts and humanities give us. Studies have shown that exposure to the arts and humanities improves social and emotional development, increases empathy and generosity, encourages civic engagement and expands cognitive development. These skills are not a waste, but essential to the fabric of our nation.
The arts and humanities help us to understand our place in the world, to value complexity, to think critically and independently. In a world that is increasingly polarized, the ability to appreciate nuance and diversity are more essential than ever. Our democracy will wither if we do not cultivate the imagination, educate people with historic and cultural memory, train leaders with creative ideas and the ability to communicate them and inspire others.
Studies in neuroscience find that the arts have a strong impact on the brain’s cognitive and social development. Music improves spatial and temporal thinking, memory recall and mathematical ability. Engagement with the visual arts leads to greater creativity. The humanities and arts increase academic achievement and bolster confidence and teamwork. Contrary to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assertion that the NEA funds programs that are “generally enjoyed by people of higher incomes,” 40 percent of the NEA budget supports activities in low-income neighborhoods. The loss of funding will hurt rural and impoverished communities the most. Government funding catalyzes other investments and matching grants that provide exposure to the arts, poetry, literature, drama, history and music that make life worthwhile.
In Indiana, the NEA and NEH work through the Indiana Arts Commission and Indiana Humanities. Their work reaches all 92 counties.
The humanities help us reflect on our purpose in the world, on issues of authority and power. They give us the resources to face difficulties, loss and failure, to ask the hard questions and to live with the questions for which there are no answers. Art, literature and music offer us new ways of looking at our world and help us see things to which our presuppositions have blinded us. They give us all this, as well as moments of exquisite beauty and delight.
Books like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” have helped us look honestly at ourselves. Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” inspired us to dream. Picasso’s “Guernica” and Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel” have offered us new ways of seeing the world. Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6″ has stirred our souls. These are the weapons of civilization. Without them, our nation is at risk.
Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.