Letter: Art has power

Graphic by Lori Deaton

The National Endowment for the Arts awarded grants totaling $452,500 to 16 North Carolina organizations and one artist for fiscal year 2017. Writer Jean Godfrey of Black Mountain and the LEAF festival, which takes place in Black Mountain, were among the recipients. If Donald Trump succeeds at eliminating the NEA, which makes a minuscule dint in the national budget, funds for awards like these will be much more difficult to procure.

The most tenable reasons why the arts should not face the guillotine reflect a more unsettling issue than “wasteful spending.” President Lyndon Johnson once said, “In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalog.”

Art brings voice and vision to facts written on the pages of history books. It reflects and shapes culture, liberates us, expresses the forbidden. It confesses our sins and celebrates our triumphs. It can even topple tyrants. Perhaps that is the most disturbing aspect of Trump’s quest to destroy the NEA.

Art has power.

Why else have so many writers, painters and musicians been silenced throughout history? Dostoyevsky spent years in a Siberian jail for discussing books critical of Tsarist Russia. Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca was executed for speaking out against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. One of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibitions was canceled in 1989 for offending the sensibilities of Sen. Jesse Helms with its sexually provocative images. Art should provoke. It should inspire us to question our convictions and venture out of our comfort zones. Silencing freedom of expression and thought is as dangerous to the health of a nation as vilifying the press for challenging political leaders and their agendas.

When a government begins to teeter on the edge of tyranny, the first things to go are a free press and art. The current administration is now under investigation for colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump routinely disseminates falsehoods through near-daily tweets. Now more than ever, we need the honesty of art. Eliminating the NEA is not a deficit-reducing strategy; it is another insidious attempt to control the national narrative. Relying solely on the public to finance projects, especially experimental or avant-garde work — work that could indeed provoke thought and effect change — would result in even greater censorship and severely limit many people’s access to art.

When the history books portray the United States hundreds of years from now, what will that portrait look like? If it’s just a ledger pad, excavated from the ruins of the White House, we will relegate ourselves to a footnote. If it’s beauty and innovation — as demonstrated in the work of Jean Godfrey and LEAF — we will warrant an opus. A picture is worth a thousand words, Mr. Trump. And definitely a thousand tweets.

— Christy Hallberg


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