Recently, I received a letter from the Montana Shakespeare Festival urging me to write letters to my Congress representatives urging them to preserve the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was created in 1965 by an act of the U.S. Congress as an independent agency of the federal government. In March 2017, a proposal to eliminate all federal funding for the program was suggested by the Trump administration. I have fond memories of touring with the Montana Shakespeare Festival, playing in backyards and parks throughout Montana. Bill Pullman was in the company. As one rancher put it, “I can’t read Shakespeare, but I like looking at it.” The total budget for the NEA would equal one Air Force fighter jet.
It is a sad country that does not have or support its arts, the spiritual spine of any nation. Actor and voice-over artist Peter Coyote recently wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting the planned elimination of the NEA. Here are excerpts:
“As a member of the California State Arts Council for eight years, and its chairman for four, I admit to being partisan about the arts. Having said that, however, I was gobsmacked by the fatuous vulgarity of House Speaker Ryan’s excuse offered for obliterating the National Endowment for the Arts from the national budget. Shedding crocodile tears for an imaginary coal miner in West Virginia, Mr. Ryan asserted in so many words that ‘We take money from coal miners in West Virginia and I just can’t explain to them why we would spend it on the arts.’”
There is something condescending in Paul Ryan’s statement. Coyote points out that “Mr. Ryan’s pitiful coal miner is a fiction, and it is Mr. Ryan who is so ignorant of Appalachian culture that he has no understanding of the rich history of arts and crafts from clog-dancing to the jigs and reels that engendered Blue Grass music. … This exemplifies the bewildering disconnect between Mr. Ryan, the Republican Congress and President Trump from all the normal joys and woes of Americans who are not hypnotized by either fiscal ideologies or fascinations with political power.”
Peter Coyote also notes that “Mr. Ryan spends the man’s money on first-class health care for himself and his colleagues in the government and is about to deny health care to 24 million Americans.”
Funding the National Endowment for the Arts, a program started by President Lyndon Johnson, is fundamental to the artistic health of the nation and our state, as the Idaho Shakespeare Festival could also be impacted. Art in any form holds a mirror up to nature. It is essential that all American citizens become aware of this drastic budget cut. Of course, there are other budget cuts that could impact our nation even more. I hope Peter Coyote is not accurate when he concludes that “We are in serious trouble as a nation.”
Speaking of the arts, the Rocky Mountain Writers’ Festival in Pocatello begins April 5 and runs through April 8. Check local listings for who is reading from written work or playing original songs.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.