(Crossposted from The Field.)
"Is this socialism? Is America moving away from capitalism?"
- Sean Hannity, Fox News, January 28, 2009
"His stimulus plan... it's designed to repair the power losses from the nineties forward of the Democrat Party and to entrench this party for, quote, unquote, eternal power like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did with his New Deal."
- Rush Limbaugh, January 28, 2008
The wingnuttery is at high volume today and color me pink, I'm in Schadenfraude City: the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity are crying because they accurately beheld what occurred today - even as some of their progressive counterparts don't seem to get it - with the US House's passage of the $819 billion dollar Stimulus Bill...
They note, accurately, that much of what the Stimulus package has labeled as "tax cuts" means, in fact, that checks will soon go out to so many millions of Americans - including many too poor to have owed taxes.
They're apoplectic that two thirds of the money goes to 50 state governments to balance their budgets, to weatherize and repair dilapidated schools, highways, launch green energy projects and other infrastructure fixes, creating a new generation of jobs for people that want to work.
They don't like that the Stimulus will fund public education, protect unemployment insurance and Medicaid, and supply food stamps to those in need.
They rail "that's not a stimulus," but they're wrong. It almost doesn't matter how the money is spent, but that it is and that it begins circulating from hand to hand. (To wit: their favorite example of "pork" of the day - money for prevention of sexually transmitted disease - serves as an excellent stimulus as it is a labor-intensive job to send out organizers and educators to do it). Their other complaint du jour was most interesting to me: the Stimulus Bill's inclusion of $50 million dollars to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).
Obama hasn't yet nominated the next NEA chief. The agency's budget for fiscal year 2008 was $144 million dollars, so the extra $50 million would be a major shot in the arm. And it gives the new director, if someone with vision, a golden opportunity to unleash an army of artists and other creative Americans to be the public eyes and ears and the grassroots propaganda arm of this effort to restart the economy.
To get the United States out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt launched various stimulus programs to get people to back to work, most importantly, from 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). As part of the WPA, the Federal Arts Project (FAP) created work for 5,000 of America's best artists who painted murals and posters, sculpted and created more than 225,000 works of art, mainly in state and local government buildings. (Contrast that 225,000 number over eight years with the just 119,000 grants by the NEA over 38 years, and you can get an idea of the scope.)
For example, in The Bronx, five high schools, a junior high, a post office and a public library were emblazoned with fresco murals, oil on canvass panels, mosaics, and a limestone relief with work by nine artists funded by the WPA and related programs. In Harlem, artist Vertis Hayes' eight-panel mural recounts African-American history from an African village to urban America. Similar works occurred all over the country, portraying the work and struggles of the people who live in those places, too, in town and city halls, in schools and public buildings, together with the mass production of propaganda posters made by FAP and WPA artists. Theater troupes funded by the federal government provided entertainment and narrative for the economic struggles of everyday people (as recounted in the movie, The Cradle Will Rock).
You turn on the TV and hear the business reports about "consumer confidence," which is, as the wording suggests, a largely psychological factor that affects every other aspect of the economy (and is affected by it): basically, it determines whether many people spend or hoard their money. The FAP was brilliant for at least two reasons: One, for every artist brought off unemployment a job was created (and for every artist that left an assembly line or an office gig to do his and her work, a job was opened for somebody that wanted it more than we slacker artists with bad attitudes do). Two, the murals and posters and works of theater and music and other creativity deployed by the FAP and related programs served not only to raise "consumer confidence," but also to educate and organize the public, to provide a new and better narrative to the history people were living in that time, to forge a new public consensus behind the New Deal that lasted two generations in America and with it an evolutionary leap in progress on so many fronts.
Today, artists aren't only mural painters or poster makers or members of theater troupes. They're also viral video creators on the Internet, and deploy other technologies to create new narratives. The grassroots creativity unleashed during Obama's campaign - as embodied by the red-and-blue Shepard Fairey "HOPE" poster, the YouTube "1984" ad, and so many other works - can be similarly wielded by the NEA and other agencies - with relatively modest grants to creators - to inspire public knowledge and pride in the many projects being funded by the Stimulus.
For example, when schools from the "corridor of shame" in South Carolina to the barrios of Los Angeles that haven't been repaired or remodeled since the 1800s get fixed by those put to work by the Stimulus, the NEA and other agencies ought to hire artists to go in and paint that history on their repaired walls that tell the stories of the workers, the children and other people who live in those places in this unique moment of history.
I've heard nothing about what plans the new administration may have for the NEA (which has, sadly, focused more on the effete side of the arts and with funding "institutions" since its founding in 1966), but I'd be surprised if President Obama doesn't have a very different role in mind for deploying artists as part of the Stimulus, based on how he deployed their creativity during the campaign. (Ask not, NEA, what your Stimulus can do for you, but what you can do for your Stimulus!)
But one thing is for sure: the vast increase in the NEA's budget that is in this Stimulus Bill, if it survives the Senate and the joint conference of both houses (and I think it will), has just widened the talent pool of those that may be interested in heading the arts agency.
The right director, with this kind of WPA-style vision for the agency, will have it in her or his power to deploy those funds in ways that make this moment, ahem, revolutionary, but under the cover of clandestinity that the arts have provided progress in every culture since the dawn of history, and, at special moments, like during the presidency of FDR, have moved society and culture together in a great leap forward.