As far as federal funding for the arts goes, we have the NEA. The National Endowment for the Arts has a budget of a hundred million dollars a year, a fraction of the cost of one B-1 bomber.

The budget was higher, but in 1981, at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s administration, it was cut. Originally conservatives wanted to cut the NEA budget by 50%, but after a slew of opposition, the cut was just over 10%.

The NEA was cut again by a Republican-led Congress in 1995 – by 40% – to the current budget of slightly less than $100 million a year. Conservative voices wanted to cut the NEA altogether, but President Clinton intervened. While Conservatives argue that any government spending on the Arts is unjustified and should be abolished, the founding fathers of the U.S. did provide support for artists in the form of copyright protection and tax credits for charitable donations, suggesting they understood the value of the arts within our culture.

In terms of actual dollars, the NEA’s current budget is a little less than fifty cents per American per year. Compared to our competitors – the UK spends 26 dollars per citizen, France spends 57, and Germany spends 85- we are basically barbarians.

Despite a crappy economy, America can afford to support the arts financially, although conservatives argue that the arts should pay their own way in the market, like any other commodity.

A few reasons why our government SHOULD want to support the arts:

1. The arts provide significant cultural capital – there are “spillover” benefits from the creation of arts, a term coined by economists, just as there are from educational achievement. Artistic achievement is a marker of national identity fully comparable to economic, military or scientific achievement.

2. Citizens support ‘option values’ for arts funding. This means that, while I may not choose to personally patronize an art event or organization, I would still like to see it supported and sustained as an option for others, or for the next generation.

After the Congress cut the NEA by a third in 1995, President Clinton affirmed his support for art funding in his State of the Union speech.”Our economy is measured in numbers and statistics, and it’s very important. But the enduring worth of our nation lies in our shared values and our soaring spirit. So instead of cutting back on our modest effort to support the arts and humanity, I believe we should stand by them and challenge our artists, musicians–challenge our museums, libraries, and theaters.”

Even so, if people really WANT the arts and want to support them, won’t there be a free market for it? Yes there will be. But what quality standards would exist? Based on our current economy, wouldn’t there be downsizing and cuts, and a concentration on mainstream ‘sure hits,’ rather than exploring the classics or discovering new talent? Our country’s current hold on funding levels for the NEA is unlikely to result in quality, diversity, or anything other than the recycling of the known and the safe. Increased funding for the arts should be a priority for artists who vote.

There’s no obvious conclusion on whether or not Obama will be more supportive of the arts, but some funding is better than none at all!

John McCain’s record is clear. He voted for the Helms Amendment, which hoped to deny funding to work considered “obscene,” which is a word that can be applied to most types of art. Seriously, who wants PG rated art?

In 1999, McCain voted with Sens. Robert Smith, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, Sam Brownback and John Ashcroft for the Smith-Ashcroft amendment. The amendment hoped to cut all funding for the NEA from that year’s budget. And here’s the introduction it received:

“In proposing the amendment, Smith explained that his objective was not to reform or restructure the NEA, but to close it down. He argued that federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is unconstitutional. Ashcroft joined Smith in speaking in support of their amendment.”

Ed Winkleman reports on McCain’s historical track record on NOT funding the arts in “McCain on Arts Funding” on his NY blog as well. Check it out!

If you want to hedge your bets, contact both candidates and demand more federal funding for the arts. Contact Obama / Contact McCain.