January 24, 2021
By Emeline Jouve, Associate Professor at the INU Champollion and the Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. Her research is focused on American theater.
The world of arts and culture in the United States is in dire straights. The health crisis has hit the entertainment industry full force. Closed museums and movie theaters, performances (theater, danse,...) and concerts suspended, festivals cancelled, all resulted in dramatic consequences for cultural actrices and actors, but also for a whole nation because art is essential to any social life. Indeed, art gives meaning because it shakes us up, makes us think of other possibilities, while making us dream, but more mundanely also, because it is an important source of income.
In the old world, the one before the pandemic, the "creative" industries contributed around $800 million annually to the US economy. According to a study done, notably by Richard Florida (the inventor of the notion of "creative class"), the loss today would be 150 billion. One of the highest unemployment rate is in that sector: one third of the professionals are jobless right now. In California, New York and Texas, whose economies are in large part dependent on arts and cultural activities, are particularly suffering from the situation. The damage runs deep and extends accross the nation. And yet, the arts were non-existant in the political programs of either candidate during the November presidential elections.
This troubling absence can be explained for starters by the US' liberal tradition in where the arts are private domain and so the government should not interfere in artistic affairs: this constitutional separation of private and public sectors explains why there is no Department of Culture. The arts industry's revenu source comes essentially from the private sector and stems from personal funds and sponsorships. Public aid is marginal and is mainly given by local authorities. However, there is a non-governmental federal agency that mainly looks to finance non-profit organizations: the National Endowment for the Arts. This institution, created in 1965 in the middle of the cold war, was meant to compensate for the financial crisis that the cultural organizations were experiencing at the time. This new crisis could therefore promise a strong increase in its budget which, in 2019, was 162 million dollars. With the stimulus CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) voted on by Congress in March 2020, 75 million additional dollars were given to the NEA.
This financial help from the government could have been interpreted as a sign of interest from Donald Trump for "cultural things". Not at all. In fact, during his term, Trump tried to eliminate the NEA several times, but as mentioned by Frédéric Martel, Congress "with a Republican majority, decided each time to reestablish the NEA funds". As a matter of fact, the elected president "was out of step with Republican tradition" since the "Republicans have always been in favor of the arts and defended the NEA". Trump didn't just attack public funding for the arts, he also supported a series of reforms meant to abolish some of the advantages that collectors and sellers had until then. This position, for a pro-capitalist hoping to favor business, seems rather surprising and can be seen as proof of the previous Republican president's lack of interest toward culture. As a candidate, Trump did not deem it necessary to tackle the artistic issue in his program, or during his rallies.
Strangely, Joe Biden was not much more eloquent on the topic though entertainment actors took position and supported his candidacy. In order to block what a number of artists and artistic organizations considered as the "trumpist menace", they publicly took a stand for Biden. In the theater world, for example, the actor's union Actors' Equity Association and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society called to vote for Biden, while the visual artists (Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Marilyn Minter, … ) organized on-line sales, Artists for Biden, in order to help with their candidate's campaign. Though Biden declared that his presidency would be "F.D.R.-size", in other words similar to the great stimulus measures president Franklin Delano Roosevelt put in place following the 1929 stock market crash, the new president still has not announced a plan similar to Federal One, a group of projects of the New Deal that were destined to help creators.
Will Biden therefore live up to the hopes of the artistic communities that worked toward his victory? Will the Senate win by the Democrats forecast the possibility that the president and his teammate, who have both shown an interest in the arts during their respective careers, will reestablish the policies in general and the arts program in particular. However, though during his term as Barack Obama's Vice-President, Biden's position could reassure the artistic community as to the continued support of the NEA, the experts do not think he will come back on Trump's reforms to facilitate the arts business. On August 19, 2020, right in the middle of the campaign, Biden stated during an interview with the creator of the musical comedy Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, that "the arts [were] the future for Americans, a reflexion of their soul". Then he added: "we must restore the lost soul of this nation". However, these statements were not followed with concrete measures. The United States' soul is in peril. While many artists are trying to stay in touch with their public by increasing their on-line artistic shows through digital tools, their workplaces remain closed and many will be unable to reopen unless they are given an extended hand. These artists that made America dream are dreaming today of cultural policies that will help, if not save their soul and that of their compatriots, at least save their line of work.
Emeline Jouve is an Associate Professor at the INU Champollion and the Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. Her research is focused on American theater. She is the author of, among others, Susan Glaspell’s Poetics and Politics of Rebellion (University of Iowa Press, 2017) and Avignon 68 & le Living Theatre : Mémoires d’une révolution (Deuxième Epoque, 2018).