Category: Obama’s Arts Policy

Obama’s 2016 Arts Budget

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

Altered logo for the National Endowment for the Arts

President Obama has proposed a Fiscal Year 2016 budget approaching a record $3.99 trillion. It contains money for a $478 billion “public works” program for the construction of upgrades to U.S. transit systems, bridges, and highways, all financed by taxes on profits U.S. corporations have amassed overseas. It is nice that Mr. Obama is promising American workers the world, now that Republicans holding majorities in both the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress will undoubtedly block his faux “Rooseveltian” vision. Obama’s budget is a shell game designed to take advantage of the politically confused.

You see, the president could not offer a public works program earlier in his presidency when democrats had congressional majorities in the House and Senate, because he was too busy bailing out giant financial firms with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. But I am supposed to be writing about Obama’s proposed FY 2016 arts budget.

Let me put it this way. Our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president has put forward a “defense” budget for FY 2016 that will total $620.9 billion. His proposed budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), you know, the U.S. government agency that is “dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts” from sea to shining sea… is a mere $148 million. Here I must add that Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper has grossed, in just a three week period, $31.9 million dollars; the film is expected to generate $249 million in domestic sales.[1]

When announcing his FY 2016 budget, Obama said: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or are we going to build an economy where everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?” The answer to that should be obvious; the financial aristocracy is grinning from ear to ear.

George W. Bush was certainly no friend of the NEA, but during 2009, the last year of his administration, he gave the NEA a $155 million dollar budget. What might shock the reader… or not, is that under the Obama administration the national arts budget has been consistently slashed since 2010. In that year Obama’s NEA budget was $161 million, in 2011 it was $154 million, in 2012 it dropped to $146 million, in 2013 it bottomed-out at $138 million. In 2014 it “rebounded” like a zombie from The Walking Dead by shambling back up to the shameful sum of $146 million, where it continued to limp and stumble throughout 2015. Now Mr. Obama has requested that the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should receive a $2 million dollar increase in 2016… which is still lower than George W. Bush’s 2009 funding of the NEA!

That is no mean trick for a senator that cajoled the U.S. arts community into electing him as president. Remember the hard sell from the 2008 presidential election campaign - Barack Obama and Joe Biden: Champions For Art and Culture? Remember the excited chattering amongst artists (save for this one), that Obama was the only candidate to have a platform in support of the arts? The better question is what happened to the voices of all those artists who worked so hard at promoting Mr. Hope and Change? They have all fallen silent, or changed the subject. Laughably, some have even managed to continue packaging themselves as “subversive” artists.

Robert L. Lynch, the CEO of Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit organization that lobbies for the advancement of the arts in the U.S., said the following about the president’s arts budget:

“The Administration’s FY 2016 budget request for the NEA is moving in the right direction with a $2 million increase. Congress will especially embrace the increased focus and expansion on the NEA’s grantmaking work with arts and the military, including the Healing Arts Partnership. However, this proposed funding level still does not meet the needs of the 95,000 nonprofit arts organizations and state and local arts agencies across the country nor does it reflect the value of the arts to help power our nation’s annual economic growth reflected in U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data showing the arts to be an annual $698.7 billion industry or 4.32 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.”

Obama’s request to raise the 2016 NEA budget by a measly $2 million - still keeping the sum lower than it was in 2010 - should not enthrall arts professionals. It reminds me of the folk truism “they break our legs, and we say thank you when they offer us crutches,” so beautifully encapsulated by the U.K. punk band Chumbawamba in their 1987 song, Here’s The Rest of Your Life.

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Reference [1] ArtsBeat/New York Times

Addendum, Dec. 29, 2015

On Dec. 18, 2015, the U.S. Congress approved President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget; Mr. Obama had requested $148 million for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The approved budget apportions $147.949 million to the NEA. That is still 7 million dollars less than President Bush’s 2009 NEA budget!

At the close of 2015 Mr. Eastwood’s American Sniper far exceeded its expected box office gross of $249 million in domestic sales.  The film garnered $350.1 million in domestic sales and $197 million in overseas sales, for a whopping total of $547.1 million; worldwide, Eastwood’s film is the top grossing war film in history.

Obama: “Part of this job is also the theater of it.”

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. Carried in innumerable demonstrations since 1988.

After months of promising supporters that he would take executive action on “immigration reform,” President Obama announced on September 6, 2014 that he would delay any action on immigration until after the November 2014 midterm elections.

This latest debacle from the White House does not fill me with anguish over being deceived, it is just another broken promise from a long list of shattered and unfulfilled pledges.

I was not disillusioned when President Obama, giving a January 2014 speech on job creation, told a working class audience that they “can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

I was not disenchanted when then-Senator Obama campaigned in 2008 to “support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA),” but as president repeatedly cut and slashed the NEA budget.

I feel no disappointment that Obama has not lived up to a single promise he made in his vaunted 2008 Platform In Support Of The Arts.

I was not crestfallen when Obama went back on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, nor was I let down by him when his Attorney General said in 2013 that Obama has the authority to kill U.S. citizens on American soil with unmanned drone strikes - all without oversight from the judiciary or Congress.

I was not disheartened with Obama when he signed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows the president to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely without charges or trial. I was not disenthralled with Obama when it was discovered that he was running a massive police state surveillance program that had the National Security Agency spying on ordinary Americans.

I was not dispirited by President Obama when he sent 30,000 combat soldiers to Afghanistan in December of 2009, or when he launched an illegal war against Libya without Congressional consent. I suffered no discouragement in Obama’s leadership when he worked to arm the Syrian Islamic fanatics that are fighting to bring down the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad. I was not disconsolate with Obama for redeploying U.S. troops to Iraq in 2014 to fight the extremists of ISIS, even though these are practically the same medievalists that have been beheading Syrians for years.

There have been many other actions taken by Obama that have not given me a sense of disquietude regarding his presidency - too many to list here; reneging on his disarmament pledges by investing billions to upgrade the U.S. nuclear bomb arsenal; his backing of the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras; creating his deceitfully named “Affordable Health Care Act” as an appendage of the gargantuan Pharmaceutical and Insurance industries, and his militarization of Africa with the expansion of the Europe-based U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).

I was not even phased by Obama’s hapless decision to cheerfully play golf after delivering a speech regarding the monstrous ISIS beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley. In a rare moment of honesty, Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it was a mistake for him to have played golf after his Foley speech, saying that “I should’ve anticipated the optics.” (!) In that same NBC interview Obama made the most revealing comment to date regarding his statecraft, he said that “part of this job is also the theater of it.” Indeed.

It is impossible for me to feel “betrayed” or “disillusioned” by President Obama because I never had any illusions about his presidency to begin with. Obama has acted exactly as I expected he would, as a loyal, chief representative of the U.S. ruling class - or what I referred to as “the creeping meatball” as a teenager in the 1960s.

I was never one of those starry-eyed “progressive” artists who produced hero-worshiping posters of Mr. Hope and Change. Such artists have much to own up to, but they have been awfully silent of late. Remarkably, a few of these types still insist upon inflicting their political naiveté upon the rest of society, passing off their social-democratic, neo-liberal tripe as “activist art.” Regrettably they have not yet been wholly rebuffed as discredited opportunists.

My poster Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal/No Human Being is Illegal was originally published and freely distributed in 1988 during the Reagan years. It was a protest against the U.S. government’s inhuman immigration policies that blocked entry to Central Americans desperately seeking refuge in the U.S. from the death squads, wars, and genocidal dictatorships that plagued the region during that period. The poster’s title eventually became a popular slogan for today’s contemporary immigrant rights movement. As such, my poster, in no small part due to Obama, is probably more relevant now than ever before.

In full panic over their possible loss of the Senate to Republicans in the upcoming 2014 elections, Democrats fear that if immigration legislation passes, their defeat will be guaranteed. In other words, Obama and the Democrats have thrown overboard some of their most loyal supporters, the Latino population of the U.S. Where is the morality in that? Excuse the pop culture reference, but that type of political expediency is akin to what viewers saw in Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards series. Latinos know Obama as the “Deporter in Chief” for having deported more immigrants than any other president in U.S. history.

But this is not the first instance of the president turning his back on Latinos. It should be remembered that Obama previously dropped plans for immigration reform during the 2010 Congressional elections, fearing the issue would lose votes for the Democrats. Writing for the Associated Press at the time, reporter Suzanne Gamboa noted “the president calculated that an immigration bill would not prove as costly to his party two years from now, when he seeks re-election.” Low and behold, come the 2012 re-election campaign, Obama once again put immigration reform on the “backburner” as he focused on winning his second term in office. Does anyone remember the baseball phrase, “Three strikes and you’re out”? But what is “out,” the policies of the Deporter in Chief or the people’s capacity to struggle for their rights?

The response from Latinos to Obama’s most recent delay on immigration reform has been critical, but not harsh enough. The president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez, said this about Obama: “Justice delayed is justice denied. He broke his promise to the millions of immigrants and Latinos who are looking for him to lead on this issue.” Cristina Jimenez, the managing director for United We Dream, said that Latinos “will not soon forget the President and Democrats’ latest failure and their attempts to fool the Latino community.” Eddie Carmona of the PICO National Network, one of the largest faith-based activist organizations in the U.S., said “The odds of us being let down by President Obama were high. The president and the Senate Democrats have made it very clear that undocumented immigrants and Latinos are simply viewed as political pawns.”

There are many political pawns in the American political landscape, and it is time they disabuse themselves of the notion that Obama, the Democrats, or the Republicans for that matter, have their best interests at heart. To put it simply, there is only the 1% and the 99%. As for the “Dreamers” out there who are still waiting for Obama to keep his promises, an old truism comes to mind… “A dream is something you wake up from.”

Condolezza Rice Portrait Unveiled

An oil painting portrait of Condolezza Rice was sort of unveiled at the U.S. State Department on June 18, 2014. Actually it was rather a non-event for the media. Of the meager handful of news outlets that bothered to report the story, most did not even bother to show the large oil on canvas, let alone trouble themselves by mentioning Steven Polson, the artist who created the painting. But even Polson’s own online portfolio at the time of the unveiling did not have a reproduction of the artist’s rendition - can I use that word? - of the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush.

Politico covered the event, the first line from their report read; “One word - ‘Iraq’ - was never mentioned at the unveiling.” One word was never mentioned in the Politico report - ‘artist.” Nor was the name Steven Polson brought up. The same could be said of the accounts offered by Raw Story, CBS News, The Washington Post, and ABC News. Those stories focused on the remarks of Ms. Rice and the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, before a bipartisan crowd.

The U.S. State Department put aside $52,450 in taxpayer dollars for the Rice commission, just before Obama’s fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill was implemented. That bill forbids, for a one year period, the tradition of spending money on oil portraits of former government officials. A group of U.S. senators are also sponsoring bipartisan legislation that will cap spending on such portraits in the future, limiting the top price tag of a painting to $20,000. Congress has yet to impose caps on skyrocketing CEO compensation, now well over 300 times the pay of the average worker in America. This puts a new spin on “Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future,” the State Department’s description of their illustrious art collection. For 150 years the Department has commissioned or collected an uninterrupted series of oil portraits depicting each Secretary of State, from Thomas Jefferson (the 1st Secretary, 1790-1793) to Colin L. Powell (2001-2005).

According to the Washington Post, the job of painting the Rice portrait was contracted to Portraits, Inc. Claiming to be “the world’s oldest and largest portrait company” with a roster of 150 professional portrait painters, Portraits, Inc. acts as a broker that matches clients with artists. Perhaps because Steven Polson had already created large portraits of former Secretaries Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell (both in the State Department collection), he was given the commission to paint Ms. Rice.

Polson depicted a slightly larger than life-size Rice in a respectable red Republican dress. She gazes directly at the viewer with a genial smile, a single strand of pearls around her neck. It is a flattering but perfunctory portrait, done in a conservative and restrained style.

At the time of the unveiling the Polson website listed the Rice commission as a work in progress, along with upcoming portraits of other luminaries like Michael Hayden (former Director of the CIA under Bush and former head of the National Security Agency under Bush and Obama), and Christopher Cox (former Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security under Bush). Polson’s long list of finished portraits includes other upright citizens like President Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Combined with Polson’s portraits of bipartisan leading lights from government and the so-called private sector, his portfolio is a veritable “whose who” of today’s U.S. ruling class.

Recall that Condolezza Rice played a major role in building the case for invading and occupying Iraq. In 2002 Rice told CNN that Saddam Hussein was “actively pursuing” nuclear weapons, and that “the problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” On March 19, 2003 George W. Bush launched the war that Rice advocated. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. As of this writing 4,489 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq and 32,021 were wounded. Estimates of Iraqi civilian fatalities range from over a hundred thousand to half a million. The U.S. has spent over $2 trillion on the war in Iraq… so far.

On June 19, 2014 President Obama announced he was prepared to launch “targeted airstrikes” against Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to stop them from toppling the U.S. backed regime of Shiite president Nouri al-Maliki. The president also announced he was sending 300 military advisers to “retrain Iraqi security forces” in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, he made it known that he would not seek congressional authority for his military invention. In true Orwellian fashion, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. soldiers entering the blood-spattered sectarian battlefield that is Iraq, would “not be returning to combat.”

It is easy to imagine the president’s “targeted and precise military action” spilling over into neighboring Syria, where ISIS terrorists and other Islamic militias are also fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an insurgency that Obama supports and arms. But if he wants to stop the insurrection in Iraq, it is going to take more than 300 soldiers and a few airstrikes. When ISIS seized the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, they looted $425 million from Mosul’s central bank and took control of a vast arsenal left behind by the U.S. - Humvees, helicopters, trucks, tanks, artillery pieces, and huge amounts of automatic rifles and ammunition.

The current failing of the imperial project in Iraq comes to mind when thinking of Condolezza Rice, who helped to set off Iraq’s conflagration in 2003. And while Steven Polson’s name is not a household word, he is undeniably doing well for himself, proof positive that talented but uncritical artists are rewarded for their subservience to power. Woe to the obstinate nation; recent Secretaries of State cannot hold a candle to Thomas Jefferson, and our contemporary artists have no discernment when it comes to the powers of reasoning.

A Champion For The Arts?

“A lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career, but I promise you… folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an art history degree; I love art history, so I don’t want to get a bunch of e-mails from everybody.”

President Obama made the above remark during a January 30, 2014 visit to a General Electric gas engine facility in Wisconsin; his dismissive words were captured on video. The president’s visit to the G.E. plant, and the public remarks he made there, were meant to highlight his alleged interest in “reforming” federal job training programs. Instead, the president seems only to have dismayed holders of art-history degrees in particular, and shocked arts professionals in general.

Obama’s despicable remarks so disconcerted Americans for the Arts, the nation’s largest non-profit arts advocacy organization, that the group immediately started an online petition campaign to criticize the president for his rebuke.

The Americans for the Arts petition applauds Obama for being “the first president in history to begin issuing official White House proclamations observing the month of October as National Arts & Humanities Month.” But proclamations are a far cry from the type of assistance and support the arts community is in dire need of, witness the entirely preventable closure last year of the 70-year-old New York City Opera.

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What has President Obama done for the arts? In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt launched the depression era Federal Art Project (FAP), which put over 5,000 unemployed artists to work. FAP artists produced 4,500 public murals, 19,000 sculptures, 450,000 easel paintings, and some 35,000 posters and prints in the eight years of its existence. The poster shown above was designed and produced by anonymous artists working for the Iowa Art Program sponsored by FAP, circa 1936. The poster announced "National Art Week," a nationwide series of government organized exhibits where FAP artworks were offered for sale at affordable prices to the public during the Christmas shopping season. The mission of the Federal Art Project was to enhance the cultural experience of all Americans, and it worked to bring the arts into American life on a mass level. Image: Library of Congress Work Projects Administration Poster Collection.

Americans for the Arts could not congratulate Obama for other accomplishments in concretely supporting the arts because the president has no such achievements to his credit. Yes, the president started the “In Performance at the White House” series, where musicians, movie stars, writers, and other creative types gather at the White House to entertain the President and First Lady, but this is hardly direct assistance to the nation’s artists and cultural institutions, both of which are starved for support in this anemic economy. The Americans for the Arts petition closed with the following appeal, “We urge you to meet with arts policy experts to incorporate the arts and culture into your economic strategies and policies to move America forward.”

As a working artist, and one not involved in single issue politics, all I can say is that I am not the least bit interested in President Obama incorporating arts and culture into his economic strategies. Listening to him talk about skilled manufacturing jobs as a “viable career” for American workers is laughable, considering that he reneged on his 2008 campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In January of 2014, Public Citizen, the consumer rights advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, released a report titled NAFTA at 20. Marking the twentieth anniversary of the trade pact, the report concluded that as a result of NAFTA, one million U.S. jobs have been exported, wages for workers in the U.S. have declined, and income inequality in the U.S. has reached “new extremes.”

But Obama is also currently pushing the so-called “Trans-Pacific Partnership” trade deal with eleven nations in Latin America and Asia, a pact that workers and trade experts both here and abroad have described as “NAFTA on Steroids.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, will siphon away even more jobs from the U.S. while further enriching corporations and impoverishing foreign workers. The TPP would even ban “Buy American” preferences when dealing with nations that are signatories to the pact. In the face of all this, Mr. Obama telling Americans about their future in “skilled manufacturing or the trades” is simply contemptible. And the president managed to insult the intelligence of U.S. workers while simultaneously maligning those who hold art history degrees!

I would like to remind those who have been shocked by President Obama’s philistine remarks regarding a career in art history, that in 2008 many in the U.S. arts community voted for him based upon how he promoted himself as a “Champion for arts and culture.” Obama’s broadly celebrated nine-point Platform In Support Of The Arts was widely hailed as unprecedented. Reading that document now, especially in light of Obama’s dreadful statement, it is but another catalog of broken promises.

Though the U.S. arts community is aghast over President Obama’s comment, there was more to his statement. Immediately after pronouncing that he did not wish to receive e-mails about his remark, he said: “I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.” This single sentence reveals much about the current direction of U.S. society. During his Jan 27, 1998 State of the Union Address, President Clinton said the following:

“I have something to say to every family listening to us tonight: Your children can go on to college. If you know a child from a poor family, tell her not to give up. She can go on to college. If you know a young couple struggling with bills, worried they won’t be able to send their children to college, tell them not to give up. Their children can go on to college. If you know somebody who’s caught in a dead-end job and afraid he can’t afford the classes necessary to get better jobs for the rest of his life, tell him not to give up. He can go on to college.”

In just 16 years Americans have gone from being told by one Democratic president “not to give up,” that everyone “can go on to college,” to being told by another Democratic president that they do not need “a four year college education,” and that job training programs are enough to enjoy “a really good living.” The contradiction of course is that, as the proles go to trade school to learn some pragmatic work-a-day-world skill… the president quietly exports U.S. jobs to other countries.

In a February 2, 2014 televised interview conducted by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O’Reilly, President Obama said the following: “In a lot of ways, Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was.” That is one comment from the president that I will accept as the truth.

In 1974, the last year of Nixon’s presidency before he resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate debacle, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget was $64,025,000. Adjusted for inflation, the buying power of that figure today would be approximately $302,537,000. President Obama’s 2013 budget for the NEA was $138,383,218.

One might refer to President Obama as a champion of predator drones and the NSA’s massive surveillance programs… but a champion of the arts? Never!

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For more information on the FAP, see the Library of Congress Federal Art Project collection.