This #100hardtruths was shared with me by my friend and mentor, Laura Wexler, the esteemed feminist scholar of photography and Principal Investigator of the NEH-supported Photogrammar Project:
“Fake news has it that we must sacrifice the NEA and the NEH for better stewardship of our national wealth and interests. It is claimed that these agencies are wasteful and unnecessary. But in fact, they are among the most important investments our society can make. By their means, we increase our chances to understand who we are, and thus to envision how we might better proceed. Their conceptual roots are in the alphabet agencies of the Great Depression when a staggering economic crisis called for a political shift in the way that the United States cared for its population, in some ways not unlike the present moment.
A few hours after his inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt swore in his entire cabinet en masse, so as to hit the ground running. In the next 105 days, in the depths of the emergency, in un-ending special session, Congress created and passed the Emergency Banking Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the Truth-in-Securities Act, the Glass-Steagall Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. The new president was able to persuade millions that they had “nothing to fear, but fear itself.” In all, there were 15 major bills. It was a vigorous and astonishing three and a half months.
The contrast with the current 100-day count-down could not be more stark. From the shocking disarray of presidential appointments to the ugly attempt of Congress to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, to the amplification of racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, to the spate of executive orders designed precisely to undo whatever could be undone of what remains of the New Deal’s legislation and spirit, Trump’s first 100 days are the Bizarro version of the earlier period.
Today, at day #91 of the Trump administration, we have plenty to fear, including fear itself which is shaking millions awake at 4:00 am. Among the weighty judgements our new president must make is how to apportion federal funding. Hanging in the balance is funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Arts, among others. These programs, many of which were proudly created in the 1960s in an echo of the Federal Arts and Writers’ projects of the 1930s, are on the chopping block of Trump’s proposed budget. Defenders have rushed to explain that redirecting their relatively meager funding will do very little to relieve the national debt, while they pay for themselves many times over through the amplification they provide for public history and public art. So, for instance, Graham Bowley wrote in The New York Times on March 16, 2017:
The two-endowment agencies each receive about $148 million a year now. The budget for public broadcasting, currently $445 million, has been more consistent over the years. Together they still account for only $741 million, or much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the United States’ annual federal spending, an amount supporters say is too small to make a difference.
Mengqi Sun wrote in the Christian Science Monitor on March 17, 2017:
Though the budgets of the four agencies are negligible in the larger scheme of federal government spending – $148 million each for NEA and NEH, $445 million of CPB, and $230 million for IMLS – the federal dollars are often used to leverage state, local, and private funding.”
And Michael Cooper and Sopan Deb wrote in the New York Times on March 17, 2017:
Proponents of preserving endowment grants are increasingly speaking of them in terms that many Republicans can love – as investments that spur job creation; as public-private partnerships that award grants that are matched by private donations; and as programs that help returning veterans or people who live in rural communities.
But these defenses, though factual and earnest, and maybe even necessary, are themselves a species of “fake news.” To our adversaries, no matter how small we make ourselves, it will never be small enough. However little we claim to cost, we will still be too expensive, and however much we claim to multiply value, we will be worth too little. The premise is fake. We are aligning ourselves with the disrespect of our adversaries while attempting to gain their regard. We are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs while being shoved into a corner. It is hurtful to see.
The real news makes a much larger claim: that the Federal government benefits from the CPB, the IMLS and the NEA and the NEH not because they save money but because they support another economy: that of the nation itself. This larger expenditure is in the currency of self-recognition. For calculations about the NEA and the NEH, neither the “E” (money) nor the “A” and the “H” (arts and humanities) are as important as the “N” (national). The reason to fight for the NEH and the NEA is not because we need them in order to have arts and humanities, which we will have in any case, but because we need them to know how to imagine ourselves as a nation. As in Betsy deVos’s hands the voucher system systematically aims to destroy the public schools, in Trump’s hands the destruction of the NEH and the NEA aims to voucherize the public itself. But the public cannot be supported by special interests and wealthy individuals because those are specific and exceptional rather than representative actors.
During the Great Depression, under the direction of a brilliant young economist named Roy Stryker, Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration sent more than a score of American’s most accomplished documentary photographers out into the field to take photographs that would show Americans to one another as “deserving” of government aid. This was done, if you will, under the sign of “fake news,” that is to say, the economic argument that New Deal programs of social support were saving far more than they cost. In point of fact, the enemies of the administration did not allow most of the programs to reach their full potential. No matter what the factual ratio of cost to benefit, state supported welfare was seen as creeping socialism and as something to be beaten back.
But the real news is what happened anyway. Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, John Vachon, John Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Esther Bubbly, Marion Post Walcott, and many others took the opportunity to work extravagantly beyond bounds to make a collective portrait of the spirit of the American people that is unsurpassed, one of our greatest national treasures.
I am Principal Investigator of the NEH-supported Photogrammar Project, codirected by Lauren Tilton and Taylor B. Arnold. Photogrammar has made an interactive, geospatial map of the more than 170,000 photographs produced between 1935-1945 by the Farm Security Administration and its successor, the Office of War Information. Because Photogrammar makes this enormous archive of images so easily searchable, it is possible to see at scale the extraordinary extra expenditure these artists laid out in the work that they did, work that had no need to be as fine as they made it. Most of the images were circulated in newsprint-quality reproductions or in government reports. Much less effort would have sufficed. And yet, the government got more.Why? Because the FSA photographers became committed to telling the real, as opposed to the fake, news. Because they did not economize. Because as government employees, on modest salaries, they learned to recognize the need for true extravagance – to reimagine a nation for the regular everyday people injured and insulted by the structural violence that buffeted their lives.”
- “Museums Chart a Response to Political Upheaval,” Graham Bowley
- “What America without the NEA and NEH would look like, and why that matters,” Mengqi Sun
- Republicans Start Lining Up to Fight for the N.E.A. and N.E.H., Michael Cooper and Sopan Deb
- Photogrammar Project
Twenty years ago, on March 13, 1997, Frank Rich penned an op-ed, “Lesbian Lookout,” in support of the NEA, which was under threat. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996), which I produced and acted in, and Yvonne Rainer’s MURDER and murder, were that year’s perennial NEA whipping boys.
When it comes to a fixation on lesbian sex, even Howard Stern is a poor second to Pete Hoekstra, a Representative from Michigan. Mr. Hoekstra seems to have a curious obsession with sampling alleged lesbian porn financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. In a January letter to the N.E.A.’s chairman, Jane Alexander, he describes how he executed his solemn duty to watch a movie called The Watermelon Woman after ‘reading a review . . . which stated that [it] had “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.”‘ (What paper is the Congressman reading?)
The Watermelon Woman has recently enjoyed a twentieth year remaster of our deteriorating print, and a twentieth anniversary re-release, commencing at last year’s Berlinale, moving on to MoMA, enjoying a week’s theatrical run at NY’s Metrograph, and now available for purchase. Supported by $31,500 in 1995 by the NEA, the last year the Endowment supported individual filmmakers, it has gone on to be a valued enough piece of American filmmaking that our remaster was supported by film culture stalwarts like the UCLA Film & TV Archive, Outfest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has remained valued for many things, including its art-world famous “Fae Richards Archive” of 82 images by Zoe Leonard re-enacting the life and contemporaries of our fake star, otherwise known as “the Watermelon Woman”; for its contributions to the sub-genre fake documentaries, of which I am also a scholar; for its place in history as the first African American lesbian feature film; and for its intelligent, disarming, honest depictions of the relations between owning and controlling imaging technologies and history, memory, and truth (also the focus of all of the #100hardtruths I pen).
It is true that some recent re-reviews have noted the political artfulness of the depiction of lesbian sex in the film, but everyone knows that salacious sex is not really the film’s primary preoccupation (Dunye’s more heady interests in identity, self-reflexivity, film history, experimental form, and the political power of archives have contributed to its ongoing attention by scholars, as was demonstrated in the recent academic conference that was part of its anniversary). We understood the #hardtruth that bigots used its lesbian sex scene as a smoke screen for their much more prurient commitments to censorship, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
There are many haunting truths to be told about our experiences twenty years ago associated to past efforts to defund the NEA. As is true for many real statements about fake things, I hope our place within a previous generation’s successful defense may be useful for those working today to hold off this administration’s sorry attempts. Some of what actually happened now plays as phony as the claims trotted out against us, but as many of the facts of our place within the history of the annals of the NEA reflect tactics, and players, that stay true to this day: speak truth to power; fight for the right for the least-seen to speak truth to power.
- For the most part, white men were our strongest champions as the Congress used our little picture for bigger aims. Frank Rich wrote on our behalf, and Alex Baldwin spoke for us on the steps of Capitol Hill. Having made a film about black women and lesbians’ lack of access to capital, media, and power, it still came as a shock that Cheryl never got to speak on her own behalf.
”We’re in the ‘no bullwhips, please’ phase of Federal funding for the arts,” Mr. Baldwin said after his two-day excursion here. ”I would love all art to be funded, for the Federal Government to spend $1 billion on the arts, and for the N.E.A. to be restored to what it was. ‘But the political facts of life are that funding anything that this Congress considers obscene will enable Dick Armey and the Republican leadership to dynamite the entire N.E.A.” (“Lobbyists Fight Cuts on Arts Day in Capital,” 1997)
- But in the end, a congressional bill to defund the NEA by $31,500—staged as political theater to shame our film, and other attempts of American self-expression—was voted down on the floor of congress due to the simple and true words of one of our strongest champions, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye’s cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that ‘I’ve seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?'” (“Can ‘Community Standards’ Apply to ‘Watermelon Woman,‘” 1997).
- The National Endowment for the Arts
- #148milliondollars, Paul Weston
- “Five Best Art World Protests Against Trump,” Ilana Novick
- www.neafunded.us, Tega Brain
- F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner
- #100hardtruths-#fakenews: a primer on digital media literacy
February 27, 2017
“On April 4, 2017, almost 90 art house movie theaters across the country in 79 cities and in 34 states, plus one location in Canada, will be participating collectively in a NATIONAL EVENT DAY screening of the 80’s movie 1984 starring John Hurt. These theaters owners strongly believe in supporting the National Endowment for the Arts and see any attempt to scuttle that program as an attack on free speech and creative expression through entertainment.”
“The endeavor encourages theaters to take a stand for our most basic values: freedom of speech, respect for our fellow human beings, and the simple truth that there are no such things as ‘alternative facts.’ By doing what they do best – showing a movie – the goal is that cinemas can initiate a much-needed community conversation at a time when the existence of facts, and basic human rights are under attack. Through nationwide participation and strength in numbers, these screenings are intended to galvanize people at the crossroads of cinema and community, and bring us together to foster communication and resistance against current efforts to undermine the most basic tenets of our society.” United States of Cinema
- United States of Cinema: National Screening Day, April 4
- National Endowment for the Arts
- neafunded.us, Nega Bryant