Fund Arts, Not Banks

Fund Arts, Not Banks

It was about March, and I was standing in a dingy, mold-infested basement in South Chicago trying to stop my allergies from acting up. A few large-ish speakers were crammed into one side of the room while kids set up drum sets and tuned their guitars. I was waiting for a local hardcore band to take the "stage." Everything was in short supply here except the beer and fliers for upcoming punk shows. Even the lighting was little more than floodlights bought from the local Home Depot duct-taped to the rafters. 

Despite the lack of resources, though, one couldn't help but notice how creativity flourished even as mainstream society did its best to ignore this neglected and abused section of Chicago's vibrant music scene. Nobody was supporting these kids except themselves. Few seemed to care that this show was even happening. And that's a shame, because if given the opportunity, these kids might just give a few folks like them something to hold onto. 

DIY. Short for "Do-It-Yourself." It's practically the lifeblood of punk rock, an ethos that has enabled adherent artists to do the seemingly-impossible over the past 30 years: make their living off their art. Hip-hop too has launched itself to a global industry largely on the relentless sweat of emcess, DJs and budding impresarios steadfast on giving their message and outlook a platform. The reasoning is simple: if the world won't give you a mic, then you pick up the megaphone, kick in the front door and make them listen, dammit!

Most musicians have little choice in the matter. No serious music fan needs to be reminded how spineless most major record labels are when it comes to music that pushes the status quo. And today's young generation of punks, hip-hoppers and indie rockers have been raised when the concept of "public funding for the arts" has been more or less erased from mass consciousness. It's been almost 20 years since the National Endowment for the Arts was gutted by Congress amidst conservative accusations of offensive material. Even before then, though, funding for the NEA had been anemic for quite some time. 

President Obama gave the NEA a bump earlier in the year when he increased its funding for 2009 to $155 billion. It's certainly an improvement from the paltry $80 million it had to operate off of under Bush, but still below what it was even under Reagan. Meanwhile, the millions of working people trying to make it as poets, painters or musicians are dealing with the same unemployment and wage cuts as the rest of us. 

There seems no better time to talk about a renewed public arts program. Most industrialized nations have robust public subsidies for arts and culture that put the NEA to shame--even in times of economic boom. Theaters and film studios that can assemble ground-breaking works without fear of going bankrupt. Art galleries that can support painters and sculptors whose art isn't "mainstream." And, of course, stipends for musicians to live off and buy new instruments while they work on their craft.

It doesn't seem likely that any of this will cross Obama's lips in the near future, as the prez seems bent on proving to the Limbaugh-Beck crowd that he isn't--he really isn't!--a "socialist." But the teabag cabal might be shocked to learn that there was a time in this country when the kind of "subversive" art that their ilk detest was created on the government's dime. 

In fact, the largest project to fall under the umbrella of FDR's second New Deal was "Federal One," projects that covered artists, writers, actors and musicians. The Federal Music Project was responsible for sponsoring concerts, composers and performers. Though the FMP is most remembered for bottom-lining symphonic music, it was also responsible supporting folk and jazz artists. In other words, it wasn't just "high art" that the FMP helped out, but music that came from the bottom up and pushed the boundaries. Folk greats like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger played shows sponsored by the FMP. So did jazz innovators of the bebop era like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach.

Federal One and its public subsidies for the arts were effectively rolled up right before the dawn of World War II under pressure from the Republicans and right-wing Democrats in congress. They were called "wasteful," the "hoodwinking of the public," and alleged that the programs bankrolled communists (and many artists were indeed radicals). But put on a Charlie Parker album and then say with a straight face that these programs were a waste.

The benefit that a modern-day FMP might have can be seen on a microscopic scale today at any community cultural center working for meaningful change. Batey Urbano, located in Chicago's heavily black and Latino Humboldt Park neighborhood, is a prime example. On top of providing youth empowerment programs, the center also regularly hosts hip-hop performances and slam poetry--the kind you won't see on MTV (which, coming from this writer, is a compliment). 

Examples like this can be found in every city in the US. With a shoestring budget (often reliant entirely on donations) and bare-bones staff, community organizers have given young artists the creative space so sorely needed for them to find a voice. With ordinary folks' pocket-books drying up, though, many of these very same centers may quite soon find themselves on the chopping block. 

If there is anything that the past thirty years of neoliberal bootstrap-ism has shown us, it's that kids will find a way to make their voices heard no matter what. Art is, after all, inherent to what makes us human, and young artists have often played the role of truth-teller when few others will. The boost that community centers could get from a healthy federal subsidy could have the potential to radiate well past the artists themselves in this time of recession. As Jeff Chang pointed out in a May article in The Nation, "[t]he economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society. Artists as well as community organizers cultivate new forms of knowledge and consciousness."

The rumblings of the demand for a public arts program can already be heard. In January, an internet petition for an "Arts Stimulus Plan" demanding that one percent of the proposed stimulus bill go to the arts gained thousands of signatures in a matter of days. According to Chang:

"Cross-cultural dialogues have begun between older activists inspired by the example of 1930s WPA arts projects and 1970s CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973] cultural development programs and the post-NEA meltdown do-it-yourselfers raised on the independent aesthetics of hip-hop and punk. Such discussions could help shape a framework for a cultural policy that focuses on the demonopolization and reregulation of the culture industry... promotes a radical spirit of diversity and unshackles creativity to rebuild communities and the national economy." 

The possibilities are more than a little tantalizing. These two musical movements have survived and managed to deliver their rebel message off little more than sheer grit. Any one of us can name vibrant and talented artists whose work is overlooked by the corporate music industry. Imagine the new and exciting music that could be created--and the hell that could be raised--if these artists had a few government bucks thrown their way. 

It would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture of such a program in this country. It would be up to artists and activists to make sure that a public arts program would remain relevant and sustainable if it were ever initiated. The history of Federal One is littered with stories of artists being forced to organize and demand more from the government--from better living stipends to the right to create their art without censorship (fights they frequently won). But the space to do so that would be created by a revived FMP would be exponentially bigger than the cutthroat free market of the record industry.

Is it a tall order? Sure. But so is universal healthcare and the right to organize a union. That doesn't make them any less urgent. The right to create and experience art can't be seen any less a fundamental one. To win it, though, it's going to take more than simply hoping for the government to change its mind. It's going to require an energy that doesn't limit itself to our basements and iPods, but spills into the streets, workplaces and communities. 

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, maintains the blog Rebel Frequencies (  He is a columnist for The Society of Cinema and Arts and  His writings have also appeared at Socialist Worker,, ZNet, Razorcake, Counterpunch and others.

He can be reached at