The best songs will never get sung
The best life never leaves your lungs
So good you won't ever know
You'll never hear it on the radio
Can't hear it on the radio
— Wilco, The Late Greats
Since its formation in 1965, the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts has donated more than $5 billion to artists, writers, poets, musicians, and hundreds of organizations and residencies devoted to the creation and preservation of the arts in the United States. But while the $148 million annual allocation to the NEA makes up only approximately 0.004 percent of the national budget—or $0.45 a person—the organization continually faced calls from lawmakers and other elected officials for its elimination. The NEA's most recent fray onto the budgetary chopping block comes as President Donald Trump has vowed to defund the divisive arts organization completely as part of his budget recommendations (though the final determination will be up to Congress, not Trump).
Despite the NEA's noble ambitions—and relatively miniscule contribution to taxpayers' total year-end bill— its opponents are convinced, first and foremost, that artists simply don't need the NEA to survive. They point to the fact that the arts are still thriving in this country despite the fact that only 4 percent of all arts funding in America comes from public sources. Meanwhile, individual giving amounts to 42 percent of the total and earned income like ticket sales and royalties make up 41 percent.
But these breakdowns ignore the fact that most of the NEA's money goes not directly to individuals but to various non-profit organizations which foster the growth of artists young and old at a community level. That makes it difficult to attach a hard dollar amount on the NEA's impact. Who's to say how much the filmmakers and playwrights of today were affected by NEA-funded plays and workshops at a young age, or to what extent the creators of tomorrow will suffer by missing out on such formative experiences if the NEA is defunded? Moreover, though NEA naysayers claim private expenditure can fill that void just as ably, there's no free market mechanism to match the NEA's stated and concerted efforts to reach low-income and minority communities.
Even still, there exists a remarkable oeuvre of artworks that we can plausibly say might not exist without the NEA. Here are ten of the best:
Forget for a moment about the $700 tickets; the rows of seats reserved for celebrities and masters of the universe; its creator's gig as host of Saturday Night Live; and, in perhaps the truest sign of a pop culture phenomenon, the insulting tweets from Donald Trump; forget all this and know that years ago, when Lin-Manuel Miranda's future hit musical Hamilton was still in gestation, it was being rehearsed and performed at a theater house that survives thanks to federal NEA grants, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times.
To be fair, some have taken issue with the assertion that Hamilton owes at least part of its success to federal arts grants. As CNBC's Jake Novak writes:
“The show was written and starred Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had already written and starred in a multiple-Tony Award winning hit show ("In the Heights") and individual scenes from the production had already been performed for President Obama and various A-list guests at a White House dinner. But we're supposed to believe, this was some kind of charity project? As usual, this successful private-sector project was backed and funded for real by private investors all the way.”
But that argument follows the same dubious logic that free market libertarians bring to bear on commerce: that the best product always wins. (It doesn't. Remember Betamax?) Nor do the best works of art always find an audience. And even if they do, they don't always earn the creator enough money to put food in her mouth and a roof over her head while she dreams up her next masterpiece.
The poems of Nikki Giovanni
By 1970, the year she received an NEA Literature grant, Nikki Giovanni was already one of the most celebrated and important American poets of the 20th century, having been arguably the defining female voice of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. And in truth, Giovanni was also one of the most financially successful poets of her time—except that "success" for a poet doesn't usually translate to selling millions of copies of one's work; more like thousands of copies, an that’s if the poet is extraordinarily fortunate.
Indeed, making a lifelong career out of poetry—even when the poetry is as vital and well-regarded as Giovanni's—is no small task. And grants like the NEA's are essential to making sure artists in less lucrative fields like poetry have the means to keep producing brilliant work for decades, as Giovanni has. Again, proponents of defunding the NEA point to the free market as a means of supporting the nation's best musicians, filmmakers, and even novelists. But when your medium is poetry—which, especially in Giovanni's case, is something that’s historically belonged to the masses and not the rich patrons of fine art and theater—the market alone can’t be expected to cut the checks.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
In the years since the dawn of the digital era that Infinite Jest helped predict and shape, the late David Foster Wallace's massive tome about addiction, entertainment, and tennis-as-destruction has developed an unexpected reputation as a "bro novel" in some circles. But regardless of what a conspicuously-displayed copy of Infinite Jest says about a man to potential Tinder mates, anyone who bothers to actually read the 1,079-page magnum opus—plus its 300 pages of tiny, retina-squeezing footnotes—will discover a prescient and truly gut-wrenching modern Talmud for the way we live today.
And it might never have been completed without an NEA literature grant given to Wallace in 1989 the year he began work on Infinite Jest. It's impossible to say for certain, but the grant no doubt helped ease the financial burden of devoting a half-decade of one's life to completing one or the most ambitious literary works or the 20th century.
A Prairie Home Companion
Though it's difficult to ascertain the precise value of an NEA grant on any given work, we can always take the creator's word for it, as was the case when Garrison Keillor claimed that his long-running and much-beloved radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, would never have expanded its reach beyond its local St. Paul market if not for such grants. It's safe to say too, then, that without those grants the world never have experienced director Robert Altman's star-studded, award-winning film adaptation either.
Speaking of Robert Altman, the Oscar-nominated Short Cuts is not only one of the legendary director's most popular and critically-acclaimed films. This 1991 LA slice-of-life ensemble drama also helped revitalize the M*A*S*H director's career after a largely forgettable decade during which no Hollywood studio would return his phone calls.
But what's less well-known about the film is that it's based on short stories from a pair of Raymond Carver anthologies released on the heels of receiving two NEA grants in 1970 and 1980, respectively.
(Then again, considering the preponderance of cloying "everything-is-connected" ensemble films like Crash that arrived in the wake of Short Cuts, maybe we should temper our praise for the NEA on this one....)
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Prior to writing his acclaimed novel about an intersex man in the early 20th century, Jeffrey Eugenides received a Literature grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Middlesex would go on to sell over 3 million copies and win Eugenides the Pulitzer Prize.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
One of the most popular books on this list, Erica Jong's debut 1973 novel Fear of Flying has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. And the same year Jong finished this ur-text of second wave feminism, what did she receive? That’s right, an NEA Literature grant.
Swimming to Cambodia
Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, based on Gray's experiences on the set of 1984’s The Killing Fields, is one of the most famous standalone monologue plays of all time. But in 1980, Gray’s struggles as an actor and playwright were so profound that he reportedly performed in adult films just to survive. With that in mind, it’s certainly plausible that the NEA grant he received that year contributed in some part to his persistence in the face of long odds and really lousy odd jobs. In any case, the persistence paid off: In 1987, Swimming to Cambodia was adapted into a film directed by Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs).
The works of Phillip Glass
Few contemporary composers are as well-regarded and accomplished as Philip Glass. And even fewer are as decorated as Glass when it comes to federal awards and grants, which are especially crucial for musicians like Glass who require more than a couple guitars and a laptop to make their music. In addition to receiving the National Medal of Arts from Barack Obama last year, he received NEA Opera Honors in 2010.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, is not only a bestselling, critically-acclaimed coming-of-age story about growing up in a Chicano community in Chicago. The novel, whose writer was awarded an NEA grant in 1981 prior to its completion, has also cemented itself into the curricula of middle and high school English classes across the country—including mine nearly 20 years ago—making it many young readers' first exposure to the vital, vibrant, and varied breadth of American literature works penned by Hispanic writers.