Symbolic Gesture Comes Out of Retirement

Washington, DC, January 20, 2017. Advisors to the incoming presidential administration have pulled a bald and creaking Symbolic Gesture from a storehouse of anti-art props left over from the Reagan years, it was announced yesterday. Citing the need to reduce spending, Trump spokespeople from the ultra-right Heritage Foundation started a rumor that “The Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized, while the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated entirely.”

As The Washington Post explains:

The NEA’s current budget is $146 million, which, according to the agency, represents “just 0.012% … of federal discretionary spending.” The NEH also has a budget of $146 million. The CPB receives $445.5 million. By comparison, the budget for the Department of Defense is $607 billion.

And that Defense budget includes military music groups, allocated more funding than the NEA.

The last time such purely symbolic cuts were threatened was when Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, armed with a Heritage Foundation policy directive also entitled Mandate for Leadership, as is the current three-part Heritage manual for the new administration.

In an exclusive conversation with Norman Beckett, the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, Mr. Symbolic Gesture (or SG, as he likes to be called) explained the Heritage-Trump maneuver. We caught up with him in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, soaking in a hot tub to get out the kinks.

SG: Wow, you’d think they’d be more original [bone-rattling sigh]. I can barely get around after 37 years in storage. But at least everyone knows the drill: threaten to cut something beloved that’s the size of a gnat, inflate your accomplishment in the media, lotsa bang for almost no bucks—and you know, I’m a master of misdirection. While everyone is busy with this, no one will notice the tax cuts and special deals for the one percent.

Beckett: But isn’t there some legitimate concern that you might not just be Symbolic this time around?

SG: Listen, I don’t know if they’ll ever turn me into a Real Gesture, but I do know what they want—and that is to scare you shitless and make you feel like there’s nothing to be done. Is it working?

Beckett: Not really. We’re organizing!

SG: Oh yeah? But aren’t you just a Symbolic Gesture yourself?

Beckett: Well, the USDAC has no federal line-item, if that’s what you mean. But the best thing about having no official U.S. Department of Arts and Culture as part of the federal government is that there is no incoming billionaire to dismantle it! As a people-powered department, it’s the time, energy, and passion of artists and creative organizers nationwide that drive our mission of inciting social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging.

SG: Clever, but how do you renew that resource when everything is looking old and orange? Hey...this new guy isn’t Reagan reanimated, is he?

Beckett: We just get more creative. To quote Maya Angelou, “You can’t use up creativity; the more you use, the more you have.” Look, we don’t know what lies ahead for the NEA, NEH, and CPB, but the USDAC will do all it can to stand to protect, expand, and improve our national investment in creativity and communication. We are staying right here to build people-power and remind Citizen Artists across the country that we possess powerful weapons of mass creation.

SG: Weapons of mass creation? Sounds symbolic!

Beckett: Nope, real. To get started, enlist as Citizen Artist—you don’t have to be a U.S. Citizen or an artist. Download Standing for Cultural Democracy to get ideas for policy and action initiatives you can push at the local level. Join us for the People’s State of the Union, kicking off in just one week. And stay tuned for powerful new modes of organizing in the coming months.

We may not have a Secretary of Arts and Culture, but we have each other. As writer Ursula LeGuin reminds us: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

SG: Wow. I’m kind of glad they woke me up. Maybe this maneuver won’t succeed any better than the last time those bores at Heritage dragged me out. And then I’ll enlist in the USDAC!

Graphic by Janina A. Larenas. January, 2017.

Graphic by Janina A. Larenas. January, 2017.