George Washington on the Arts

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart_photo source-Creative CommonsIt seems that ever since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created, it has been under siege. Although it is a tiny agency, less than 0.006% of the $3.54 Trillion federal budget, it has had enormous impact on the quality, abundance and diversity of the arts in America through its 140,000 grants, totaling more than $5 Billion over its 50 years. While not a certainty, the NEA’s small $147.9 Million budget, may once again be at risk in our nation. Historically, the arts have been viewed as central to a civilized society. Indeed, the arts were confirmed by Congress to be “vital to the health and glory of the Republic” when the endowments were signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. put it this way: “If history tells us anything, it tells us that the United States, like all other nations, will be measured in the eyes of posterity; less by the size of its gross national product and the menace of its military arsenal than by its character and achievement as a civilization.”

John Ruskin, an art historian in the Victorian era, believed in the power of art to transform the lives of people oppressed more by visual illiteracy than by poor material conditions. He wrote: ‘’Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.”

Today, it is the words of our first president George Washington that resonate with me the most, and hopefully with a majority of Americans. He said: “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.” I think that says it all.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (photo source: Creative Commons)

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