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Battle still rages on over culture and the arts

The culture wars, which reignited in the late 1980s after a long dormancy and have been slowly simmering ever since, have reached the boiling point again.

This newest phase of animosity against arts institutions in the United States began last October, just before the GOP won its resounding victory in the House of Representatives, when conservative bloggers took offense to "Hide/Seek," an art exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

That was the same month that National Public Radio terminated the contract of commentator Juan Williams, setting off a firestorm of criticism from Republicans. On March 17, after the citizen journalist and provocateur James O'Keefe duped an NPR exec into revealing his own anti-conservative bias, the House voted to defund the organization completely.

Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts, whose budget is a paltry $161 million, finds itself once again on the Republicans' spacious chopping block, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These potential cuts, almost microscopic in the grand scheme of the nation's genuinely bloated budget, have far more to do with promoting a medieval philosophy than with saving money.

In New York State, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to be fiscally prudent except when it comes to the substantial economic impact of the arts, the New York State Council on the Arts has been the subject of a series of budget cuts for years. The organization is being slowly stretched to the breaking point and whittled down to nothing, now barely able to carry out its manifold responsibilities to the underserved people of the state -- all while facing another 10 percent cut this year.

Locally, the foot soldiers of this latest flare-up of the culture wars have been particularly loyal to their higher-ranking commanders in Congress and on Fox News. Erie County Executive Chris Collins has become quite the cultural Viking himself, slashing and burning cultural organizations from the county budget as he goes. Since 2001, the approach in Buffalo's cash-strapped City Hall, as with so much else, has been apathy, except when it comes to (albeit worthy) pet causes like the Colored Musicians Club.

In all of these cases, Erie County being a particularly stark one, the amount of public funding accorded to arts and cultural institutions has been laughably low for decades compared with the return on investment. Here's a summary of those old, incontrovertible arguments about the need for cultural funding, to which conservatives habitually close their ears: cultural organizations return on the order of $9 to the local economy for every $1 invested; they educate underserved communities when no one else does; and they create an unparalleled quality of life in a city infamous for its abject failure in almost every other regard.

Knowing all that, the question becomes: If the arts and organizations like National Public Radio represent such a tiny segment of the budget, why has the right directed so much seething vitriol in their direction?

The answer is simple and disturbing. The arts are, and always have been, a conduit for knowledge about the way society works. The more people digest and participate in the arts, the more enlightened that public becomes, which in turn threatens the powers that be, segments of which would be more than content to keep everyone in less-than blissful ignorance while they make off with the cash. See: Mubarak, Gadhafi, Wall Street.

When Sarah Palin calls organizations like the NEA and the NEH "frivolous," what she really means is "dangerous" to the world she envisions -- a world in which we all believe we can see Russia from our backyards because no one tells us better.

Buffalo's own cultural community -- ever-conscious of these eternal concerns -- has produced a pair of plays that explore these very issues, each of which deserves a look. One is "Inherit the Wind," a fierce and eloquent takedown of anti-intellectualism based on the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, running through April 16 in the New Phoenix Theatre. The other, far more disturbing and pessimistic, is "Aunt Dan and Lemon," a spine-chilling examination of Ayn Rand-esque selfishness by Wallace Shawn that runs through April 10 in Torn Space Theater.

This is a game as old as time, and it will never stop being played out on the battlefield of culture. These latest salvos from the right are nothing more or less than an attempt to crush the exercise and promotion of free expression, and they deserve a massive counter-offensive.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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