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Arts

Trump, Clinton and the arts: What would their presidencies mean for culture?

During the US presidential election campaign, both candidates have kept silent on the issue. To determine what a Trump or Clinton presidency might mean for the arts, one has to search for clues in their past.

Harry Truman and Richard Nixon played piano, Bill Clinton saxophone. John F. Kennedy asked the poet Robert Frost to speak at his inauguration and hosted a number of classical music ensembles at the White House. Jimmy Carter began many mornings of his presidency listening to half an hour of Mozart, absorbed hours of Richard Wagner in the evening and was an avid theater-goer.

Theodor Roosevelt invited the pianists and composers Ferruccio Busoni and Ignacy Paderewski to perform at the White House. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, a noted opera singer was slated to appear there. Somewhat uncertain, First Lady Nancy Reagan suggested to her husband that they ask their friend Frank Sinatra for advice.

George H.W. Bush preferred country music. In his youth, Barack Obama's idol was Stevie Wonder; his Spotify playlist includes numbers by Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Kanye West.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Kennedy hosted classical music stars; Nixon played the piano himself

What does history reveal about presidents' interest in the arts and how it affected their cultural policies? Next to nothing. The annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the federal government's sole cultural funding institution, currently stands at $148 million. With the United States' current population of 319 million, that calculates to 46 cents of public funds per capita. Compare that to yearly arts funding in the city of Berlin: 400 million euros ($445 million), or 114 euros ($127) per capita. The comparison is admittedly a bit unfair; the city of New York funds cultural activities to the tune of $18.58 per resident or 40 times the federal rate.

Local, decentralized and private-sector arts

In the US, arts funding is largely left to local governments and, to a far greater degree, the private sector. A president's impact on cultural policy is minimal. Nonetheless, he - or perhaps she - will send signals that influence creative activity, from public education to Hollywood movies. What could a Hilary Clinton or a Donald Trump presidency mean for the arts?

George H. W. Bush in 2009 (picture alliance/dpa)

George H. W. Bush liked country music

Neither campaign has stated its position on the subject - and in the arts community, that is a source of relief. In the 1990s, culture was a highly incendiary issue when, in his Contract with America, former Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich proposed reducing and eventually ending funding for the NEA. Gingrich was backed by religious and moral activists who alleged that the government was financing base and blasphemous works of art.

With cultural policy off the map in the current election cycle, one has to search for earlier statements and developments, beginning with Donald Trump, who hosted 14 seasons of the reality TV shows "The Apprentice" and "The Celebrity Apprentice." 

Whether reality TV belongs to "the arts" is doubtful, but asked about arts education in schools earlier this year, Trump's answer was uncharacteristically balanced: "Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success."

He continued, "A holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens." Would this, then, be a priority in a Trump administration? Negative: "The federal government needs to get out of the education business and let the states, local districts and parents determine what is taught in our schools."

But is it art?

According to "The Art Newspaper," between 1994 and 2010 Donald Trump contributed at least $465,125 to arts-affiliated organizations in New York - a minor sum in light of the real estate magnate's estimated net worth of $10 billion.

Donald Trump and Melania Trump (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Bazemore)

Trump likes to surround himself with beauty

The candidate's personal tastes in art do not seem particularly inclusive. In 1999, Trump described a controversial painting named "The Holy Mary Virgin" - a work incorporating cow dung - as "absolutely gross, degenerate stuff." Those with a memory of history were disturbed by his use of the word "degenerate," the same term employed by Adolf Hitler for art that didn't suit his ideology. Trump continued, "As president, I would ensure that the National Endowment of the Arts stops funding of this sort." What the not-yet-candidate apparently didn't know is that NEA had not funded the exhibit.

In February 2016, the now-candidate indicated what kind of artistic expression he might favor: "I am going to have to add some designs to the wall because someday they might name it after me and I want it to look real nice." The wall referred to was the one Trump has proposed on the border between the US and Mexico. As to which country would fund that aesthetic element, he didn't elaborate.

In 2013, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the value of arts and cultural businesses in the American economy at $704.2 billion, producing a $24.1 billion surplus in foreign trade. Asked what he would do as president to preserve that positive light in the US trade balance, Trump's response was standard laissez-faire ideology: "The free market will inform us on what enterprises will flourish and which ones will fail."

Jay Z and Beyonce (Getty Images/B. Bennett)

As Hillary supporters, rapper Jay Z and singer Beyoncé have enhanced her cultural credentials

Platitude or progress?

As for how a Hillary Clinton presidency might influence arts and culture, the candidate has issued no statements during the current campaign, so one has to search for clues. At the end of her tenure as Secretary of State in 2013, Clinton praised the State Department’s "Art in Embassies" program, saying that art "reaches beyond governments to help us connect with more people in more places. It is a universal language in our search for common ground, an expression of our shared humanity."

That may sound like a platitude, as does a statement by former President Bill Clinton: "The arts challenge our imaginations, nourish our spirits, and help to sustain our democracy."

Nonetheless, these may point to a greater sympathy than that of Hilary Clinton's opponent for creative expression - and not solely for the sake of edification.

In October 2015, she said, "I believe that the arts and culture are important in their own right, but they’re also important drivers for economic growth, tourism and attracting young people." On another occasion, she added, "The arts are a major reason for urban revitalization. You see it in cities where often times the modern pioneers are the artists."

Hillary Clinton (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Harnik)

Clinton advocates a partnership of various forces in fostering the arts

In this too, however, candidate Clinton is in line with the general American skepticism of purely public arts funding, writing in 1997, "The arts and humanities depend on partnerships between government agencies, private foundations, corporations, non-profit organizations and individual benefactors to nurture talent and bring the creative achievements of our best artists and artisans to as wide an audience as possible."

Before the US presidential election and in the weeks thereafter, the question of how Donald J. Trump and Hillary R. Clinton would influence arts and culture will take a backburner to other issues that have dominated the presidential race: global alliances, the polarization of the citizenry, racism and "culture wars" revolving around religious issues. But as in all things, the profiles and histories of the two candidates do give a hint at what may lie ahead.

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