What would Jesse Helms think of Trump

What distinguishes Donald Trump's presidency from a storm so far is essentially the sequence: First the rumble of thunder comes, then lightning strikes, albeit reliably and as predicted. Now it hits the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA for short, the national American cultural fund, a federal agency that awards funds to cultural institutions. You can only be surprised by those who clung to the rumors that the NEA will be under the direction of Sylvester Stallone, the "Rambo" actor, as if that were the most serious thing that threatens. (Stallone, who was allegedly offered the post in December, refused to.)

The White House Budget Office now has sources of the New York Times according to a list of items that could be deleted, and on that list are the NEA and its sister foundation for the humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Anyone who has talked to insiders of the American cultural scene about these prospects in the past few weeks has been faced with sighs or shrugs, often both at once: Trump will eventually have to redefine somewhere after he promised in the election campaign that he would cut public spending but at the same time want to invest more in the military.

Under these circumstances, the NEA was to some extent considered natural prey and grateful sacrifice. The savings would be comparatively ridiculous. It's about $ 148 million, with a budgeted budget of $ 4 trillion. Since then, critics have been calculating for the president on Twitter, which is likely to cost taxpayers a similar amount, for example Trump's regular court moves to his golf resort in Florida or the protection of New York's Trump Tower.

The capital at stake is at best symbolic in purely numerical terms. But it is also symbolic capital in the Bourdieuian sense; it touches on status issues. A former director of various American museums summed it up as follows: With the donations from the NEA alone he was never able to finance even a major exhibition; but when the NEA was on board, that helped to open other pots. In contrast to Europe with its tradition of state cultural welfare, high culture in the USA also rests on the foundation of private patronage.

The conservatives have been bothering each other at the NEA since the "culture wars" of the eighties

While European museum directors often find it unreasonable to beg their financial resources from wealthy patrons, their American colleagues are experienced professionals in this area. Under these circumstances, the commitment of a federal authority in which specialist committees decide on the grant has both something strange and nobility about it.

If Donald Trump, to whom the arts, as far as we know, are completely indifferent, apart from perhaps their potential to produce "celebrities", now puts the ax to the National Endowment for the Arts, then it is not least about symbolic capital, that it acquires from those who have always been bothered by it: America's Conservatives.

The NEA does not only subsidize institutions of the fine arts; the loss will even be more noticeable everywhere else, at small festivals, in musical childcare projects and in the field of socio-cultural project management. But the NEA became the subject of "culture wars" between America's conservatives and liberals, especially in the field of fine arts.

That is not to say that many Republicans will not welcome the cuts in every other area, too much the NEA is simply a child of the progressivist sixties, conceived under Kennedy, set up under Johnson to give the American arts a boost wherever the Market alone is not enough. Presidents like Nixon or Reagan could only influence the program through personnel policy or - as under Reagan - to expand the promotion of cowboy music.

The pride in a culture that can make it to the market on its own

The fierce disputes over NEA-financed exhibitions with the participation of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe then became famous at the end of the eighties. With Serrano it was the picture "Piss Christ" that drove conservatives to the barricades, with Mapplethorpe photos that show gay sex. In contrast, the years of protest against the funding of Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" in front of the General Services Administration Building in New York was downright harmless. (The people who always took their breaks from work in the open space found the work unattractive and annoying. One night in the spring of 1989 it was quietly dismantled.) It took the artistic confrontation with sex and religion at the height of AIDS -Epidemic to escalate matters.

Under the direction of John Frohnmayer, an art-collecting lawyer whom George Bush Sr. had made head of the NEA, the latter gave in to pressure from conservative MPs and added a clause to the funding statutes that should exclude profanity. For the sake of fairness, however, one must remember that profanity and sex were also a big issue for the liberals at the time. After all, it was Tipper Gore, the wife of the later Vice President Al Gore, to whom the world owes the warning stickers on American pop records: "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics."

While this was quickly turned into a kind of honorary title by the music industry, the NEA had maneuvered itself into a two-front war through its "obscenity" clause. Parts of the art business accused him of lacking backing, and the conservatives nevertheless remained unreconciled. That didn't get any better when the famous exhibition on AIDS and the art world took place in New York's nonprofit gallery Artists Space in 1989, to which the NEA contributed $ 10,000 and whose catalog angered the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died shortly afterwards of AIDS fantasized about dousing gasoline and setting fire to Conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms for his role in the Mapplethorpe and Serrano dispute.

Trump recently opened his newest luxury hotel in the former NEA headquarters in Washington

NEA boss Frohnmayer first frantically withdrew the funds, then released them again. In the end, the washing was of little help. The Conservative Congress had the NEA in its sights, and attempts to accommodate this Congress led to a confrontation with those for whom it wanted to be there. Since the election of Donald Trump at the latest, it has been shown that the "culture wars" were far from being decided and settled.

Some fronts have just shifted. It is now the left rather than the conservatives who claim protection from violating their own convictions and feelings through hurtful statements, and with Trump the Republicans have a president who demonstrably does little to care about obscenities. But what serves his standing with America's conservatives can only suit him. He is more likely to agree with them on another point that has made the NEA so suspicious of the right: that a state authority is intervening in cultural events.

The essayist Lewis Hyde once traced the roots of this very American skepticism back to the Puritan founding fathers, who saw high culture as an integral part of the very aristocratic regimes in Europe they had renounced. How mankind could have endured paying taxes so that the Diana temples, the pyramids, St. Peter's Basilica, Notre-Dame and St. Paul's could be built, complained about John Adams: "I know not."

Against this background, government-financed culture in America has the reputation of the elitist, against which the rebellion of the Trump voters has been directed in no small degree. And pride in a culture that can make it to the market on its own is no stranger to many liberals either.

But even a person so openly not interested in the arts as this president owes something to the state's cultural funding: The former main post office of Washington was supposed to be demolished for decades as a sugar-covered building sin. In the early 1970s it was rescued by the National Endowment for the Arts and until recently was also its headquarters. The current user is the recently opened luxury hotel Trump International