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Ken Burns, George Will, and Public Arts Funding



That the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides a lot of benefit to society for very little money and that closing these agencies down does nothing meaningful to change the federal budget is clear to anyone who is not evil. But in case anyone is on the fence, the impact that Ken Burns’ Civil War series had is a good reason to support these agencies, especially considering that it was popular with both liberals and conservatives.

Ken Burns is probably America’s most well-known documentarian, making traditional, history-rich multi-part films about important periods in American history and facets of American culture. Anyone who’s watched PBS has probably watched one of Burns’s documentaries, which span topics ranging from jazz, baseball, and the national parks to Prohibition and the Roosevelts. At this point, “PBS documentary” is basically synonymous with Burns’s name.

Burns’s films have also received a lot of funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, both of which were targeted for elimination (along with the National Endowment for the Arts) in President Trump’s budget proposal. The Jazz series received funds from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, in addition to private, corporate, and foundation funding. Jackie Robinson received a grant from the CPB alongside other sources of private funding. Prohibition received funds from the CPB and NEH.

Thanks to funding from the CPB, NEH, and NEA, Burns’s documentaries are widely available to watch. A good place to start is with his seminal 1990 nine-episode documentary series The Civil War, which was restored and rebroadcast in high definition in September 2015.

The film took five years to complete, and 40 million people watched it when it was first broadcast in 1990 — that’s roughly equivalent to the number of people who watched Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. It won 40 major film and TV awards, including two Emmys and two Grammys. Both the CPB and NEH contributed funding for the project.

The film is credited with an uptick in public interest in the Civil War — though some historians have found the account of the war presented in the film by historian Shelby Foote to be romanticized and reductive. Commemorating the restored edition in Time, Jeffrey Kluger wrote that it “explained an incalculably important chapter in American history to a generation that needed the tutorial.”

Before we get to Shelby Foote, we need to talk about George Will. Burns has used Will as a talking head in multiple films. He was in the Baseball series, which OK I guess, although I don’t think we ever need to listen to Will. More infuriating was his use in the Roosevelt series. Why do I want to hear George Will talk about FDR? What possible useful thing does he have to say about the man? Given that he opposes the entire existence of the New Deal state, that’s a really weird and poor choice. And of course Will’s response to the Trump budget is to embrace destroying the NEA. And while it’s true that he doesn’t take on the NEH or CBP, you can’t deal with one without the others. For Will of course this is all about the culture wars. Piss Christ is every work of art. Will’s right-wing stereotypes of national funding of art, as limited as it is, are part and parcel with the broader attack on the very agencies that allow him to appear in Burns’ series.

Of course a big part of the problem here is Ken Burns. He is strongly attracted to conservative figures for his films, even if they are often more cultural conservative than politically. Will is of course outrageous for a series on the Roosevelts. But this started a long time ago when he made Shelby Foote nationally famous late in life. Foote of course was a huge apologist for Nathan Bedford Forrest and provided a strong Dunningite voice in a series that was mostly pretty good at centering slavery and the African-American experience. This juxtaposition of telling stories that expand the American narrative of freedom while embracing conservative voices is typical of Burns. The repeated use of Stanley Crouch, a man who thinks hip hop is the Great Satan, in a documentary on jazz and then again when talking about Jack Johnson, who pushed all sorts of boundaries of offensiveness that the modern Crouch would find outrageous if repeated today, is another example of this. The whole Jazz series was exceptionally conservative for that matter, forcing the last 50 years into one episode where the continued experimentation in jazz was bemoaned because evidently we should all be listening to Wynton Marsalis turn jazz into a classical canon only relevant to old white people.

So while, yes, Ken Burns’ work is a huge success for the NEH and PBS and should absolutely be held up as relevant in this current political battle to save these agencies, let’s not also forget that Burns himself is a deeply problematic figure who employs people who would like to destroy the type of work he wants to create.

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