The Free Market
The Free Market 7, no. 9 (September 1989)
This summer was not the first time that public funds have been used to underwrite sacrilegious and pornographic art, but the outcry was significantly louder than before. Nevertheless, the House rejected attempts by California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher to kill the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Texas Rep. Dick Armey to reduce the NEA's budget by 10%. Instead, the House agreed to cut a token $45,000, the amount granted to the two exhibits that inflamed public anger against the NEA.
The first exhibit is a photograph, entitled "Piss Christ," of a crucifix in a jar of "the artist's" urine, part of an Andres Serrano exhibit paid for by a $15,000 grant of which one third came from the NEA. Had Serrano chosen to photograph a toy soldier submerged in urine one could still ask what Serrano had done to justify a $15,000 check, which comes to three-fourths of the average American's income. But his decision to show contempt for the religious views of millions of Americans raises an even more important issue: why should people be forced to pay for "art" that is intended to insult them? The NEA has been deluged with angry letters; the sponsor of the exhibition in which the Serrano picture appeared, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, has also been inundated with mail.
Serrano's photo, though blatantly offensive, at least can be shown in polite company. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work, however, does not meet this test.
The NEA gave Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art $30,000 to organize a traveling exhibit of Mapplethorpe's photos, called "The Perfect Moment." Newspapers delicately described his work as "homoerotic" and "sadomasochistic," but that hardly conveys the full impact of some of Mapplethorpe's photos. There are, for instance, pictures of a nude Mapplethorpe with a whip handle stuck in his rear end, a male torso in a suit with giant genitals exposed, a man urinating into the mouth of his lover, and scores of equally offensive photos. The "erotic" nudes even include children in sexually explicit poses.
Concern over the political consequences caused the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington' D. C., to cancel a scheduled showing, but the Washington Project for the Arts, which has received NEA grants in the past, subsequently announced that it would play host. "It's a really beautiful exhibition, and the way the work is presented is done very sensitively," explained WPA Director Jock Reynolds. Indeed.
Despite Congress's timidity, it's time to rethink public funding of the arts and other cultural activities. This year the U. S. government is providing $169 million to the NEA to fund what one official calls the "expression of America's culture"—symphonies, dance companies, painters, and sculptors. Another $153 million goes to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which focuses on cultural research "to increase understanding and appreciation of the humanities," explains the agency. Together these Washington bureaucracies constitute America's de facto ministry of culture.
The United States survived for nearly two centuries without a federal cultural presence but the Johnson New Deal meant more than welfare for the poor. It also plowed new ground by . providing handouts to the intelligentsia. In 1965 Congress created the NEH and gave it $2.5 million; by 1980 the NEA's budget was $152 million and the NEH's expenditures were $157 million.
For a time Ronald Reagan's appearance in Washington seemed to threaten the survival of the ministry of culture. Though the administration did not attempt to eliminate the two endowments, it did propose to cut both agencies' budgets by roughly one-third in future years, arguing that "funding for artistic and cultural pursuits is a relatively low priority budget item." But the administration never pushed its proposals very hard and the beneficiaries of the more than $300 million in largesse—artists, researchers, museums, universities, et al—rallied to protect their grants. Congress enacted only minor reductions, and later raised spending for both endowments. Uncle Sam, having seized control of .virtually every other form of human endeavor, was not interested in giving up his hold over the nation's culture.
Ironically, many conservatives, while echoing Reagan's criticism of big government, seemed more interested in controlling than in demolishing the NEH. Indeed, early in the administration, conservative activists bitterly battled over the endowment chairmanship, with neoconservative William Bennett beating out paleoconservative M.E. Bradford. Bennett then used the agency in part to fund neoconservative intellectuals and endeavors, and to push their agenda within the Reagan administration.
The NEA, in contrast, was largely ignored by the right, and the chairmanship went to a nonideological campaign aide, Frank Hodsoll. (The conservatives' lack of interest would seem to be myopic. Though the NEA's work is less overtly political than that of the NEH, the former remains an important banker for many activists who would dismantle our essentially individualist bourgeois culture.) However, in the Bush administration, where symbolism is so much more important than philosophy, it has been the fight for control of the NEA that turned into a royal slugfest. For the sort of ideological eunuchs attracted to the Bush administration the NEA chairmanship was a plum position, with the availability of millions of taxpayer funds automatically making the NEA head a power in the art world.
What justification is there for a ministry of culture? There's no public demand for the two endowments—a recent Newsweek poll found that 47% of people opposed federal support for the arts, compared to only 35% in favor of subsidies. Instead, the federal programs reflect the influence of America's cultural elite, both directly, through their ability to sway political leaders, and indirectly, through many people's perception that the arts are a critical pillar of our civilization requiring government backing.
Indeed, no longer does America's cultural industry have to justify its position at the federal trough. Politicians may argue over the size of the artists' dole, but they don't question its existence. This "ask no questions" dynamic extends to many states and cities. New York, for instance, is in the midst of a bitter political battle over proposals to cut subsidies. But no one is suggesting that culture should develop without tax dollars; the only issue is how large the checks should be. In short, artists' subsidies have become just another entitlement, such as welfare, Social Security, and student loans. The social "safety net" has grown to underwrite farmers, businessmen, students, and old people irrespective of economic circumstance, so why not artists?
Now, however, there may be an opportunity to debate the fundamental issue again, for America's ministry of culture has run afoul of public opinion by funding exhibitions designed to outrage the people paying for them. Not that the NEA has not previously funded curious projects, such as pornographic poetry. (The NEH's grants have been largely noncontroversial, though the agency did spend $615,000 to underwrite the blatantly anti-Western, pro-statist The Africans TV special.) However, the NEA is unusually vulnerable. Even congressional allies of the arts industry, such as Illinois Rep. Sidney Yates, are on the defensive. Says Livingston Biddle, chairman of the NEA during the Carter administration, "A confluence of factors has made this the worst firestorm for the endowment in the 25 years of its existence."
Though the wave of protests against public funding of sacrilegious and pornographic exhibitions should have come as no surprise, the art world reacted as if the Gestapo had shot the artists and closed the organizations involved. "The question here is one of censorship," said Harvey Lichtenstein, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Serrano is just a pawn "to censor, to restrict cultural free expression," wailed Ted Potter, executive director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. And so on, ad infinitum.
Now, whether Serrano's and Mapplethorpe's work can satisfy the dictionary definition of art—the realm of what is "beautiful, or of more than ordinary significance"— is debatable, but no one has suggested that they be suppressed, only that they be denied subsidies from the taxpayers.
Yet even now no political figure—Rohrabacher excepted—suggested dismantling either of the endowments. Rep. Armey first pushed for regulatory changes; only later did he propose a 10% budget cut. However, with the public against public funding, it's time to ask the more fundamental question: why a ministry of culture at all?
Years ago the NEA and NEH became part of the bipartisan boondoggle that fills Washington. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, all support the continuation of federal support for the arts industry. But there's no justification for taxing lower-income Americans to support glitzy art shows and theater productions frequented primarily by the wealthy. And there's certainly no justification for funding artists who smear the values held by those picking up the tab.
Government cannot be trusted to pick and choose acceptable art, and that's merely one more reason to junk the two endowments. It's time Congress i and the administration promoted unlimited free expression by abolishing federal handouts to those doing the expressing.
Cite This Article
Brandow, Doug. "Artistic "Entitlements"." The Free Market 7, no. 9 (September 1989): 1, 7–8.