The Myth of the Magical Arts Bureaucracy

Mark Souder of Indiana

Myth: Magical Bureaucrats are needed to promote the arts.

Artists and those who appreciate arts promote the arts, and pay for it themselves.

Encourage Excellence?
Consider these NEA funded projects

Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine

Joel-Peter Witkin's "Maquette for Crucifix" which portrays a naked Jesus Christ surrounded by sado-masochistic imagery

HIV positive Ron Athey's stage performance where he sliced into another man's back with a knife, cleaned up the blood with towels, and sent the towels into the audience on clotheslines.

Who gets the money?

The District of Columbia receives more NEA funding than 48 states.

New York and San Francisco receive large chunks of NEA funding.

Why can't a $9 billion arts industry support a $175 million arts promotion program? (And they say Republicans are greedy!)

Vision: Privately funded arts in America

"The encouragement which the General Government might give to the fine arts might, if judiciously applied, redound to the honor of Congress, and the splendor, magnificence and real advantage of the United States; but the wise framers of our Constitution saw that, if Congress had the power of exerting what has been called a royal munificence; might elevate sycophants, and be inattentive to men unfriendly to the views of government; might reward the ingenuity of the citizens of one state, and neglect a much greater genius of another."

Rep. John Page of Virginia, Feb. 7, 1792

After years and years of lavishing taxpayer dollars on art that the average American finds obscene, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) still doesn't get it. It remains one of the most controversial and out-of-touch government agencies.

From its establishment in 1965, the NEA has shown a predilection for funding the avant-garde or the bizarre over more traditional art forms. Although the "encouragement of excellence" is supposed to be the top criteria for parceling out grants, NEA seems more intent on assaulting the values of its benefactors p; the American taxpayers p; than it does on achieving excellence. But the NEA would have us believe that arts will suffer great damage without government sponsorship. How many budding VanGoghs and Gauguins will go unnoticed without a handout from Uncle Sam, they ask?
The NEA continues to show an intolerance of traditional values, in spite of the consistent outrage of the American public. Numerous grants have been awarded over the years to "artists" who do little to disguise their contempt for the religious beliefs of others. Consider Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" (a photo of a crucifix in a jar of urine) or Joel-Peter Witkin's "Maquette for Crucifix" which portrays a naked Jesus Christ surrounded by sado-masochistic obscene imagery. These portrayals of religion meet the NEA standard; however, one would be hard pressed to find a positive portrayal of religion as it would probably be seen as a violation of the separation of church and state.

The NEA also uses its grant money to endorse alternative lifestyles, such as homosexuality. Current NEA chief Jane Alexander vocally defended an NEA-funded performance by Ron Athey in Minneapolis in which the HIV positive Athey sliced into another man's back with a knife and cleaned up the blood with towels which were then sent on clotheslines over the audience. Alexander also recently told a homosexual magazine, The Advocate, that she intended to use the agency to "introduce people gently to gay themes all across the country. And I mean gently, because if you start with a kind of very overt thing, people get scared. You gently bring in gay people and introduce them to the world through art."

The system for awarding grants is prejudiced, regionally biased and beyond reform. The peer system which awards grants has become nothing more than a patronage system where the politically and artistically "correct" (who are usually less than friendly to mainstream values) are dished out grants. In many cases, it rewards mediocrity with funds won by skillful "grantsmanship", as opposed to talent. And, to call many of these taxpayer-funded artists "struggling" would be quite a stretch.

The NEA grant distribution system is regionally biased. The District of Columbia receives more NEA money than 48 states; only California and New York get a bigger chunk of the grant money. If the idea is to support promising artists across the country, why concentrate funding in cultural centers like New York City and San Francisco, where there is an abundance of private resources to help artists? How about the struggling painter in rural America who may not have access to as many wealthy patrons?

The NEA has failed to make any serious attempt to adjust its policies to take into account the outrage of taxpayers. In an era where taxpayer dollars are scarce, the federal government needs to rethink its role in funding the arts, especially in funding activities that most taxpayers find objectionable.

Here's a shocker p; freedom of expression in the United States will exist and flourish, even without government subsidy. In the 1930s, John Sloan, a painter, in reaction to FDR's New Deal artist subsidy program, said that he would be pleased to see the creation of a "Ministry of Culture" because then he would know precisely who his enemy was. Like Sloan, there are many artists today who eschew government funding because the strings attached to these dollars, by their very nature, choke off artistic spirit and free expression. And, if the government has no standards, who is to say which artist is deserving of a grant anyway?

The government should not be in the impossible business of determining what is and isn't art. Every year, more than $9 billion is given in private support for the arts. By comparison, the NEA receives $175 million in taxpayer dollars. By getting rid of the NEA, art would be funded at the community level rather than by the federal government in Washington, D.C.

The NEA is beyond repair. Congressional attempts to reform the agency structurally and reduce funding for the agency have failed to clean up the NEA. It is time to eliminate the NEA once and for all.

In last year's appropriation process, an effort by Republican freshmen was successful in obtaining an agreement from the House leadership that the NEA would be eliminated in two years. Although no Congress can bind the funding of a future Congress, the freshmen were able to obtain an agreement that will ensure that the NEA is not authorized past two years. At that time, if money is appropriated but not authorized, the leadership will not protect the funding against a budget point of order.

If funding is cut off and the federal government gets out of the business of choosing art, will funding for the arts dry up? Jane Alexander sees her agency as a "stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money."

It is highly unlikely that donors will stop giving generously without an NEA imprimatur to guide their choices. National and local artistic groups, community groups and others can give such recommendations, if they are needed. Instead of NEA being the "stimulus" for giving, we should encourage private funding for the arts and get involved personally.