July 7, 1994
So there is such a thing as impermissibly offensive art. Who'd have
thought it? Who would have imagined that a piece of art could be deemed so
objectionable that the media would mobilize against it with blistering
scrutiny? In our jaded day, after all, cultural sophisticates and the ``arts
community'' insist that the only appalling thing about Andres Serrano's
photographs of a crucifix submerged in a vat of his urine, or Robert
Mapplethorpe's images of himself being penetrated anally by a bullwhip, is
that rubes find them appalling.
Yet some art, apparently, can outrage even the sophisticates. The media
storm generated not long ago by one piece of art was furious enough to shake
the patron who sponsored it into issuing a public apology.
That intolerable art was Time magazine's June 27 cover, which was based
on the Los Angeles Police Department mug shot of O.J. Simpson. To create its
``photo-illustration,'' Time hired artist Matt Mahurin, who changed the
original to make Simpson's image appear moodier, grimmer, more menacing --
The attack was swift. From The New York Times to the NAACP, Time was
blasted with implications and accusations of racism and of prejudging
Simpson's guilt. The assault by the liberal elite was overwhelming, and
everyone got the message: This art is unacceptable. If you don't understand,
you must be a yahoo.
Time apologized. ``To the extent that this caused offense to anyone,''
wrote managing editor James R. Gaines in the next edition, ``I deeply regret
Frankly, I didn't see anything wrong with Time's cover. Still, Time is
right to ``deeply regret'' that the artwork unintentionally ``caused
offense.'' Those are the words of an artist (or a patron of artists) who
cares about his audience and respects its values. Good art can challenge,
provoke, startle, and mock. But no serious artist gives offense solely for
the purpose of being offensive.
A lot of unserious artists and arts organizations, however, do.
Especially those whose real audience isn't the public, but government
bureaucrats who give them money.
Warped, hateful stuff. But don't stay up late waiting for the NEA to
apologize for this pollution. Instead of conceding, for example, that the
bloody mutilation show in Minneapolis was an abomination, NEA chairwoman Jane
Alexander insists it was ``a study exploring modern day martyrdom as it
relates to AIDS.'' (If you don't understand, you must be a yahoo.)
- In Minneapolis recently, the Walker Art Center arranged a production
of ``Four Scenes in a Harsh Life'' by Ron Athey, an HIV-positive actor-
playwright. In his performance, Athey takes a scalpel and carves a pattern
into another man's back. The blood from the wounds is then blotted with paper
towels and dangled in the air over the heads of the audience.
Major funding for the Walker Center comes from the federal government.
This year, it received $104,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Last year's biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York was
titled ``Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire.'' Among other delights, it offered
a video of a young man spitting blood, a photo of amputated genitalia perched
atop two skulls, framed samples of an infant's diaper stains, a giant splash
of fake vomit, menstrual blood, and the aforementioned Mapplethorpe and
Serrano portraits. Visitors were made to wear badges proclaiming: ``I can't
imagine ever wanting to be white.''
The Whitney is subsidized by the NEA. Grants in recent years total well
- Photographs by artist Joel-Peter Witkin drew attention when activists
tried to display them in the US Capitol. His work includes pictures of a
corpse's head sawed in half and repositioned so it seems to be kissing
itself; an obese nude woman holding three dead fetuses; and a nude man
strapped beneath heavy weights that are suspended above his head by means of
a pulley chained to his scrotum. The latter is titled ``Testicle Stretch with
the Possibility of a Crushed Face.''
The NEA has given several grants to Witkin, some worth up to $20,000.
- A poem published in ``The Portable Lower East Side'' in 1991 exalts
the attackers who raped and slashed a Central Park jogger nearly to the point
of death. An excerpt:
My soul sinks to its knees &/ howls under the moon rising full,/ ``Let's
get a female jogger!''/ I shout into the twilight/ looking at the middle
class thighs/ pumping past me,/ cadres of bitches who deserve to die/ for
thinking they're better than me./ You ain better than nobody bitch.
The Portable Lower East Side acknowledges ``generous support'' from the
No one is forced to buy Time magazine or advertise in its pages. It pays
for its art with private funds. Yet Time shows more consideration for public
sensibilities and opinion than the NEA, whose every dollar comes out of your
pockets and mine.
When the NEA was created in 1965, nobody said anything about ``Testicle
Stretch'' or glorifying rapists. Elitist and insufferable, it has become as
grotesque a travesty as the ones it subsidizes. The time has come to shut it
HOW THE NEA POLLUTES AMERICAN CULTURE
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Tuesday, January 24, 1995
The draining of Washington's most fetid cultural swamp, the National
Endowment for the Arts, gets underway in earnest today when the NEA chairman,
Jane Alexander, appears before the Senate Labor and Human Resources
Committee. As an accomplished actress, Alexander is skilled at camouflaging
reality behind veils of illusion. But not even her considerable talents can
sustain the illusion that the NEA is good for the nation, good for art or
good for the taxpayer.
At long last, the NEA's plug is going to be pulled. Because a bunch of
unlettered Republican boobs, who wouldn't recognize great art if they tripped
on it, were elected to Congress last November? Hardly. Leading the campaign
against the NEA are sophisticated PhD's with names like Lynne Cheney, William
Bennett and Richard Armey. Alexander grouses that ``the right-wing is very
organized with its campaign against the endowment.'' But when Congress cut
the NEA's budget by $3 million last year as a signal of disapproval, the
House and Senate were still in liberal Democratic hands.
Though Alexander and the ``arts community'' choose not to acknowledge it,
the NEA's troubles are entirely self-inflicted. For years the agency
persisted in awarding cash grants to artists bent on insulting and
scandalizing the public. What did they imagine would happen when the public
started finding out how its money was being spent?
Found out, for example, about ``Piss Christ'' (Andres Serrano's
NEA-funded photographs of a crucifix submerged in his urine)? Or about ``Four
Scenes in a Harsh Life'' (Ron Athey's NEA-funded performance that involves
slicing a man's back with a scalpel, soaking up the blood on paper towels and
dangling them above the audience)? Or ``Annie Sprinkle: Post-Porn Modernist''
(the New York Kitchen Theater's NEA-funded show by pornographist Sprinkle,
who masturbated on stage with sex toys, inserted a speculum into her vagina
and called up audience members to examine her cervix with a flashlight)? Or
Artists Space (the NEA-funded gallery whose exhibits included ``What is the
Proper Way to Display a US Flag,'' which required viewers to walk across an
American flag on the floor)?
Mention these examples, and NEA partisans grind their teeth. Most of the
agency's funds, they argue irritably, are not used to subsidize such gross
and obnoxious ``art.''
But you'll never hear them regret those subsidies or apologize for them.
On the contrary, they defend them. They embrace them. They maintain that
art is supposed to ``challenge our most sacred values,'' that the artist's
role is to ``shatter preconceptions'' and ``provoke society.'' Such
definitions reduce the idea of art to little more than self-indulgent
rudeness. It is a sign of how badly the currency of contemporary culture has
been debased that so many artists and arts bureaucrats insist that debauchery
and degeneracy are compatible with art -- insist, even, that they are
That attitude of hostility to mainstream sensibilities is entrenched
within the NEA and its logrolling ``peer review'' panels. The NEA
consistently rewards novelty over quality. Its grant recipients are often
distinguished by little more than intolerance toward traditional standards
and art forms. Artistry, beauty and craftsmanship are routinely rejected in
favor of radical politics, victim chic and anger.
The controversies of the last six years have made one thing clear: The
endowment will not change. Its acolytes are proud they offend Main Street,
and are convinced they have a constitutional right to be paid for it. When
members of Congress proposed a few years ago to restrict NEA subsidies to
works that weren't obscene, the arts world exploded: Censorship! Repression!
``I think the National Endowment for the Arts is one of the great comic
spectacles of our time,'' says novelist/journalist Tom Wolfe. ``Imagine some
poor, rejected former NEA artist going to Voltaire or Solzhenitsyn and
saying, 'They're attaching strings to my money! I went to the government for
money for my art and they're attaching strings to it!' The horse laugh that
even Solzhenitsyn -- who is not given to horse laughs -- would have given
them would be marvelous to hear.''
According to the 1965 law that created the arts endowment,
``encouragement of excellence'' is to be the No. 1 criterion for awarding
grants. By now it should be obvious to all that excellence is the last thing
the NEA is interested in promoting.
Chairman Alexander warns that ``our nation would surely be the poorer''
without the NEA and contends ``that the system that the endowment has for
judging is very sound.'' Well, if Annie Sprinkle's gynecology lessons and
Robert Mapplethorpe's rectal probes and the Whitney Museum's displays of
vomit and menstrual blood have enriched our nation's culture and deepened our
understanding of art, she may be right.
But a less prejudiced observer might conclude the reverse. After 30 years
and billions of government dollars, the NEA's most notable contributions to
American art have been cynicism, insufferability, banality and tastelessness.
The time has come to turn it off -- and to free Alexander to return to the
A MINISTRY OF CULTURE? NOT IN AMERICA
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Thursday, February 23, 1995
What station is President Clinton tuned to? Congressional leaders want to
defund the National Endowment for the Arts and quit throwing good money
after bad. Voters clamor deafeningly for reductions in government spending.
In a nationwide LA Times poll one month ago, 69 percent of respondents
favored cutting back government arts subsidies.
Yet Clinton's 1996 budget proposal recommends not only keeping the NEA
but increasing its allotment by $5 million! This is dumb politics. It's even
There is no good argument for retaining the NEA. The best proof of that
lies in the weakness of the case made by its apologists.
Consider this flabby argument, one of their favorites: The NEA should be
preserved because it spends only 64 cents per citizen.
``I do not believe that the taxpayers . . . begrudge the 64 cents each
year that the endowment costs them,'' cries NEA chairman Jane Alexander.
``Sixty- four cents: the price of two postage stamps a year!''
This rationale, repeated ad nauseam by NEA supporters, earns an A for its
arithmetic (a $167 million budget divided by 260 million Americans does
indeed equal 64 cents per person) and an F for its logic. What does the
per-capita cost of the NEA have to do with the price of fish paste? For only
pennies per person the government subsidizes tobacco farmers, pays the
indicted Dan Rostenkowski a lavish pension and keeps Cuban boat people locked
behind barbed wire. By Alexander's lights, no one should begrudge any of
these since they only cost each of us the price of a few postage stamps.
Another limp argument: Absent government funding, worthy and popular arts
organizations would waste away from hunger.
``Without the NEA, we lose four times,'' lamented Susan Hartnett of the
Boston Center for the Arts to the Globe last year. ``Our New Folk Art program
gallery wouldn't have gotten grants. The current show we're doing in
collaboration with Very Special Arts wouldn't be open. Our plans to . . . fix
the Cyclorama an exhibition space in the South End, which has served the arts
for 20 years, would never happen.'' Nearly every outfit that receives an NEA
check will tell you the same thing: If the NEA goes, we'll be in desperate
Of course, there's a clanging inconsistency here. If the NEA budget is so
tiny it amounts to practically nothing, how can the NEA be the mainstay of
art in America?
Answer: The NEA isn't the mainstay of art in America. The arts have
flourished in America for 219 years; the NEA has existed for 30. Copley's
paintings, Ives' scores, Whitman's poems, O'Neill's plays, Melville's novels,
Saint-Gaudens' sculptures, Stieglitz's photographs -- the vast outpouring of
art in the United States pre-1965 renders preposterous the notion that art
would starve and shrivel without the NEA.
In fact, the NEA-is-indispensable argument is worse than preposterous. It
is deeply insulting to the nation's real arts benefactors: the individuals,
corporations, and foundations that contributed nearly $9.5 billion last year
to sustain the arts and humanities. In 1994, private giving to the arts
dwarfed the NEA budget by a ratio of 57 to 1. And that doesn't include the
hundreds of thousands of hours donated by arts lovers who gave of their time
instead of their cash -- volunteer ushers, docents, ticket-takers,
stagehands, gift shop cashiers, tour guides, interns, and so many others.
The mainstay of American art is and always has been a generous private
sector. The NEA isn't a mainstay of anything except bureaucracy.
But the most wrongheaded NEA argument of all is the claim that
subsidizing art is a proper function of government.
That cannot be true unless judging art is a proper function of
government, for passing judgment on art and artists is what the NEA does
every day. When it gives a grant to this theater group, it denies a grant to
that one. Thumbs up on one sculptor, thumbs down on a second. The US
government approves of your exhibition; it disapproves of yours.
This is Ministry Of Culture stuff, and it should make all of us uneasy.
When government interferes with art, it is generally artists who suffer the
consequences. The Communists put playwright Vaclav Havel in prison; the Nazis
staged mocking exhibits of ``degenerate art''; the Soviets jerked composer
Dmitri Shostakovich up and down on a yo-yo of government favor and disfavor.
The NEA isn't the Politburo, but it has no business in a society
protected by the First Amendment. In America, the state is expected to keep
out of the marketplace of ideas. If it is wrong for government to censor a
work of art, it is just as wrong for government to subsidize one. Jesse Helms
has no business deciding what goes on a museum's walls. Ted Kennedy doesn't,
There are no good reasons to preserve the NEA, only weak and self-serving
ones. When the arts endowment was established in 1965, the 89th Congress may
have imagined it was doing something wise. Thirty years later, the 104th
Congress surely knows better.
ARTS MONEY FOR ARTS INSIDERS
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Tuesday, July 25, 1995
Testifying before Congress in February, a few months before his tragic
riding accident, Christopher Reeve told members of a Senate committee that
their obligation to the National Endowment for the Arts is to hand over the
cash and ask no questions.
``When you give an artist money to go and create,'' the actor said in
answer to a query from Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), ``you do not have the
expectation or the right to expect certain results. It is a statement of
Gorton was amazed. You mean to say, he asked, that the government should
provide a subsidy for artists without inquiring into how it is being spent?
Reeve: ``Yes, I think the money should be given to artists who are deemed
worthy of support; but I also think that the system . . . must have a very
strict mandate of accountability to the highest standards.''
Gorton: ``Excuse me. Who is going to set those standards?''
Reeve: ``I think that the chairman and the Endowment itself must work
with a definition of art. . . .''
Gorton: ``But who makes this definition -- the . . . Endowment, or this
Reeve: ``There has to be trust reposed in an artist of the caliber, say,
of Jane Alexander'' -- the NEA chairwoman -- ``and the people at that
Gorton: ``So it is up to us to give the money, but not to set the
Reeve: ``It is up to you to give the money and -- yes, as a matter of
fact, if you come right down to it -- ''
At which point, clearly antagonized, the senator got up and left. Reeve
continued. ``Artists decide about art,'' he said. ``Artists
should be making decisions about what art gets money -- not politicians.''
Reeve couldn't have turned in a more arrogant performance if he'd
rehearsed for six months. But who needed to rehearse? What he said is exactly
what he and the NEA's arts claque fervently believe: Not only are they are
entitled to taxpayers' money, but they -- and only they -- are entitled to
decide how to spend it. Their judgment, they so modestly like to point out,
is the best. For an artist to get an NEA subsidy, or have his grant
application approved by one of the endowment's peer-review panels, is to be
officially certified ``Grade A'' by the highest authority of all: themselves.
``The peer panel review system,'' declaimed the Boston Ballet's artistic
director, Bruce Marks, in a recent TV debate, ``is a marvel of fairness, a
marvel of self-examination. . . . These are people deeply, deeply concerned
about the arts.'' The great thing about NEA grants, said Marks, who has
received several, is that ``you can take them out there in public and say:
'My peers believe in me; my government agency has funded me.' ''
What critics of the NEA don't realize, laments Barbara Grossman, a member
of the National Council on the Arts (the endowment's key decision-making
body), is how darn superb the NEA arts commissars are. These are ``people who
are arts professionals, arts activists, practicing artists, arts lovers,''
Arts insiders, in other words. Members of the Club. And who better to
judge which art deserves government funding, who better to brandish the
national seal of approval, than the Beautiful People themselves? ``The value
of a federal arts agency,'' New York Times columnist Frank Rich has written,
``is to set a national standard for excellence.''
On the contrary. Rarely does the arts establishment recognize the great
art of its time. In 1863, the French Academy -- the NEA of that era --
refused to let a group of artists who didn't meet its ``national standard for
excellence'' display their paintings at its annual exhibition, the Salon. The
upstarts -- a group of fellows named Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro, Whistler and
Sisley -- mounted a separate exhibition of the rejected works (a Salon des
Refuses). Today their paintings, masterpieces of European art, are among the
world's most beloved.
Time and again, the elites of the ``arts community'' have been oblivious
to the great artistic revolutions taking place around them. ``In the visual
arts, they denounced lithography and barred museum doors to photographers,''
notes scholar Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her lively new book ``Art Lessons.''
``In music they bedeviled Wagner and Mahler while attempting to lock the
concert hall on Gershwin and Ellington. In drama they defended theater
against film; when film survived, they deemed silents more artistic than
talkies. . . . These pundits habitually dismissed whatever attracted mass
audiences or achieved commercial success until it had passed into history. .
The NEA's notion of itself as the keeper of America's artistic flame, the
guarantor of our cultural vitality, is sanctimonious blather. No federal
agency sustains the creative spirit; none ever will. Tens of thousands of
artists lining up, palms outstretched, while government-picked panels render
verdicts on their poetry, painting or drama -- the whole spectacle makes a
mockery of the very idea of great art.
The NEA was a mistake from the outset. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right.
``Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature,'' he wrote. ``It will
come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and
THE FLAG IN THE TOILET
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Tuesday, May 21, 1996
Further proof that this is a great country: If you stuff an American flag
in a toilet and invite people to look at it, Uncle Sam will send you money.
Do we have an enlightened government, or what?
Well, maybe Uncle Sam won't send you money. But the National Endowment
for the Arts just granted another $35,000 to the Phoenix Art Museum, up from
$15,000 last year. That's quite a vote of confidence, considering that
Congress has sliced the NEA's budget by 40 percent and is thinking of
defunding it altogether. The museum is apparently being rewarded for its
current exhibit, ``Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art.''
And a fine exhibit it is, too, unless you're too culturally stunted to
appreciate serious art. It includes Kate Millet's ``The American Dream Goes
to Pot,'' which consists of a wooden cage housing a porcelain toilet with a
US flag in it. Such subtlety. Such poignance. Such economy of expression.
Another work, ``What Is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?,'' invites
viewers to write answers to that question in a guest book -- but requires
them to walk on an American flag to do so. Isn't that powerful? Doesn't it
speak eloquently to the human condition?
It's easy to see why the NEA is lavishing tens of thousands of dollars on
the Phoenix Art Museum this year. What better use of public money could
there be than bolstering an institution willing to present ``Lime Pit'' to
the public. From the catalog: ``In `Lime Pit' (1990), a blood-dripping
crucifix with a beheaded and legless Christ has been superimposed over the
flag, thus turning it into a graven image.'' If there's a hacked-up Jesus in
it, you know it's great art.
And how about ``48 Star Flag #5?'' What a masterpiece: an American flag
sewn from human flesh -- ``specifically that of Caucasians,'' the catalog
notes. Andrew Krasnow, the creator of this inspired work, acknowledges ``an
obvious association'' with ``the Nazi lampshade atrocities of the Second
World War.'' That must be what makes it so good.
Not everyone -- can you believe it! -- is enamored of the Phoenix flag
show. Thousands of Arizonans have protested outside the museum. The American
Legion is outraged. The exhibition has been condemned by US Sen. John McCain,
a former POW in Vietnam, and presidential candidate Bob Dole, a disabled
World War II veteran. Most of the museum's corporate donors have explicitly
renounced their ties to the exhibit.
But that didn't stop the folks at the National Endowment for the Arts,
bless their spunk. Some agencies might balk at using tax dollars to display
flags in toilets and Nazi-esque needlework. Not the NEA. Part of its job,
after all -- at least according to the tight clique of arts insiders who make
up its incestuous ``peer-review'' panels -- is to shower money on precisely
the kind of obnoxious and politicized vulgarity that most art lovers are
disgusted by. After all, if the feds didn't pay for this crud, who would?
The NEA, to be sure, swears that its new grants to the Phoenix Art Museum
are not earmarked for the ``Old Glory'' exhibit. But dollars are dollars,
and 35,000 more of them have just gone to the flag-in-the-toilet people. Did
Congress really think that putting the NEA on probation would end its
infatuation with sophomoric shock art and crude antiestablishment slop? If
so, Congress has another think coming.
The Phoenix flag-fest is all in a day's work for the NEA. Even with
Congress looking over its shoulder, the endowment continues to channel public
funds to the tasteless and the tiresome.
For the 1995-96 season, it sent more money to Highways, the Santa Monica
performance center where genitalia and homoerotic exhibitionism are
mainstays. Among last season's government-subsidized offerings was ``Boys R
Us'' (described in the Highways brochure as ``our continuing series of hot
summer nights with hot fags'') and ``Not for Republicans'' (in which Marga
Gomez held forth on ``her favorite subjects,'' including ``sex with Newt
Gingrich's mom.''). Currently on stage: ``Elements of Flesh (or Screwing
Saved My Ass),'' featuring a 68-year-old woman who, according to the Los
Angeles Times, ``writhe[s] provocatively to the sound of a bass clarinet
while offering graphic and humorous descriptions of her sexual exploits.''
Your tax dollars at work.
Then there is William Pope.L of Lewiston, Maine, one of the last
recipients of an NEA fellowship. (A 1995 law ended the endowment's practice
of making grants to individual performers.) Pope.L -- normal grammar seems to
offend his artistic soul -- told the Maine Telegram he had two projects in
mind for his $20,000 federal grant. One: to chain himself, in his underwear,
to an ATM machine and give money to passers-by. The other: to rig a
6-foot-long white cardboard penis and walk through the city streets wearing
it. No wonder the NEA was so keen to give him $20,000 before the fellowship
money ran out. Again: If the feds didn't pay for this crud, who would?
Art that has to be subsidized by the government is -- by definition --
art that nobody wants. Americans will pay voluntarily for art that inspires
or moves or enriches them. They will reach into their pockets to support
theater, music, literature, dance. They will build museums and found
orchestras and publish poetry and endow libraries.
But will they pay $20,000 for someone to stroll through town in a 6-foot
faux penis? Probably not. For that, you need the NEA.
ART WITHOUT THE NEA
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Tuesday, April 15, 1997
Patrons of the Huntington Theater Company, the largest resident theater
in Boston and one of America's most eminent, may notice something different
in their programs next year: There will be no acknowledgment of support from
the National Endowment for the Arts. For the first time in memory, the
Huntington has failed to receive a grant from the NEA. When its 1998 season
gets underway, it will be without the help of the federal government.
A bad break for the Huntington? By no means. (Disclosure: I am a longtime
Huntington subscriber and one of its overseers, but I speak here only for
myself.) For one thing, NEA dollars have never amounted to more than a tiny
fraction of the Huntington's operating budget; the theater will flourish with
or without government largesse.
Secondly, the Huntington has many friends and supporters -- from its
grand benefactor, Boston University, to the volunteer ushers who give so
generously of their time. The words ``National Endowment for the Arts'' may
not appear in its programs next year, but the names of thousands of other
donors will. Their contributions come from the heart. The NEA's come
from taxpayers who had no say in the matter.
Most important, getting off the federal dole will enhance the
Huntington's integrity and independence. With government funding comes
government control, and government control is always a threat to artistic
truth and excellence. The NEA touts its grants as a kind of official stamp of
approval for worthy art. But no serious artist wants to be patted on the head
by the state. ``I would rather have as my patron a host of anonymous citizens
digging into their own pockets for the price of a book or a magazine,'' John
Updike has written, ``than a small body of enlightened and responsible men
administering public funds.''
The NEA's votaries, however, have no faith in the judgment of anonymous
citizens. They see American art shriveling up unless taxpayers are forced to
subsidize arts organizations anointed by the government. It never seems to
register with them that American art blossomed long before there was an NEA.
Somehow Fitzgerald wrote ``The Great Gatsby'' without a government check.
Somehow Homer painted ``The Veteran in a New Field.'' Somehow Copland
composed ``Appalachian Spring.'' Graham's dances, Whitman's poems, Parker's
jazz, Williams's plays -- somehow they all came about without Big Brother's
The NEA's budget now stands at $99 million, down one-third from last
year. Congressional conservatives hope to zero it out altogether. The arts
will not suffer if they do. The NEA, after all, has not exactly fueled an
explosion of artistic genius. ``In looking back over the past two or three
decades,'' the distinguished essayist Joseph Epstein, longtime editor of The
American Scholar, wrote in 1995, ``what chiefly comes to mind are fizzled
literary careers, outrageous exhibitions, and inflated . . . reputations in
the visual arts.'' (Quick: Name one great American symphony -- or painting --
or poem -- created in the last 30 years.)
Yet NEA partisans warn of a new Dark Age if the endowment is shuttered.
``We will have regained our position,'' groans Robert Brustein of the
American Repertory Theater, ``as the dumbest and most philistine democracy in
the Western world.''
Well. Back before anyone thought it was the government's business to
subsidize art and entertainment, the dumbest and most philistine democracy in
the Western world was incubating an artistic richness of unparalleled breadth
As William Craig Rice observes in the March/April issue of Policy Review,
American communities of every description have long sustained painters,
musicians, actors, and poets. A century ago, there were thriving arts havens
in such far-flung towns as Berea, Ky.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Carmel, Calif., and
Ogunquit, Maine. In the 1920s, Mabel Dodge Luhan moved from Greenwich Village
to Santa Fe, N.M., establishing an arts center yeasty enough to draw the
likes of D.H. Lawrence, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe.
In Provincetown, Mass., actors ``staged plays by Eugene O'Neill deemed
too radical by New York theater producers. The Provincetown Players and other
thespian groups have ever since attracted major talent.'' So does the
Provincetown Art Association, which was founded in 1914.
Rice's article is an exuberant reminder of the power of volunteerism in
American culture. He describes Tulsa, Okla. -- home to 15 museums, an opera,
a ballet, and a symphony, all of them nurtured by a privately-funded Arts &
Humanities Council that predates the NEA. In Louisville, Ky., the 48-year-old
Fund for the Arts raises more than $5 million annually, thanks to the
generosity of 30,000 local residents.
For more than half a century, the Wallace Stegner Fellowships at Stanford
University have sustained promising new writers. So have the Hopwood awards
at the University of Michigan. The Getty Trust gives away more money to the
arts each year than the NEA. Ross Perot paid for the concert hall that houses
the Dallas Symphony. Examples are numberless.
The story of the arts in America is one of stunning private generosity,
unmatched by any society on earth. The NEA neither catalyzes, sustains, nor
enriches American culture. The Huntington Theater Company can get along fine
without it. So can we all.
THE FRAMERS WOULD HAVE VOTED TO ABOLISH THE N.E.A.
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Thursday, July 3, 1997
The National Endowment for the Arts faces a key vote next week, when a
catch-all appropriations bill reaches the floor of the US House. The bill
contains only $10 million for the NEA (down from its current $99.5 million),
and there will likely be a motion to zero it out altogether. As members of
Congress break for the Fourth of July weekend, here is a question to ponder:
What would the Framers of the Constitution have thought about a federal
agency for the promotion of art?
The Framers, remember, were among the most learned and cultured citizens
of the New World. Many had read widely in the classics and English
literature; many, perhaps most, were fluent in French, the universal language
of ``civilized'' men and women. They knew that in Europe -- where in 1787
Goya was enjoying the patronage of Spain's Charles III and where Luigi
Boccherini was being named court composer in Berlin -- government support for
artists was taken for granted. If someone had proposed that the new American
government undertake to subsidize American art, how would these refined and
sophisticated statesmen have reacted?
The question isn't hypothetical.
On Aug. 18, 1787, at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia,
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina rose to urge that Congress be authorized
to ``establish seminaries for the promotion of literature and the arts and
sciences.'' His proposal was immediately voted down. In the words of one
delegate, the only legitimate role for government in promoting culture and
the arts was ``the granting of patents'' -- i.e., protecting the rights of
authors and artists to make money from their creations.
The Framers treasured books and music, but they treasured limited
government far more. A federally-approved artist was as unthinkable to them
as a federally-approved church or newspaper. That is why the Constitution
does not so much as hint at subsidizing artists or cultural organizations. It
is why Americans have always been skeptical about the entanglement of art and
state. And it is why so many artists have snorted at the notion that art
depends upon the patronage of a Washington elite.
``There are no Miltons dying mute here today,'' the playwright Thornton
Wilder once observed; even in small towns, ``anyone who can play the scales
is rushed off to Vienna to study music.'' The great American painter John
Sloan remarked acidly that ``it would be fine to have a Ministry of Fine Arts
in this country. Then we'd know where the enemy is.'' William Faulkner was so
disdainful of government approbation that he refused to dine at the White
House with President and Mrs. Kennedy. ``Too far to go for supper,'' he
But then, Kennedy himself had campaigned against government patronage of
the arts. ``I do not believe federal funds should support symphony orchestras
or opera companies, except when they are sent abroad in cultural exchange
programs,'' he said in 1960. Most orchestras didn't disagree. In a 1951 poll
of the American Symphony Orchestra League, 91 percent disapproved of federal
In short, when Congress created the NEA in 1965, it was violating a
two-century-old tradition of keeping art government-free. The gamble didn't
pay off. Art in the last 30 years has grown not better, but more politicized.
NEA money hasn't inspired artists to reach new heights of expressiveness,
truth, or beauty; it has incited them to noisome depths of coarseness and
banality. Like most other kinds of government welfare, NEA handouts have
fostered whining claims of entitlement -- and frenzied warnings of doom if
the entitlement is cut off.
But American art won't wither if the NEA disappears in 1998, just as it
wasn't gasping for breath before 1965. The mainstay of American art is not
the NEA. It is the tens of thousands of private Americans who voluntarily
give $10 billion a year to the arts, a tidal wave of generosity
And it doesn't end with philanthropy. Add to that $10 billion the vast
sums Americans spend on theater subscriptions and concert-music recordings,
on ballet tickets and nights at the opera, on literary magazines and jazz
festivals -- and then add to that the millions of man-hours donated by
volunteer ushers and ticket-takers and docents and fundraisers. The total is
staggering -- and it makes the NEA about as relevant to America's artistic
splendor as a falling apple is to the law of gravity.
Could the arts survive without government funding? What a question! The
government doesn't fund the Van Cliburn competition or the National Book
Awards or the MacArthur grants. The government doesn't organize poetry slams
or produce festivals of one-act plays or commission new string quartets. The
government doesn't keep art galleries afloat or make the Tony Awards so
popular. To adapt an old bumper sticker, arts need the NEA like a fish needs
The NEA is an experiment that failed. In 1965, Congress might have
thought that a federal agency could improve or enliven American art. Now it
knows better. More novel-reading will take place this year because of Oprah
Winfrey than because of anything the NEA has done in its 32 years. If the
endowment faded away, who would care? America's tens of millions of
art-lovers, swept up in the richest, most democratic arts scene the human
race has known, would hardly notice it was gone.
DESPITE ITS PROMISES, THE NEA REMAINS UNCHANGED
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
Thursday, Aug. 21, 1997
Has the National Endowment for the Arts cleaned up its act?
In 1989, Sen. Jesse Helms drew attention to the NEA's practice of funding
stunningly offensive ``art'' -- Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of himself
being penetrated rectally by a bullwhip, for example, or Andres Serrano's
images of a crucified Jesus submerged in urine, or Annie Sprinkle
masturbating with sex toys before live audiences. The controversy Helms
triggered is ongoing, and the public's scorn for the NEA has been noted in
Congress. Two years ago, the endowment's funding was cut by 40 percent; last
month the US House of Representatives voted to eliminate it altogether. (The
Senate takes up the issue in September.)
Helms wasn't the first to point out the gross and vicious stuff the NEA
was rewarding with public funds. In 1982, Dinesh D'Souza reported in Policy
Review on the vile output of several NEA grant winners. (``My eyes are
glistening grapes/ of gladness;/ yours are two turds floating/ in the toilet
of your face'' -- from ``Death Collage and Other Poems'' by Tom Veitch,
$10,000 NEA literary grant recipient, 1976). Earlier still, the Saturday
Review had asked, as a 1980 headline put it, ``Are We Funding Junk?''
To the NEA's partisans, this is ancient history. They swear that the
Annie Sprinkle days are over -- that the critics' objections have been taken
seriously and the grant process reformed. ``Although the NEA has awarded more
than 100,000 grants . . . only a few have been controversial,'' insists
Barbara Grossman, a member of the NEA's supervisory panel. Critics, she says,
should stop ``reciting the same tired examples like an incendiary mantra.''
One lawmaker who seems to agree is US Sen. Slade Gorton. And since Gorton
chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NEA's budget, his
``It's always been my view that the NEA required delicate surgery, but
not death,'' he told CBS on Sunday. ``Two or three years ago, it was engaged
in activities that I found offensive myself, and know my constituents found
to be offensive. I worked very hard to see to it that that didn't happen in
the future and helped set up the conditions under which it operates today.''
But the senator errs. The NEA hasn't changed. Mapplethorpe may be dead,
but the process by which his proctological snapshots were deemed worthy of a
federal subsidy is alive and well at the NEA. The agency continues to funnel
taxpayers' money to arts organizations that promote work of mind-boggling
nastiness. It does so despite public outrage. Despite congressional scrutiny.
And it does so deliberately, advisedly, after an elaborate peer-review
procedure that turns down thousands of appeals and selects only those that
fit the NEA's agenda.
This past April, the NEA made a $400,000 grant -- its largest this year
-- to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Even Barbara Grossman,
so weary of hearing ``the same tired examples'' of past NEA funding
travesties, would agree that the endowment may fairly be judged by its
current grantmaking. So what does it mean when the NEA gives $400,000 to
the Whitney? What do the taxpayers get for that money?
That's easy. They get the Whitney's trademark obsession with hostile
dysfunctionality; they get art that is militant and crude; they get
postmodernist mockery of traditional values and morality.
The Whitney's 1997 Biennial was underway even as the NEA grant was being
announced. One of its largest exhibits was a video montage of what one
reviewer called ``a wildly perverted Santa's workshop.'' The videos featured
a bare-bottomed man dressed as ``Rudolph'' who plays with naked female
``elves.'' Among other activities, the elf-girls are shown defecating into
buckets, mixing their excrement with chocolate, and feeding it to each other.
Another current NEA grant recipient is the Fiction Collective at Illinois
State University, which received $25,000 to produce several books, including
``S&M,'' ``Blood of Mugwump,'' and ``Mexico Trilogy.'' Each book displays
the NEA seal of approval. Each is also filled with grotesque sexual imagery
and language so vulgar it can't be quoted in a newspaper. Among the books'
graphic scenes: a brother and sister rape their younger sister, two women
engage in oral sex, an older woman anally tortures a young boy.
Speaking of torture: The NEA is sending $60,000 this year to the Film
Society of Lincoln Center, to underwrite more exhibitions like the society's
1997 New Directors/-New Films series. Among other works of cinematic art, the
festival featured ``Sick,'' the tale of a masochist who nails the head of his
penis to a board while what the New York Times calls ``a perky rendition of
`If I Had a Hammer' '' plays on the soundtrack.
Speaking of sex organs: Hallwalls, an arts center in Buffalo, N.Y., got
an NEA grant to screen ``We're Talking Vulva,'' a video of dancing lesbians
costumed as vaginas. But -- to be fair to the NEA -- Hallwalls's request for
another grant to develop ``Vulva'' into a full-scale live performance was
Dancing vaginas on video, yes; dancing vaginas on stage, no. Though Sen.
Gorton may wish it were otherwise, that's about as far as ``reform'' goes at
But why dwell on reform? It's not the government's job to be passing
judgment on artists in the first place. Nor is it the government's job to be
subsidizing them. The NEA dangerously erodes the separation of art and state.
That's why it should be shut down.