Albion Monitor /Features
[Editor's note: At the end of March, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether "decency" standards can be required for artists given federal grants. Justice Under a 1990 law, the NEA considers "artistic excellence and merit" but also that there are "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." Sandra Day O'Connor suggested it might be appropriate to demand stricter standards for artists that receive public funds. A decision is expected before summer.

On the cover of this issue, La Giocanda is contemplating Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a 1987 work of a crucifix suspended in urine. Often cited in criticism of the NEA, an excellent summary of the work and its controversy can be found in this review of a lecture given by the artist in 1996.]

NEA's Cloudy Future

by Jennifer Johnson

"Art is so wonderfully irrational, exuberantly pointless, but necessary all the same. Pointless and yet necessary, that's hard for a Puritan to understand." -- Gunther Grass
It's the Saturday before Christmas in South St. Petersburg, and a party of up and up-and-coming artists have gathered in an exhibition. Sulfur-colored garland and construction paper chains trail haphazardly from the ceiling to the walls, where much of the show's suitably oracular art is displayed. One piece, grouped with others exploring the nature of color, is a sketch depicting night and overlaid with hand scrawled text: "I feel like a black cloud in the sky at night when I'm taking a shower smelling wonderful."

Art world academia might call the drawing a simple yet sapient statement exploring man's relationship to nature and the shadowy distinction between damnation and redemption.

But there are no critics among the patronage today. And that's too bad, because the "curator" of this exhibition is set to receive a $95,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts this year. With no crucifixes, naked bodies or splashes of blood figured anywhere, not even the staunchest wowser could balk.

Nope. Youth Arts Corps' Holiday Festival at the Department of Juvenile Justice Wildwood Service Center is squeaky clean. The Corps is a cooperative endeavor between Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties' arts councils that encourage high-risk juveniles to make art rather than make trouble. The non-profit and its modest first annual exhibition of works by participating kids couldn't seem more removed from the white-gloved fisticuffs between bon ton art sophisticates and politicians over the NEA -- a fine reminder that the question of government arts funding in America encompasses more than Robert Mapplethorpe.

Last July the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate the NEA altogether
As the election year begins, the National Endowment for the Arts remains intact -- but hardly on stable ground. For years, the NEA has seemed ill fated, the target of some members of Congress (and their constituents) who would like to see the agency abolished.

In recent years, controversy in Congress over the kind of art the endowment funds prompted public and political scorn for the NEA, and in 1995 the agency's funding was cut by 40 percent, from $171 million to $99.5 million.

Along with the 1995 budget cuts also came congressional mandates greatly restricting NEA access. The number of categories under which an artist could apply for grant funding was reduced from 17 to four, requiring that federal money be granted only to organizations for specific projects. Prior to 1995, a grant applicant could ask for a certain amount of money, be awarded it, and make the determination later how to spend it. Since 1995, a grant applicant must seek funding for a predetermined purpose -- a particular show, particular equipment, etc. Last, the mandates nixed subgranting for all but state and regional government arts agencies. For example, the New York Film Foundation, a private organization, can no longer share the NEA funds it receives with individual filmmakers.

Then, last July the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate the NEA altogether. But the Senate restored the 1998 endowment in November with $98 million -- $1.5 million below the NEA's Fiscal Year 1997 funding level.

Despite this temporary victory, the future of the endowment remains uncertain. Funding for the NEA comes again before Congress later this year, and the federal Legislature will still have to grapple with the all- too- familiar NEA tussles:

  • The NEA is a bloated bureaucracy, mired in partisan politics vs. The NEA is the best kind of public subsidy, being that the tax payer tab is tiny, yet reaps many dividends.

  • The government has no place setting standards for art and no place paying for it vs. The endowment is essential for the "encouragement of excellence" in the arts, and America is in for a new Dark Age if the endowment is shuttered.

  • America needs and wants the government to fund the arts vs. The hell America does! Congress has a tough job to tackle. Let's just say finding what's "right" among these views is as ticklish as knowing serious, intellectual art from a child's close study of color.

"More hot sex from the arts endowment," screamed one Washington Times editorial
The late 1970s to mid-1980s were heady days for arts advocacy. There were occasional hits from the Reagan White House, but, for the most part, the view from Capitol Hill looked rosy. In 1984, the NEA was quietly funded $149 million and the concept of a national commitment to culture went virtually unchallenged.

That all changed in 1989-90 when Washington's Corcoran Gallery showed the now infamous collection of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs and Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." (Serrano's work, an image of Christ submerged in the artist's urine, caused Sen. Jesse Helms to thunder on the Senate floor: "He is not an artist. He is a jerk.")

For the next few years, the NEA was funded semi-surreptitiously. Normally, Congress must first authorize an agency in order to fund it. But in 1992 and 1993, when Democrats -- many of them NEA supporters -- were the majority, they simply waived the rule, thereby avoiding an embarrassing floor debate that may have forced them to defend the likes of "child pornographer" Mapplethorpe and sacrilegious" Serrano.

In 1994, when Republicans took over, the endowment suddenly became vulnerable to a point of order because it hadn't been formally authorized. Once the appropriations bill was introduced on the floor, any member of Congress had the authority to demand that the provision for funding -- or the NEA altogether -- be eliminated.

This snafu left NEA supporters (again, mostly Democrats -- now the minority) a much meeker bunch, weakening resistance to the downsizing mandates and the 40 percent funding reduction three years ago.

Since the 1995 budget slicing, the NEA has taken safer bets in its grant making, says Susan Boren of the Library of Congress' Education and Public Welfare Division. In the NEA list of awards given in spring 1997, all of the names are familiar to art insiders, and "the bigger the institution, the bigger the award."

"Though most of the grants seemed very deserved," says Boren, "there does seem to be a conservative slant to the funding, giving money to existing institutions who have a track record and can be trusted to please audiences."

Still, the NEA hasn't escaped more controversy. One of the latest is a work by African American filmmaker Cheryl Dunye. The movie -- which has received excellent reviews across the country -- follows the life of a fictitious black lesbian actress in the 1930s. Dunye's film has upset a number of Capitol conservatives (mainly because it contains a lesbian sex scene), including the editors of the Washington Times, who are citing the film's $31,500 grant as yet another example of the endowment's supposed depravity. "More hot sex from the arts endowment," screamed one Times editorial headline.

And political conservatives continue to criticize the endowment as unnecessary -- a waste of taxpayer dollars. "The growth of private-sector charitable giving in recent years has rendered NEA funding relatively insignificant to the arts community," says Laurence Jarvic of the Heritage Foundation, which advocates abolishing the endowment. "Overall, giving to the arts last year totaled almost $10 billion -- up from $6.5 billion in 1991 -- dwarfing the NEA's federal subsidy."

NEA supporters point out that all great nations help finance the arts -- France spends $32 per person, per year; Germany spends $27, while the cost of the U.S. national endowment, at the FY 1998 level, is less than 38 cents per capita.

That small amount, supporters contend, brings much larger benefits. NEA funding is given on a dollar-for-dollar match basis. Each recipient is required to match the endowment's money with an equal amount raised from the private sector. According to the NEA, each federal dollar spent inspires an additional $11 in matching grants.

This rationale, repeated by NEA supporters, earns an "A" for arithmetic (a $98.5 million budget divided by 260 million Americans does indeed equal 37-and-some-odd cents per person), but NEA foes give it an "F" for logic.

"What does the per-capita cost of the NEA have to do with the price of fish paste?" writes Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for The Boston Globe. "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. (Should) no one begrudge any of these since they only cost us the price of a few postage stamps?"

The NEA says there's no comparison -- the endowment, unlike Jacoby's analogies, reaps the nation real, quantifiable rewards. "Art doesn't just exist in a vacuum," says Meg Phee, a Washington, D.C.-based NEA spokesperson. "There is plenty of proof that arts funding affects quality of life issues, including helping to prevent youth crime. And every year, the endowment opens the door to the arts to millions of school children."

The arts also open the door on $37 billion in economic activity nationwide, Phee says, and support 1.3 million jobs.

And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves "It's pretty, but is it Art?" -- Rudyard Kipling
Sadly, you can't talk about the National Endowment of the arts without bringing up sodomy and piss. Although the NEA has awarded more than 100,000 grants and only a few have been controversial, the hottest NEA topic is whether or not the federal government is promoting high art or abetting "child pornographers" such as photographer Mapplethorpe and hiring "blasphemers" in the likes of Serrano to pee on Jesus.

Sen. Helms was the first to target Mapplethorpe and Serrano, along with, more recently, performance artist Annie Sprinkle (who masturbates with sex toys before live audiences) as all that's profane in art. But in all fairness, Helms wasn't the first to question NEA grant making. In 1982, Dinesh D'Souza reported in Policy Review on what he considered the vile output of several NEA grant winners. Earlier still, the Saturday Review had asked, as a 1980 headline put it, "Are We Funding Junk?"

Still, misinformation has been disseminated through the mass media about these controversial artists. Most of what you think you know about Andres Serrano and his now infamous photograph, "Piss Christ," for example, is probably false.

For many years, the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has hosted "Awards in the Visual Arts," a national competition for individual artists. In 1988, Andres Serrano was one of seven winners. His prize was $15,000 plus a place in the group show exhibiting the work of the winners. The fund that provided the money for the cash prizes came from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, private donors, corporate donors and the NEA.

Serrano's submission to SECCA was a series of untitled photographs involving bodily juices, some of a crucifix submerged in various fluids, including milk and, for the controversial "Piss Christ," "Serrano's own urine. Serrano was not a NEA Fellow, nor did the NEA commission his work, including "Piss Christ," in any way. The NEA was merely one of the "Awards in the Visual Arts" sponsors. Even this loose association, though, was enough to give the theocratic right a point of vicious attack on the endowment and its granting practices.

More recently, in one of the endowment's 1997 grants (and the Endowment's largest grant last year), $400,000 went to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Around the time the grant was being announced, the Whitney kicked off its 1997 Biennial exhibition. One of the show's 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.

Glad you heard that after the holidays? Whether you like it or not, whether it offends you or not, whether you think it's valuable or not ... well, frankly, who gives a good goddamn -- you're probably just confusing the issue.

"Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other." -- Neal Cassady
Generally, most who oppose censorship in the arts are arts advocates, as are most of the people who support the NEA.

But ironically, as far as the endowment, the two ideals are pitted against each other. If you oppose censorship in art, you essentially say the NEA has no place in a democratic society. Who, after all, should be given the power to make judgments about grants? By what right would anyone's taste, values and standards prevail over anyone else's? But passing judgments, whether they apply to "decency," "standards of excellence" or whatever, 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 U.S. government approves of your exhibition; it disapproves of yours. The NEA's Phee, in her explanation of the crippling effects of endowment funding cuts, explains the problem (albeit inadvertently) quite well.

"Getting an NEA grant helps an artist or an organization leverage other funds because it's like a seal of approval," she says. "If you're the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and you don't get NEA funding, you're OK. If you're the Met, you don't need a sanction. But if you're some small, non-profit arts organization, not getting that 'seal of approval' makes it harder to get other grants or private funding, because they don't earn the respect that's synonymous with NEA funding."

Essentially, public funding agencies create "official" art -- not a far cry from propaganda. The private sector by and large limits its support to those groups that have received public support. Thus, only state-approved art gets funded. Public funding places "politically incorrect" art at great disadvantage in the marketplace.

"To this day, people are referred to my work because I got the (NEA) grant," says Theresa Beck, who received a $5,000 individual artist fellowship in the late 1980s. "People don't forget that you get funding from the NEA. NEA grants make careers go gangbusters."

But what about the little repertory theater that gets passed over when someone decides to grant the Met? What if the review panel had been more keen to West Central Florida sculpture than Beck's airbrush art? Someone else's career (rightfully? not? who knows?) would have been set to go gangbusters.

"Grant-making decisions, however you try to rationalize them, are essentially arbitrary," says Long.

It seems most artists would be amenable to the NEA, despite its problems. But there's a growing sector of the art world that doesn't like the endowment, for some or all of the already presented arguments against it, or for reasons entirely their own.

One faction maintains getting off the federal dole means enhancing artistic integrity and independence. With government funding comes government control, this camp says, and government control is always a threat to artistic truth and excellence. That, although the NEA touts its grants as a kind of official stamp of approval for worthy art, no serious artist wants to be patted on the head by the State.

"I don't think art should be capital-driven by government expenditure," Long says. "I think art should be driven by the will and spirit of the artist, and judged by the collector and the public, not the politicians."

In 1995, private giving to the arts dwarfed the NEA budget by a ratio of 57 to 1
In late February 1997, the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, of which Hillary Rodham Clinton is the honorary chairperson, issued a report to the president called "Creative America." The 34-page report is a detailed analysis of the current state of culture in the country, and makes a total of 55 recommendations of how the U.S. can enhance its support of the arts and humanities. Although the report touches on all aspects of culture in the amateur, commercial and non-profit worlds, a major point of focus for the committee is public funding.

In no uncertain terms, the report suggests that Congress increase spending for the arts and humanities to $2 per person, per year by the year 2000 (just in time for the millennium and, conveniently, Clinton's exit from office). "Because all Americans have a stake in preserving our cultural heritage," states the report, "there is a national, and therefore a federal, responsibility for this legacy."

But is public funding really the mainstay of art in America? The arts have flourished in America for 219 years; the NEA has existed for only 30. Pollack's paintings, Ives' scores, Whitman's poems, O'Neill's plays, Melville's novels, Stieglitz's photographs -- the vast outpouring of art in the United States pre-1965 at least casts doubt on the notion that art in America would be rendered dead without the NEA.

And is everyone forgetting about the largest art benefactors of this nation? Individuals, corporations and foundations contributed nearly $9.5 billion last year to sustain the arts and humanities. In 1995, private giving to the arts dwarfed the NEA budget by a ratio of 57 to 1.

Not to mention there are many who believe the NEA, after all, has not exactly fueled an explosion of artistic genius. Long, for one, agrees with essayist Joseph Epstein, who in 1995 wrote, "In looking back over the past two or three decades, what chiefly comes to mind are fizzled literary careers, outrageous exhibitions and inflated reputations in the visual arts."

Long offers this analogy: "If, when vaudeville ran its course, and people no longer would pay to see it and support it, the government got together and said 'Let's preserve slapstick and people spraying water in each others faces,' and then put together a government organization to fund it, would people go for that?"

"Good art is self-sustainable," he says. "Bad art is not. Why should my tax dollars subsidize some guy who can't get his art in a gallery?"

"Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great goddess?" -- Ludwig van Beethoven
What should be done? It would be foolhardy to abolish the NEA overnight. Like it or not, the endowment is currently part of the infrastructure and its sudden removal, with no alternatives in place, would result in chaos. The NEA also has a powerful constituency that will fight for its retention -- the huge bureaucracy of arts administrators, for example, who would become unemployed if public-funding agencies were abolished. And, the NEA is a substantial funding source for major arts museums, symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies. So the upper-middle classes will lobby, if only essentially to keep their ticket subsidies.

If the NEA is to be phased out of existence, alternative sources of funding must be stimulated simultaneously. Despite Long's idealism, the reality is art can never thrive if its fate is left entirely to market forces. But public funding agencies are not the only possible mechanisms to correct gaps in the market. Individuals and corporations can be stimulated to invest in the arts by providing tax incentives.

Individuals could be given tax credits for donations to small arts organizations or to foundations that fund such groups and/or fund individual artists. Tax law could also be changed to encourage wealthier individuals and corporations to make more generous contributions to these same organizations.

"Probably the most sustainable solution to the problem of funding the arts in communities and in the country," says the Pinellas County Arts Council's Powers, "is a partnership between government and the private and corporate sectors."

The market itself cannot be relied on to favor genius, nor can governments. Shakespeare ended up "commercially" prosperous in his native Stratford, England, but Mozart, just as popular in his time, died poor at 36, cadging loans from his friends. On the other hand, many artists starved in Italy even under the Medicis -- the greatest ruling class arts benefactors in history. During their 300-year rule of Florence during the Renaissance, the Medicis supported Michaelangelo, Raphael and other great artists, but, all told, were guilty of the same favoritism (censorship, whatever you want to call it) the NEA is charged with today -- subsidizing a few artists that conformed to their fancy while ignoring others.

This article first appeared in Weekly Planet

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Albion Monitor April 9, 1998 (

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