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BRIA 13 2 a The Battle Over the National Endowment for the Arts

CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Right in Action
Spring 1997 (13:2)
Updated June 2000

CONTROVERSIES IN THE ARTS

BRIA 13:2 Home |  The Battle Over the National Endowment for the Arts  |  The Suppression of Art in Nazi Germany  |  Music on Trial: Rock, Rap, and Responsibility

The Battle Over the National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has recently been the focus of intense controversy. Founded just over 30 years ago, the NEA is a federal agency that funds art organizations and programs throughout the country. Most of its money goes to fund art museums, symphonies, established theaters, state and local arts organizations, and art education programs. About 4 percent of its budget used to be given in grants to individual artists. Most criticism of the NEA focuses on its funding of individual artists and displays of their works. Critics often cite as particularly outrageous NEA funding for a museum display of Robert Mapplethorpe's graphic photographs of homosexual acts, NEA funding to an arts organization that gave funds for a display of Andres Serrano's sacrilegious photograph of a crucifix, and direct NEA grants to Karen Finley, whose performance art has featured her smearing her nude body with chocolate.

Many Americans are outraged that their tax dollars have helped support work that they consider obscene or sacrilegious. They argue that NEA funding favors an elite group of artists who are alienated from mainstream American culture. They demand that the NEA be eliminated.

Many others, however, argue that the arts, even controversial works of art, are vital to the flourishing of a rich national culture and a free society. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans favor public support of the arts.

History of Art Funding in America

Although other nations in the developed world have long traditions of government funding for the arts, the United States does not. Symphony orchestras, museums, and individual artists have depended for support on donations from corporations and private foundations. Presidents Buchanan (in 1859), Harrison (in 1891), and Theodore Roosevelt (in 1901) tried to establish a national council on the arts. Their proposals failed. The first major government funding of the arts didn't occur until the 1930s during the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired thousands of writers, musicians, painters, sculptures, and other artists to work on public art projects. But the WPA was viewed as a relief project—one that provided employment. In 1939, Congress ended the WPA's art projects.

The Development of the NEA

It wasn't until 1964 that the National Endowment for the Arts was conceived as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society." Along with a war on poverty, new education programs, and increased care for the elderly, the Great Society would, Johnson proclaimed, provide money and expertise to "encourage the development and growth of the arts throughout the nation." In 1965, Congress created the National Endowment for the Arts. Its mission was to "foster the excellence, diversity, and vitality of the arts in the United States."

To judge artistic excellence, diversity, and vitality, the NEA established "peer panels," appointed by the NEA chairperson. According to federal legislation, the approximately 800 members of the different panels must have shown expertise and leadership in the type of art they are reviewing. They must also be diverse geographically, culturally, and in points of view. All decisions of the peer panels are reviewed by the National Council of the Arts, a 26-member committee appointed by the president. The council then recommends grant finalists to the NEA chairperson, who makes the final decision on all grants.

For many years, the NEA had bipartisan support. The Johnson administration, moving deeper and deeper into the Vietnam quagmire, lost interest in building up the NEA. During the Nixon and Ford administrations, however, the NEA's budget grew tenfold. The Carter and Reagan administrations continued supporting the NEA.

From the NEA's founding, there had always been critics. But in 1989, a storm of criticism fell on the NEA in the wake of its support for the works of Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Finley. Congress responded by passing a law in 1990 requiring that the agency only fund works that meet "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." This law was the first content restriction that Congress had ever placed on the NEA.

The NEA chairperson immediately turned down four grant requests that had been recommended for approval. The four artists (one was Finley) sued the NEA, and in 1992, a federal judge ruled that the decency requirement was unconstitutional. In November 1996, an appeals court voted 2–1 to uphold this ruling. The two-judge majority said that the law was vague and would allow the NEA to refuse funding "because of the artist's political or social message or because the art or artist is too controversial." However, an 8–1 Supreme Court majority voted to reverse the decision of the appeals court in the 1998 case of National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley. Sandra Day O'Connor expressed the opinion of the court when she stated that "the First Amendment protects artists' rights to express themselves as indecently and disrespectfullyas they like, but does not compel the Government to fund that speech."

Following the uproar over these artists, more people in public life started to question the NEA. In the 1992 Republican primary, Patrick Buchanan attacked President Bush for supporting the NEA. After the 1994 congressional elections, the new Republican majorities in both houses slashed the NEA's budget 40 percent—from $170 million to $99 million. Its budget constitutes about a tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget. Jane Alexander, the then head of the NEA, stopped all grants to individual artists.

The Clinton administration supported increased NEA funding. It's persistent requests won the support of congress in April, 2000. The $50.2 million increase of the NEA's budget for 2001 will fund "Challenge America," a plan to connect art organizations more closely with families and communities, concentrating on underserved areas. "Challenge America" will draw the National Endowment for the Arts into a close partnership with the Department of Education and provide for more extensive arts programming in schools. However, voices in Congress continue to call for an end to the NEA.

Pros and Cons of the NEA

Many NEA opponents don't think taxpayers should fund outrageous art. Critics like Patrick Buchanan and Senator Jesse Helms contend that taxpayers unwillingly subsidize obscene and blasphemous art, forced upon them by an out-of-touch cultural elite.

Gene Veith, a Wisconsin arts administrator, agrees that elitism is a problem. He writes that "artists no longer have to create works that appeal to the public. They have to create works that appeal to the grants makers." This problem, he contends, "is multiplied in its effect when state governments, corporations, and even private buyers...defer to the same [NEA] peer-review panels."

The problem of how to recognize quality art has troubled many. Stephen Weil, of Washington's Smithsonian Institution has written: "Few issues, in fact, have so deeply or bitterly divided the art world...as has this question of quality. Is there really any such thing, its detractors ask, or is it simply an exclusionary devise, an instrument of cultural repression...?"

According to Jeff Jacoby, columnist for The Boston Globe: "The NEA consistently rewards novelty over quality. Its grant recipients are often distinguished by...intolerance toward traditional standards and art forms. Artistry, beauty, and craftsmanship are rejected in favor of radical politics, victim chic and anger." In short, these critics repeat the objection that public arts funding favors a small, elite group of artists and connoisseurs.

NEA supporters believe the critics distort the NEA's record. On the NEA's 30th anniversary, Senator Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), one of its original sponsors, said that the NEA:

provides critical assistance for. . .music, theater, literature, dance, design arts, and folk arts around the country. This year, in my own state of Rhode Island, the Endowment provided funds to renovate painting and sculpture facilities in the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, supported an after-school arts education program for minority neighborhood youth in the fourth and fifth grades, and funded the Trinity Repertory Theater, one of the nation's premier theaters. In other areas, the NEA funded a Music in our Schools program in Providence and aided a folk arts apprenticeship program. Without this funding. . .many of these programs would simply not exist.

NEA supporters further point out that only a handful of the more than 100,000 NEA grants have proven controversial. Robert Hughes, art columnist for Time magazine, says: "You don't kill the endowment over that, any more than you abolish the U.S. Navy because of Tailhook" [a Navy scandal].

NEA supporters maintain that the NEA should not shy away from controversial pieces of art. They explain that many great new works of art have provoked controversy. In 1913, a Parisian audience rioted at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." When Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial was announced in 1981, many veterans groups expressed outrage over a work that they believed insulted those who died. Today, both of these works are widely recognized as powerful works of art.

NEA supporters claim that our nation's culture is enriched by serious art work, some of which will never enjoy support by the marketplace.

In contrast, some NEA opponents apply a "survival of the fittest" philosophy to the arts. If an arts program can only survive on government money, they contend, perhaps it shouldn't exist at all. If artists have something of value to offer society, they argue, then people will buy their paintings, books, or recordings, or go to the theater to view their plays and movies.

Opponents point out that, without the NEA, the arts will not die in America. "In fact," insists The Globe's Jacoby, "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."

NEA supporters recognize that killing the NEA will not kill the arts. But, they maintain, it will deal a severe blow to many communities that cannot support museums, theaters, symphonies, and arts education. They realize that corporations and foundations do most of the giving. (They put the ratio at 12–1). However, they also assert that critics fail to understand that many of these organizations would not be as generous without NEA matching grants—money that must be matched by other donors. NEA money, they state, serves to prime the pump. For every dollar it gives, many more private dollars follow.

In fact, they claim that the NEA's small investment in arts pays huge dividends. They cite studies showing that each year the non-profit arts sector generates billions of dollars for the economy, creates more than a million jobs, and pays back any federal subsidies by returning billions of dollars in taxes. In addition, federally funded arts projects help rejuvenate business districts and lure tourists and shoppers to cultural centers.

Much of the argument between the two sides boils down to one question: Is it proper for government to subsidize the arts? Many NEA opponents argue that support for the arts is not the business of government. Jacoby of The Globe asserts: "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." But NEA supporters ask: If this is so, where would you draw the line? Should we close the Smithsonian? Should we sell the Vietnam Memorial? Could no government—local, state, or federal—give any money to a museum? NEA supporters say that supporting the arts is a necessary and proper function of government.

For Discussion

  1. How do arts get funding in the United States?
  2. Do you think the arts contribute to American society? Why or why not?
  3. Do you think the NEA should be involved in funding the arts in the United States? Why or why not?

A C T I V I T Y

What Should Be Done About the NEA?

In this small-group activity, students role play members of a congressional committee deciding what to do about the NEA.

  1. Form small groups.
  2. In your group, discuss each of the options for the NEA below.
  3. Decide which option (or options) your group believes is best for the NEA. You may develop options of your own. Be prepared to report your decisions and reasons for them to the rest of the class. If your group cannot agree, report back the majority and minority positions.
  4. After each group reports, hold a discussion and class vote.

Options for the NEA

  1. Abolish it.
  2. Remove all content restrictions.
  3. Permit it only to fund arts organizations like museums and symphonies—not individual artists.
  4. Keep it at its current budget.
  5. Increase its budget.