The NEA is back to business as-before—if anybody thought our elected representatives had any intention of listening to the will of voters, the recent NEA waffle and the newly revived congressional pay hike would squelch those fantasies. Under pleas from both parties not to make the pay hike a “partisan” issue, an increase for the folks who brought you the trillion-dollar deficit is back, and John E. Frohnmayer, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has shown his mettle first by caving into one, then to another party in Congress.
Initially the NEA was going to fund “Witness: Against Our Vanishing,” an AIDS show at New York’s Artists Space that includes “images of homosexual acts,” as the papers put it. Then the NEA wasn’t going to fund it, since the show might “offend the language” (that very watered-down language) of the 1990 Appropriations Act. The art community predictably exploded, and Mr. Frohnmayer immediately backed down, making (if I remember correctly) an unfortunate but all-too-apt comparison between himself and John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In other words, when presented with Mapplethorpe II, the NEA did what is has always done: funded bad and politicized art.
The pertinent issue is what is properly the business of government, and both logically and constitutionally, the US government has no business funding traveling puppet theaters. The general welfare clause of Article I of the Constitution, under which the NEA was funded, was never intended to cover such an expense. The explicitly stated duties of Congress that follow that clause include the right to levy taxes and declare war; there is nothing about funding the Whitney or any passage that remotely points to such a thing.
My wish is for no NEA. I would, however, compromise. America has many artistic institutions of which it should be justifiably proud: declare them national treasures, then, and appropriate some money for their support. Fund the Metropolitan Museum, and the Chicago Symphony, and let the NEH continue to fund some historical papers projects for figures in American history in which the government can justifiably claim an interest. We will not all agree on the list, and it will be an elitist list, funding big, established institutions in the big cities, and probably more heavily weighted towards the East Coast, but then we are talking politics here and politics is never fair or close to perfect. At least in this the art community gets some money, and the taxpayers get some relief Make these general support grants, and leave it at that.
Unfortunately, such a compromise between the art community and the taxpayers may not be possible. Despite its bellyaching the NEA was not significantly chastised by Congress for funding Mapplethorpe and Serrano, and it is hard to believe that if such a public outcry could have no effect, another one will. In its 25-year history the NEA has always more than recovered from a budget cut, coming back a year or two later with a big jump in funding. We can probably expect the same result from what was only a threatened budget cut, especially if President Bush reduces the defense budget as significantly as he has promised to. In that case we’ll have all those loose billions that heaven forbid should be squandered on lowering the deficit—much less lowering taxes. The NEA’s true reaction to Mapplethorpe may be more, bigger, and worse. (KD)