The NEA is broken, so lets fix it. What has gone wrong in the debate over the National Endowment for the Arts is that the extremes have crowded out the middle, and the NEA, like the NEH, should be a consensus-building agency. The one side invokes an apocalyptic vision of censorship, and the other side lists the things publicly funded art should not say or do. But both are wrong.

Where can we locate the middle position? The answer is that we have a wall-to-wall consensus, from Senator Helms to Senator Pell, Representative Yates to Representatives Armey and Henry and Gunderson—and I respect all whom I have named. This is the consensus that encompasses nearly the entire political community: 1) yes to the arts, 2) yes to the Endowment, 3) no to censorship, and 4) no to paying taxes to help support what an enormous population in this country finds repulsive. Last summer Senator Pell issued a news release in which he supported reauthorizing the Endowment and opposed restrictions on artists; and he also was explicit in rejecting pornography and obscenity at federal expense. The National Council on the Arts, led by New York State Senator Roy Goodman and Florida State Senator Bob Johnson, unanimously adopted Senator Pell’s position, in the exact language of his statement. I have had conversations with members of the House of Representatives in which, time and again, these same points came out, as Representative Steve Gunderson expressed them: yes to the arts, no to pornography, and no to censorship. This I take to be the commonly held, middle position, and it is my position.

In general, public policy is best served when we legislate in general language, working the public will through agencies, not through the specification of do’s and don’ts. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism favors practical solutions over theoretical definitions. Congress wants to define policy and create an executive agency to carry out policy; it cannot be expected to conduct an oversight hearing every three days. That explains why, these days, people have rightly focused upon what Congress has to do to accomplish the goals of the Helms-Pell, Armey-Yates consensus: what kind of language do we have to write into the reauthorization legislation so that a congressman supporting the arts through the Endowment, which I think a vast majority of the members of both houses wants to do, does not have to lose his or her seat in the House or in the Senate?

What has happened to short-circuit the political process by destroying the vast middle? A small number of conservatives, whom I respect, do not favor tax support for the arts in any form. A larger number of artists, whom I also respect, and not only because my wife is among them, oppose all limitations on the use of public funds for the arts. Just recently Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post cited an artist who maintains, “You give us the money, and we’ll tell you what great art is.” Unhappily, for twenty-five years we did give them the money, and they did tell us what great art is, and, in some tiny fraction of the cases, the choices have struck the center of public opinion with such force that the Endowment is still reeling.

When Senator Pell created the Endowment in 1965, he had in mind not a federal ministry of culture, but a federal foundation; that is, a tertium quid, a mixture of a foundation, like Rockefeller or Ford, and a federal agency. He further wanted the Endowment to serve on the local and state levels, nurturing the arts in every constituency, serving arts of a variety of disciplines, responding to taste and judgment diffused across the country. That is why he made a major issue out of the establishment of the arts councils in the states as state agencies.

There is no escaping the issues of obscenity, pornography, and offense to religious and racial groups, because when the Endowment, a tax-supported agency within the political process, makes a grant, however small, people wrongly or rightly see government sponsorship implicit in whatever is the artistic outcome. The Endowment creates 250 million art critics. So how are we going to make grants in such a way that the standards of taste and judgment of a very broad community register? In principle, the answer lies in a policy of local, state, and regional participation in a variety of Endowment competitions. I derive the principle from what is at stake, which is the issue of obscenity. The definition of obscenity begins with what a community considers offensive, so let the definition of artistic excellence likewise respond to community consensus on what is beautiful and true and great art.

Specifically, the larger problems emerge from grants made to individual artists, writers and poets, visual artists, sculptors, and the like. At this time grants to individual artists are made in a national competition. I propose “regionalization” of most (though not all) grants to individual artists, meaning, that the administration of grants to writers and poets, visual artists, solo performers, and the like, be located in regional organizations. Why the regions? Because they may bring to full expression the consensus of localities and communities, Atlanta as well as Salt Lake City, Boston as well as Chicago. Why not conduct the competitions through the 50 states and the half-dozen special constituencies? Because these form too small a base, both to produce adequate competition and to provide sufficient grants. It will be difficult for North Dakota or Rhode Island to conduct a competition for grants to solo performers or poets, but the Midwest or New England foundations for the arts can do a fine job. Then North Carolina need not tell New York what to do, nor New York, North Carolina.

Now you may rightly say that the Seranno grant was a state, not a federal action, a decision made in Winston-Salem by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. And I plead guilty: it was the choice of Senator Helms’s state, not Senator Moynihan’s. It’s an imperfect world. All I can recommend is that we follow the model of the obscenity definition and appeal to the states and the regions to choose the poets and writers, the visual artists and the solo performers, that, in their judgment, do work of true excellence.

I appeal, therefore, not to the state of the arts, which some deplore, nor to a rhetoric of free expression, which for some substitutes for argument. I am looking for ways in which the NEA can be rebuilt to reflect a consensus, and this will mean doing some of the things we now do in different ways. If I am wrong, if there is no consensus, then my modest proposal will prove monumentally irrelevant. But then, I am confident, there also will be no NEA. For in the end we shall not have entitlement without accountability, not for the Department of Defense and not for the NEA, to name the largest and the smallest agencies, so unequal in size, but so equal in the weight of public concern we attach to them.

When President Carter had to appoint a chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1978-79, he was reported to have said that he found himself subjected to the heaviest pressures he ever encountered in making any appointment—and he (quite fairly) confessed he was not sure what humanities are anyhow. And I am sure that President Bush by this point must wonder whether people care more for a dollar of tax money spent on a bottle of urine and a plastic statue of Christ than five billion dollars for a space station that may prove a source of equal exasperation.