“the mainstream.” That’s how Democrats used to win thenbig elections—by showing a serious respect for the thoughtsnand feelings of the American majority.nAs an Episcopalian, I am somewhat more committed tonthe aesthetics of religion than most other sects, though, as anChristian, I still have to believe that the aesthetic experiencenis not essential to either faith or efficacy of religiousnpractices. There are some people who believe Picasso wasnGod. I can’t and don’t. Kierkegaard identified the aestheticnas the lowest level of our spiritual experience, rankingnbeneath the ethical and the religious. It seems to me annirrefutable argument.nFor the power and glory of freedom of speech I look backnto the example of the late great Justice Hugo Black, himselfna model New Deal Democrat. He was a literal-mindednabsolutist in these First Amendment matters; though Blackndid not include anything except actual speech, pure andnsimple, under his rubric of complete freedom. That is, hendid not believe in any such thing as “symbolic” speech, thenlanguage of gestures. It is clear that he would not accept thenpouring of blood or public peeing or the burning of flags,netc. as forms of speech. Neither can I.nThe NEA was political from the outset. Which happenednto be in the early 1960’s during the Johnsonnadministration. Kennedy, with “Camelot,” had alreadynproved how easy it was to co-opt the artists, if not the arts.nAnd William Faulkner, then in residence at UVa, had seennthrough Kennedy and very politely told him so when henallowed that a dinner for Nobel Prize winners at the WhitenHouse was “too far to go for supper.”nFaulkner was right. I have seen more than one artistnco-opted by a black-tie dinner. Lyndon Johnson kept mostnof the artists happy (at first) and paid off a bunch of politicalndebts at the same time by creating the NEA. There wasn’t anwhole lot of money in it at first, not enough honey to attractnthe usual crowds of flies. They came later. But there wasnsome money and, by and large, it was handled wisely andnwell. Some of it was strictly political. For example, as then60’s were just beginning to heat up, at home and abroad, thenJohnson White House passed the word all around, even tonthe fledgling NEA, to do all that could be done to buy offnVietnam protesters and to keep minority kids off the streets.nThe former were handled ironically but efficiently, bynsupporting people, little magazines, and small presses whichnwere most active and prominent in the anti-war movement.nDissent paid off handsomely for some.nSimilarly, long before affirmative action, the word camendown to create and to give as many fellowships and grants asnpossible to young minority artists of all kinds. This was easiernsaid than done, because in those days the government hadnforbidden any racial or ethnic listings on their official forms.nIn order to make sure that the grants were going to blacknartists, white Southern artists, deemed especially sensitive tondetails and nuances of race, were brought in as consultants.nIs that funny? Maybe. One thing for sure, it wasnindisputably political.nIt never occurred to the Johnson administration thatnanything took place that wasn’t political. It never occurred tonthem (him), either, that the new generation, the BabynBoomers who kicked up their heels in the late 60’s, wouldnnever feel in the least beholden to anybody for any gifts theynwere given. They mostly took the money and ran amok.nTruth is, though, lots of good and decent things, some ofnthem personal and altogether honorable, happened in thosenfirst years of the NEA.nUnder Nixon, and ever afterward, there was more andnmore and more money, never enough to suit everybody innthe avid art world, but enough to arouse the interest andngreed of many, and over a decade or so to cause, nationwide,nthe spontaneous generation of arts commissions and councilsnin every state in the Union and the creation of a new andnquickly entrenched bureaucracy of (newly named) artsnadministrators. There were now, in the area of literaturenalone, hundreds of grants awarded annually, selected fromnamong several thousand applicants. Conventional politicsnentered into the process less and less. Almost all of thenmembers of the Literature Panels were, to one degree ornanother, members in good standing of the New Left. Peoplenoutside of the precincts of the left had next to no chance tonwin themselves a grant. That much was understood.nThere were some distinctly positive developments. Forninstance, the support of ethnic and minority writers (I amnspeaking of literature now as the area I know about; butnliterature may be taken, as typical and exemplary), who hadnnext to no audience or opportunity, allowed for new voicesnof the nation to be heard. Without the NEA, that is, finally,nwithout taxpayer support, many of these writers would nevernhave been heard of at all.nWhat is chosen is not at all accidental. Itnsimply follows from the process of selectionnthat the notorious Piss Christ wasndeliberately chosen from among many, manyncompeting works of art. It was chosen, then,nas it had to be, deliberately to offend.nThe bloody batties for a place at the public troughnbecame, for most of the 1970’s, matters of aesthetic andninternal factional warfare. In a very real sense censorship wasnbeing exercised by the advisory panels of the NEA on bothnaesthetic and personal grounds. By 1978 there was angrowing chorus of complaint, solidly based, against thencronyism and banal hanky-panky which had become morenthe rule than the exception at the NEA. The actions of then1979-80 Literature Panel became widely known as anparticularly egregious example of all this, thanks to annobjective investigative study, “Go Down Dignified: ThenNEA Writing Fellowships,” by novelist and photographernHilary Masters.nOriginally written on assignment for New York magazine,nMasters’ article finally appeared in 1981 in the GeorgianReview (Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, pp. 233-245) after beingnaccepted, then dropped, under pressure, by several prominentnliterary magazines, including the Massachusetts Re-nnnjUNE 1990/19n