Thank you for presenting George Garrett’s piece (“Art Is Always Political When the Government Starts Giving Grants,” June 1990) dealing with the National Endowment for the Arts, an extremely complex issue that has been trashed by less informed writers. While my ideological inclination is to demand the abolition of all government funding, I also live in the real world and recognize the effect arts funding has on the existence of fine and performing arts.
In actuality, the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities fund far fewer Mapplethorpes and Piss Christs than they fund the more traditional arts. In West Plains, the nearest town to my rural home (with a population of ten thousand), the art council receives funding from the Missouri Arts Council, which in turn receives monies from the NEA. In the past several years, this money—your tax dollars—has paid for a “Mark Twain Tonight” performance, a dance company, a community theater presentation of an Agatha Christie mystery, a harp and flute duo, a newsletter, a Celtic music trio, a radio variety show, and a lecture on Sherlock Holmes. The NEH funding, going through two Missouri cultural boards, provided the monies for a group that presented the traditional dances of India and a pair of Ozark fiddle players, as well as providing three lectures this coming year on Ozark social history, the regional Indian Mound sites, and a collection of Egyptian antiquities housed near St. Louis. In most cases, the West Plains Arts Council must either raise equal cash amounts to the funds granted or prove that local volunteers have donated time, services, and products to balance the fund amount—no small task in this conservative community.
Not one of these programs has been offensive to anyone, nor could they be considered “political” in any sense of the word. But I can absolutely assure you that this small Midwestern town would have none of these without the NEA and tax dollars.
All I ask is that when you think of NEA and NEH, think of West Plains before you think of Mapplethorpe. Doing so, the hysteria surrounding First Amendment issues can fade and let the realities of arts funding come to light. Only then can we make an informed decision about the future of the NEA.
—Anita Evangelista Peace Valley, MO
Mr. Fleming Replies:
I agree with Anita Evangelista’s praise for George Garrett’s piece and her insistence that the funding of arts and humanities is a complex issue. But as someone who has observed government-funded arts, humanities, and education at all levels, I do not think she grasps the seriousness of the issue.
Once upon a time local communities, sometimes with the help of the federal government, did a reasonable job of running museums and schools, and in some parts of the country honest efforts are still being made to provide “cultural” activities that do not offend local sensibilities. But these are antiquated relics of days gone by. Much of what our cultural agencies do is, if not downright evil, at least contemptible for its mediocrity and grossly inefficient in its use of public money. Bureaucratic agencies are always parasites that grow at the expense of their hosts—the function they were set up to discharge. Jacob Neusner, who has served on both the Humanities and the Arts Councils, points out that these government agencies have built-in mechanisms (routine pay raises) for increasing the personnel budget at the expense of projects.
But even if the NEA and the NEH were paragons of bureaucratic virtue, I still fail to see why taxpayers in Illinois should subsidize the enlightenment of West Plains, Missouri, or vice versa. Illinois has a legitimate interest in promoting awareness of its own Abraham Lincoln, just as Missouri and the people of West Plains have a perfect right to celebrate Mark Twain, but neither state needs federal money to promote its own interest. I am also curious to learn why any government money should be spent on popular entertainment like “Mark Twain Tonight.” Can’t the people of Missouri read their greatest author without the help of an actor?
I am well acquainted with the operations of local arts councils and what they do with their state and federal subsidies. Back in South Carolina I observed more than one such group in action, bringing in guitar-picking boyfriends to give concerts that no one attended, paying themselves grants and salaries for cultivating their hobbies, bringing in art exhibits that displayed illustrated works by Anais Nin who taught the country boys a thing or two about lesbians.
If local people want to entertain themselves putting on theatrical versions of light fiction, that’s swell, but they ought to pay for it and they ought to realize that Agatha Christie is culture in the same way that MTV or Batman is culture. In America, at least, entertainment is not a government-backed right included under the “pursuit of happiness” clause of the Constitution; it is something people are expected to pay for themselves.
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