The pilgrimage to Mecca sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) was everything it was meant to be. The faithful were comprised of hot- and cold-running state legislators from all over the union. They came in all shapes, sizes, genders, brands, and parties; they all had agendas, lists, forms, and maps of Milwaukee, where the annual event was held last summer. The thing kicked off appropriately with a circus parade, and the following week would see virtually every group in America represented in the Mecca exposition hall.

Lobbyists were lobbying each other, state reps and senators huddled in groups throughout the two vast floors of the Mecca Center. The odor of power and good cologne drifted all over the place. The first floor was filled to the edges of its 30,000 square feet with aisles of booths, a trade show of American culture, and it was a buyer’s market. The Beer Institute was mercifully passing out free brewskis, and as I gratefully accepted a cool one and sat on a little park bench they had provided in an astro-turfed park setting, I realized that I was staring at a Lyndon LaRouche booth manned by an individual in a rumpled suit streaked with what appeared to be cigarette ash but in fact may have been heroin smeared by Henry Kissinger and the Queen of England.

There were bags and bags of things to be had there. The National Right to Life Committee was passing out “Precious Feet”: about a quarter-inch high, the little feet in gold “are the exact size and shape of an unborn baby’s feet at ten weeks after conception.” The next aisle over, the Terminex folks were passing out two-inch plastic cockroaches, and not far from the Institute for Nude Recreation booth was the modest little booth for the National Endowment for the Arts. Thus was my pilgrimage made manifest, for I had been invited by the NCSL to participate on a panel titled, “Is There a Future for Public Support of the Arts?” I introduced myself to Olivia R. Baisden, the Director of Public Information for the NEA, who at the moment was disciplining her young son, who was busy rolling on the floor. Ms. Baisden, “a person of color,” along with Mr. Kimber D. Craine, a person of uncolor who is the communications manager for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, were manning the barricades for the beleaguered agency. I gave them each a reproduction sheet of my own fine art but lacked the courage to inform them of my subversive mission, for among the panelists I was the only “arch-conservative, mean-spirited, right-wing conservative ideologue” who thinks the NEA is silly and a waste of money and a cheap-shot propaganda mill that buys off American artists for less than the price of one really good tactical nuclear weapon.

The NEA booklet that was being passed out was called “A prospectus for the Arts, America in the Making,” and featured on the inside front cover in a perfect black-and-white bleed-trim photo was an obviously compassionate, vibrant, and enchanted Jane Alexander, chin on hand and seated below a standing American male child of African descent. In the background is a black male with a baseball cap and long graying beard smiling as he guides a young black female child who holds a small potted plant while looking earnestly out of the photo. The caption reversed out of the photo reads, “Our investment makes possible the breadth of excellence, diversity, and vitality that is America’s culture.” The message is subtle but clear: without the NEA there is no hope for you indolent peasants, and if “you people” expect black males to nurture their young, to be “role models,” you can’t do it without us!

On my panel sat Gordon Quinn, executive director of the famed movie Hoop Dreams. Mr. Quinn is a very nice man who like many of mv 60’s generation still seems hopelessly lost in a morass of misguided social causes that have created the setting for Hoop Dreams. Also on the panel was Penny McPhee, the director of the Arts and Culture Programs at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Florida. She is a “babe,” a “fox,” a bright chipper woman for whom I would buy a drink any old time, open doors, and grovel shamelessly like any other middle-aged American husband. The essence of the postmodernist career woman. Penny is an award-winning author and PBS producer and past chairman of the Dade County Arts in Public Places Trust. The Knight Foundation points the way toward the future, which is the privatization of state cultural agencies. My guess is that Ms. McPhee saw the handwriting on the wall.

The state arts councils were represented by Anthony Radich of the Missouri Arts Council and Dean Amhaus of the Wisconsin Arts Council. Mr. Radich, a 25-year arts bureaucrat, has been instrumental in establishing the Missouri Cultural Trust. The goal of the trust is to develop a fund of approximately $200 million in the next ten years. Once this goal is reached, the MAC fact sheet states, the “Missouri Arts Council [may] no longer require state general revenue funds.” The fund would be built from taxes on out of state performers and athletes working in the state and from private gifts and bequests. The MAC initiative is the supposed “future” of public arts funding.

For those of us who view the National Endowments and state arts councils as instruments of social engineering, this is a reality check, a wake up call. The NEA and NEH budgets have been cut, and the NEA has favored block grants to states rather than individual grants to pet artists. But the Republicans’ deep-think political solution, “Let the states do it,” won’t dismantle the cultural bureaucracy; instead, it will perpetuate it. Even if the National Endowments are completely cut, causing the state agencies to topple like dominos or stalks of overripe corn, the children of the corn will continue to line up with grant applications in hand. Clever artists will create paper “foundations, coalitions, and alliances” to help collect rent when individual grants become a political liability. Perhaps the 21st century will see Missouri become a “magnet” for rent-seeking artists groveling for cultural welfare, much as California has become for illegal aliens seeking free medical care, schooling, and housing.

Thirty years of what I call “National Culturalism” has done its damage, and it will take generations to undo. Radical chic and arrogant upper-middle-class views of what culture should be and who “needs” it have been imposed on America by endless peer panels and the new executive director class of the artistically correct. Ultimately, what it will foster is a rebellion against this new Salon; in fact, it already has. Artists will be defined by their opposition to this government-approved “nomenklatura” and taxpayer supported tenured class. The new counterculture will be highly individual, cynical, and culturally subversive, and it will be free.

American artists have gotten a bum rap because a relative few have worked the “censorship” bandwagon to the level of sanctimonious national publicity. Karen Finley has an agent and new press photos, and the infamous Piss Christ photo is a fully commodified item that no cocktail party of the arty elite should be without.

On my panel. Dean Amhaus defended his Wisconsin turf, pointing to the “underserved” who need the arts to save their lives. Anthony Radich pitched his Cultural Trust, I ranted about NEA “buzzwords” and cultural cronyism, and Penny McPhee displayed her feminist dash. I told my favorite grant story, which for me points out the utter absurdity of so many grant projects: it is of one Jacqueline Foster who, a few years back, got $10,000 to “teach inner-city residents the fundamentals of interior design so that they could make improvements in their homes.” The only improvement I’ve seen so far in Chicago is that the public housing zoos are being torn down, and thus far no interior designers are manning the barricades in opposition. Mr. “Hoop Dreams” Quinn was nonplussed at my lack of “sensitivity,” for it was left to him to put me in my place. “Yooouuu weren’t there!” he spat. The peace, love, caring, and compassion of the Hoopman fell away, as he charged, “Yooouu don’t know what she did . . . ” and so on, but I countered that at another event Mr. Quinn presented the murderous Medicis as great examples of government patronage, and that he wasn’t there either! But perhaps he was, for the lovers of government and power have always been around hiding behind religion, or now children and “access.” They like to make rules and judge us by their standards, which they seek to impose by their own view of the “common good.”

The NEA shows in high relief the present contradictions of the culture war. The pious rhetoric of the left claims that without endowments culture will stop. To disagree with them is to “attack the arts.” They have captured the high ground, and they clear the minefields of conservative dissent by marching women and children across the rhetorical battlefield. Words like freedom, liberty, democratic, art, and culture mean something far different to these people. They see society as a social science laboratory in which they inflict their experiments on a public that views art as a cure for kids with Uzis. They disdain the notion that left to their own means folks just might put on their own plays, kids might investigate art with a box of crayons and the Internet, and artists might consider working for a living, indeed, as most do. To them, the private sector is something to be “leveraged.”

Critic Robert Hughes whines in Time magazine that France, Germany, and other European countries spend far more on public art than we do. He fails to mention, however, that Canada doesn’t know what to do with the thousands of pieces of art it bought over the years, and that it has canceled the program to buy art from artists; he does not mention that the Netherlands burned most of that country’s art surplus purchased by the government. It never dawns on the puffed-up crowd Mr. Hughes hangs out with in Manhattan that America was supposed to be different from European countries. It was the individual that counted here, and our lives and our liberty and our pursuit of happiness would not be voted on by “peer panels.” But that was then, and now we will never know what might have evolved in America if the cultural landscape and mainstreams had not been perverted to the ends of the few over the many. It is time to let American arts and letters once again seek its own course. The dams are breaking, the levies will not hold, and the course of the American cultural river must reclaim the floodplains of the national spirit.