Chapter 4: Should Government Funding of the Arts Be Restricted?
Chapter 4 Preface
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is a federal program established in 1965 to promote the arts in America. With a current annual budget of $98 million, the agency makes grants to artists, as well as to museums and other institutions, in order to “foster the excellence, diversity and vitality of the arts in the United States and to broaden public access to the arts.”
In recent years the NEA has been the target of a great deal of criticism. Critics of the agency generally protest the use of taxpayer funding to subsidize works they consider indecent, offensive, or just plain bad. They cite the example of performance artist Karen Finley, who was awarded NEA grants to smear her naked body with chocolate (which represents excrement) to illustrate the mistreatment of women. Citing this and other examples, many critics contend that the NEA should be abolished completely. Others advocate restrictions that would prevent the agency from supporting artists whose work is indecent, offensive, or obscene. NEA opponents are quick to reject the idea that artists’ right to free speech includes the right to receive government funding for their efforts. As Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, states, “Artists have a legitimate First Amendment right to be as creative, or warped, as they want to be. But ‘free speech’ does not mean the taxpayer has to subsidize it.”
Defenders of the NEA argue that government funding of the arts...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
Government Funding of the Arts Should End
Editor’s note: The following viewpoint was prepared for delivery at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts on May 3, 1995.
Art historian Alice Goldfarb Marquis wrote in the New York Times, “Twice in one recent week, my concert program contained a flyer headlined ‘Warning! The performances you enjoy could be canceled!’ This referred, of course, to the National Endowment for the Arts, presented as a pure virgin cruelly lashed to the railroad tracks.”
The good news for the NEA, I suppose, is that on most of my recent train rides I’ve been presented with flyers reading, “Warning! This train could be canceled!” So maybe the Republican Congress will leave no trains to run over threatened virgins.
The Individual vs. the State
Discussions of policy issues should begin with first principles. As my colleague Ed Crane notes, there are only two basic ways to organize society: coercively, through government dictates, or voluntarily, through the myriad interactions among individuals and private associations. All the various political “isms”—fascism, communism, conservatism, liberalism, neoconservatism— boil down to a single question. The bottom line of political philosophy, and therefore of politics itself, is, “Who is going to make the decision about this particular aspect of your life, you or somebody else?”
No matter what the philosophical debate, keep your eye on the...
(The entire section is 2159 words.)
Government Should Not Fund Obscene Art
Call me perverse, but I spent an evening last week checking out Karen Finley’s new act. Trivia buffs will recall Finley as the chocolate-covered nude performer who did colorful things with yams and federal arts money in 1990, thus attracting great attention as either an embattled artist or a national laughingstock, depending on your point of view.
Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman was staged in a tiny theater in lower Manhattan, with the audience sitting quietly in amazing discomfort on empty paint buckets instead of chairs. The warm-up act, the Dancing Furballs, consisted of several chocolate-marked young people dancing with enthusiasm but not much coordination. Other Furballs distributed free glasses of beer and wine, perhaps to compensate for the theater’s version of bucket seating.
Finley then appeared and immediately took off her dress. Wearing only panties and gold high-heeled shoes, she began smearing her body with chocolate and asked if anybody in the audience would like to come up and take a lick for $20.
A Dated Tirade
This is an odd way to begin a show, particularly since the chocolate is supposed to represent excrement and what men like to do to women’s bodies. But art is art, and two women in the audience finally were coaxed onstage to lick a bit of chocolate off one thigh and one belly button. The licking apparently concluded the lighthearted section of the program, because Finley quickly...
(The entire section is 913 words.)
The Arts Will Thrive Without the National Endowment for the Arts
The death knell is sounding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The agency’s federal appropriation in 1996 fell by one-third, from about $150 million to about $100 million, and its appropriation may be cut again or even eliminated. The NEA is not only anathema to cultural conservatives, libertarians, evangelical Christians, and even a good number of artists. It is also likely to lose key political support as President Bill Clinton and other Democrats resolve to keep moving toward a balanced federal budget without compromising Medicare, Medicaid, education, or the environment.
But the end of the agency’s federal funding need not prove cataclysmic for the arts in America. Artists, arts organizations, and their supporters have many strategies at their disposal for maintaining the vitality of the arts in a post-NEA era. And in any case, the importance of federal grantmaking to the arts has been greatly exaggerated.
Two Forms of Support
The NEA currently contributes to the arts in two ways: direct funding and less tangible, indirect services. Nowadays direct funding consists almost entirely of cash awards to arts organizations and event sponsors. (As of 1996, grants to individual artists were eliminated, except for creative writers, jazz greats, and masters of folk crafts.) NEA-financed music ensembles, dance festivals, museum exhibitions, and the like undoubtedly face a period of sacrifice and uncertainty, and there will be...
(The entire section is 3395 words.)
Federal Funding of the Arts Should Not End
MYTH: The federal government should not support the arts and culture.
FACT: Americans value the arts and culture in their lives. All great nations support the arts. Recognizing that the not-for-profit arts are vital to a society’s well-being and that they could not survive without public patronage, national governments throughout history have helped nurture and sustain cultural activity. Future generations will judge this era of our country’s life by the level of our national commitment to supporting the finest expressions of the human condition. The United States today spends 36 cents per capita to support the National Endowment for the Arts. National support also helps Americans share their diverse cultures with one another. Grants from the National Arts Endowment (NEA) encourage performing arts groups to travel outside their states, often to rural areas which are traditionally underserved by the arts, and also help regionally based cultures reach wider audiences outside their indigenous areas. In creating the NEA in 1965, the Congress wisely noted that “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”
The Benefits of Arts Funding
MYTH: The federal...
(The entire section is 1242 words.)
Decency Restrictions on Arts Funding Threaten Free Speech
In the late 1980s, performance artist and NEA grant recipient Karen Finley took off her clothes and smeared herself with chocolate to symbolize the shit women put up with. Most of the audience at the 1 AM performance I saw thought Finley’s feminist point was emphatic, if messy, but leaders of the political and religious right did not see it that way—at least as they read about it in the papers. They saw Finley’s piece as an unnecessarily pornographic way of expressing oneself which decent people shouldn’t have to pay taxes to support. They complained to Congress, and Finley and three other artists whose work addressed AIDS or (homo)sexuality—John Fleck, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller—lost their grants. In return, the artists sued the government, accusing the NEA of discriminating against them on the basis of their ideas, thereby violating Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Thus was the beginning of the nine-year court fight that ended on June 25, 1998, when the Supreme Court, in “The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) v. Karen Finley et al.,” upheld the nowfamous “decency test” for NEA grants. That decision has broad implications— though at the moment, unclear ones—not only for American art but for all public programs that fund the ideas, research, or expression of Americans.
Attempts to Legislate Decency
In 1989, during the controversy that followed Ms. Finley’s new clothes, Congress passed its...
(The entire section is 2807 words.)
Serious Arts Cannot Survive Without Government Funding
During 1997–1998, the Supreme Court made at least two bad decisions having to do with relations between private behavior and public morality. First, the Court ruled that Paula Jones’s civil case could proceed before Clinton left office, on the reasoning that it would not interfere with his conduct of the Presidency— a judicial blunder swiftly exposed by the events of the [subsequent] few months. History will take a bit longer to demonstrate the folly of the Court’s eight-to-one decision upholding the decency test in awarding arts grants through the National Endowment for the Arts.
That particular Jesse Helms–sponsored clause, you may remember, commanded the NEA to take into account what it called “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when disbursing money to artists and arts groups. Some concurring justices, believing the 1990 law contained only “advisory language,” excused their decision by saying that the clause was essentially “toothless” anyway. Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, declared that the statute would violate the First Amendment if it actually imposed “a penalty on disfavored viewpoints.” In other words, you can always appeal to the legal system if you feel your right to speech has been infringed. But if this is so, then why not get rid of the damned thing altogether instead of having to resort to litigation every time the statute is imposed?
(The entire section is 2174 words.)