Sex, Religion, and Art Politics


One side calls it censorship. The other says it's fiscal responsibility. There is some truth in both claims.

Ever since word got out that federal funds were going to sponsor art exhibits featuring "Piss Christ" (a photo by Andres Serrano of a crucifix in urine) and the sexually explicit photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Congress has been in an uproar. After considering larger cuts, the House responded to the flap by docking the National Endowment for the Arts a token $45,000—the amount spent on the offending exhibits.

And, as the term ended, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill sponsored by Jesse Helms (R–N.C.) that would forbid the NEA from funding "obscene or indecent materials…material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion; or material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group, or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age, or national origin." The bill also cuts off all federal funding for five years from the two museums that mounted the controversial exhibits.

Supporters of the Helms bill argue, quite convincingly, that Congress is merely exercising an art patron's prerogative to decide which works to fund. "I don't care if this guy wants to produce a thousand of these things—just don't do it with taxpayers' money," Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R–N.Y.) said of Serrano's photo.

The arts community has reacted with breathtaking self-righteousness. In a particularly egregious L.A. Times op-ed article, representatives of the writers' group PEN compared the Helms bill both to McCarthyism and to the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence against Salman Rushdie. They invoked the threat of "disappearances, gulags and massacres in public squares."

This is ridiculous. Just because Congress has gotten a little tighter with the dough does not mean tanks will start rolling through Greenwich Village. Nobody is saying Serrano has to stop immersing things in his bodily fluids—only that we shouldn't be taxed to pay for said "art."

Still, the senators are very definitely trying to favor some kinds of art at the expense of others—and, more particularly, to discourage museums from exhibiting work the politicians don't like. While it doesn't constitute true censorship, this distortion is disturbing. The Helms bill, with its provisions punishing the two offending museums, has already had a chilling effect.

Because of the political brouhaha, the Corcoran Gallery, a private museum in Washington, D.C., cancelled a planned exhibit of Mapplethorpe's photographs. The exhibit would have been entirely funded by private donors, but the museum is not. It receives money from the NEA and no doubt wants to continue doing so. It has every reason to believe that showing Mapplethorpe's work—even without benefit of taxpayer subsidy—would significantly reduce its chances of future grants.

What, then, should Congress do about the NEA? The endowment's acting chairman, Hugh Southern, has an excellent suggestion, though not one he would like us to take seriously: "My own personal view is that it would be better that there be no National Endowment for the Arts than that we become the 'National Endowment for Nice Art,' which is clearly the intent of this amendment."

We should get rid of the NEA. It is not true, as is so often assumed in American politics, that everything good—or everything permitted—must be subsidized. Art, like religion or the press, depends on freedom of thought and expression. Government cannot subsidize art without favoring some works over others and occasionally punishing unpopular expressions. Only separation of art and state can foster artistic freedom.

Nor has the public been well served by tax-supported arts programs. The NEA exists to take money from the masses and give it to elites, including small-town elites. (Porkbarrel politics play a major role in spreading the bucks around the country.) The endowment is based on the fundamental premise that the public, which would rather spend its arts money on movies and recordings and coffee-table books, just doesn't know what's good for it.

It is also based on the political truth that if you take a tiny bit of money from a large group of people and give it to a small group, the small group will reward you and the large group won't notice. That's why we keep being told that the NEA costs each of us only about 68 cents a year.

With this latter truth in mind, the NEA promised art institutions what every nonprofit manager wants: a major donor who will lend support with the impersonal generosity of a consumer buying soap. Good art would get money simply because it was good—no strings attached.

But it's none too easy to determine what constitutes "good art." The question is a matter of constant discussion within the arts community, which has bullied an insecure public into submission on most questions of taste. That's why only a handful of NEA grants have ever been challenged. It takes a bold Philistine, or an enraged fundamentalist, to attack the elites who determine what is art.

And the NEA has gone out of its way to defuse populist criticism by funding all sorts of kitschy folk art and funneling money into obscure institutions in small towns. It has not resolutely fostered excellence but, rather, has built a nationwide constituency for government arts subsidies.

The arts in this country are flourishing, and not because of subsidies. American artists who rely on clients for support, notably architects and designers, are recognized as the best in the world. There is a strong market for the visual arts, including contemporary works. Americans spent $4.6 billion last year on movie tickets and $6.3 billion on musical recordings. Rock and jazz will be around when John Cage and Milton Babbitt are forgotten.

But we have defined "high art," real art, as art that can't survive without subsidies. To make matters worse, the arts community has fixated on live performances and original artworks—the least accessible forms of art, because they can only be in one place at one time. Subsidies encourage this preference, since these forms are also quite expensive.

But is the public really better served by original, but forgettable, paintings hung in small-town museums than by fine reproductions of Michelangelo or Rothko? Are mediocre local symphonies truly worth subsidizing when music lovers can buy great performances recorded on compact disks? Wouldn't it be better to make movies of ballets than to subsidize performances that give a few hundred people the chance to see dancers who appear to be six inches tall?

In the absence of subsidies, people would still want art. They just wouldn't necessarily want the art the NEA wants them to want. And that, not blasphemy or sex, is what's wrong with the NEA.