Should the NEA be
“I’m a loser!
I’m a [expletive deleted] loser!” Karen Finley wailed from an
off-Broadway theater stage in Manhattan. She continued: “Will having a
career in the arts now mean that you have to come from money or create
propaganda to support the state, or be a white straight man?”
After claiming to
have been “sexually abused on the Senate floor” by North Carolina
Republican Jesse Helms (“he eroticized my career, my work, my
livelihood. I’m an abused woman on the job. As a federal employee, he
harassed me”), Finley performed her now-infamous routine – she smeared
chocolate all over her naked body and invited audience members, for a
small $20 fee, to lick it off. In case you’re wondering, the chocolate
represents excrement, which represents the oppression of women (Veith
Why is Ms. Finley
so upset? Mere hours before, the Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision,
that the National Endowment for the Arts could legally deny Ms. Finley and
three other artists a grant because they failed to follow “general
standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the
American public” (Veith 1998).
The NEA applauded
the ruling. “Today’s decision,” said Chairman William Ivey, “is an
endorsement of the Endowment’s mission to nurture the excellence,
vitality and diversity of the arts and a reaffirmation of the agency’s
discretion in funding the highest quality art in America. We anticipate
that the Court’s ruling will not affect our day-to-day operations”
Others in the
arts community weren’t so thrilled. James Levin, founder and artistic
director of the Cleveland Public Theater, warned of “a dangerous move
toward fundamentalism.” Ben Cameron, executive director of the New
York-based Theater Communications Group, worried that the ruling “has
the potential of having a chilling effect on art and sending a message
that may influence artists.” Bonnie Brooks, former director of
Dance/USA, frets of more government regulation in the arts. “The
camel’s nose is under the tent” (Lawrence 1998).
miss an obvious point. The camel’s nose is under the tent because the
camel (the federal government) is subsidizing art. The American public
expects its elected representatives to spend its tax money wisely and
responsibly (whether this happens is open to debate). This results in
congressional oversight over spending programs. In other words, whatever
Congress subsidizes, it controls. If the government got out of the arts
business, its nose would be safely out of the tent.
Lyndon Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965
when he signed the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act
(Knight 1991). The NEA’s budget was $2.5 million and it had fewer than
twelve employees (NEA 1998). Its purpose was to “foster the excellence,
diversity, and vitality of the arts in the United States, and to broaden
public access to the arts” (NEA 1998). Since then, the NEA has awarded
over 111,00 grants and spent over $2.5 billion (NEA 1998). It supports a
wide variety of institutions and activities, including but certainly not
theater, and film festivals
NEA is comprised of a Chairman and the National Council on the Arts. The
Council reviews grant applications and makes its recommendations to the
Chairman, who makes the final decision. The Chairman and Council members
are all presidential appointees subject to approval by the Senate, and by
law must be knowledgeable and influential members of the arts community
the NEA constitutional?
Any debate over a
government program should address its constitutionality, although,
admittedly, this rarely happens anymore.
describes the duties of Congress in what is called the Doctrine of
Enumerated Powers. The duties include laying and collecting taxes, coining
money, raising an army, and “To promote the progress of science and
useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the
exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
This is the only
place where art is mentioned in the Constitution. Strictly speaking, then,
Congress’ role in the arts is restricted to issuing patents.
Establishing an arts endowment is not a valid constitutional duty.
get around this by citing the General Welfare clause (Ivins 1995). Located
just before the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers, it reads: “The Congress
shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises,
to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of
the United States.”
implies that Congress may spend money on whatever it pleases so long as it
is in the “general welfare.” Since art is regarded as beneficial to
most, if not all, Americans, the NEA could be seen to provide for the
appears to be a contradiction between the General Welfare clause and the
Doctrine of Enumerated Powers disappears upon examination of the
historical record. In 1792, President Madison, in response to a proposed
bill that would pay a bounty to fishermen at Cape Cod and provide
subsidies to some farmers, declared that:
if Congress can
apply money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and
supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the cause of religion
into their own hands; they may establish teachers in every state, county
and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into
their own hands the education of children… In short, everything, from
the highest object of state legislation, down to the most minute object of
policy, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I
have mentioned would admit the application of money, and might be called,
if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare (Nilsson 1961).
1822, President James Monroe, in vetoing a bill maintaining the Cumberland
Road, asked “Have Congress a right to raise and appropriate the money to
any and to every purpose according to their will and pleasure? They
certainly have not” (Carson 1983).
the General Welfare clause doesn’t give Congress unlimited power, then
why did the Founders write it into the Constitution? Thomas Jefferson
answered this in a letter to Albert Gallatin in 1817:
Whereas our tenet
ever was… that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the
general welfare, but was restrained to those specifically enumerated; and
that, as it as never meant that they should provide for that welfare but
the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have meant that
they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place
under their action…” (Nilsson 1961).
other words, the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers was the means by which
Congress could provide for the general welfare.
the NEA democratic?
There would be
very few government programs left if they all required explicit
Constitutional justification for their existence, though, so a deeper
question must be asked: Does the NEA abide by the principles and ideals of
democratic, representative government?
to 1996, the NEA accepted between 16,000 to 17,000 applications annually
(NEA 1998). However, due to a limited budget, a common feature of all
government programs, the endowment could afford to grant between 3,000 to
5,000 requests. As of 1991, on average, the NEA approved 4,400 requests
annually (Knight 1991). After budget cuts in 1996, the NEA now accepts
only 3,000 to 4,000 applications per year. This year (1998), the NEA has
earmarked a little over $81 million for grants, out of a total budget of
$98 million (NEA 1998).
is clear that the NEA lacks sufficient resources to fulfill every need, or
even most needs. This places the NEA in the position of deciding what is
“worthy” or “legitimate” art and what is not.
The result is
that the NEA functions as a “seal of approval” by awarding grants,
which labels work produced by non-grant recipients as unworthy or
The NEA and its
supporters cite this “seal of approval” to further justify the NEA’s
existence. Former chairwoman Jane Alexander said that “The Federal role
is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and
private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a
remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money” (Boaz 1995). NEA
supporter Robert Brustein asks, “How could the NEA be ‘privatized’
and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of
approval for deserving art?” (Boaz 1995) According to Karen Gilmore,
Capital Campaign and Grants Officer for the Phoenix Arts Museum, “Having
the NEA is sort of a stamp of approval. Other foundations, organizations,
and some individuals view that this organization has a quality product to
offer” (Interview). Josh Dare, publicist for the NEA, has said that
“when a federally funded assembled panel of experts has met and declared
your company or museum one of the best in the country (by awarding a
grant), that means something” (LaFave 1995). Bonnie Ward Simon,
administrator of the Washington Chamber Symphony, said that receiving a
NEA grant is “like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” (Will
1995). A NEA grant also “helps establish a group’s credibility” and
“unlocks doors to private dollars” (Editorial 1995).
This is, needless
to say, an awesome responsibility, one that allows the NEA to wield
massive influence in the arts community (forget the camel’s nose; the
whole animal is in the tent now).
As David Boaz,
Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, remarked, “Defenders of
art funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role
of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists
and arts groups.”
It seems unwise
in a democratic society, in which the power supposedly resides in the
people, for a single, centralized government agency to make such powerful
determinations. In a free society, the people would determine what is good
art, not the government.
are other problems with the NEA. Many times, funding decisions aren’t
based on the merits (or needs) of the applicant. According to Gilmore,
there is “nothing objective” about the grant application process
(Interview). It’s all “very subjective,” she says, and depends “on
the year that you apply, [or] the panel member” (Interview). Critics
have also accused the NEA of conflicts of interest, since many Council
members, nearly all of whom work actively in the arts, appear on the
grantee list shortly after they’ve left the NEA (Knight 1991).
is no question that these “stamps of approval” and “unlocked
doors” are very beneficial to the organizations that receive grants.
However, what one commentator called this “de facto system of
government-approved culture” (Will 1995) is directly at odds with
democratic principles. While it confers an unfair advantage to those
select and few organizations which receive grants, it effectively
discriminates against the vast majority of unfunded organizations by
attaching a stigma of undeserving and inferior art.
the NEA necessary?
Some have claimed
that funding for the NEA is justified because art “enhances the
nation’s quality of life” (Weisberg 1995). To carry this argument to
its logical extent, anything that “enhances” our quality of life
deserves government funding. It also implies that the American people, if
left to themselves to spend their money as they see fit, wouldn’t have
the good sense to fund activities that enhance their own lives.
simply claim that the NEA is justified because America “likes” or
“loves” the arts (Pollitt 1997, Wolcott 1998). America also loves
bubble gum, baseball, and Beanie Babies, but nobody suggests that the
government fund them.
Alexander, former chairwoman of the NEA, claimed that “When we neglect
the life of the spirit, we tempt fate to give us spiritless children”
(Staff 1995). She also pronounced that art helps us to “ignite our
spiritual core” (Alexander 1996). While this may be true, it is highly
questionable if spiritual ignition or the “life of the spirit” are
proper concerns of government.
every major arts organization in the country receives NEA money (Knight
1991). Most of these, such as the Phoenix Art Museum, would get along fine
without NEA grants. For organizations such as the Phoenix Symphony or
Heard Museum NEA grants may help to keep the price of tickets affordable
(Editorial 1995). But this hardly seems fair. As Boaz explains:
“Take a typical
American taxpayer. She’s on her feet eight hours a day selling blue
jeans at Wal-Mart. She serves spaghetti twice a week because meat is
expensive, and when she can scrape together a little extra she likes to
hear Randy Travis or take her daughter to see Mariah Carey. Now what gives
us the right to tax her so that lawyers and lobbyists can save a few bucks
on Kennedy Center tickets?”
quickly point out that the NEA costs each taxpayer only 36 cents per year
(NEA 1998). They miss the fact that this is essentially a moral issue: no
one should be forced to pay for something that should be voluntary, such
as the consumption (or production) of art, regardless of the amount.
organizations that receive NEA money really don’t need it, and their
survival doesn’t hinge on the survival of the NEA. For example, The
Metropolitan Opera Association, with an annual budget of $133 million,
received an NEA grant of $350,000 for “development and production” in
1997 (Jarvik and Carbone 1997). Donald Baechler, who has had twenty-seven
solo exhibitions around the world and sells “several hundred thousand”
dollars of art every year, received a NEA grant of $15,000 in 1989. Says
Baechler: “I paid about a quarter of my taxes with my NEA grant”
(Payne, 1994). Placed in a different context, this would be called
are other, smaller organizations, though, which are heavily dependant on
NEA grants and use them as the before-mentioned “stamps of approval”
to attract private dollars.
is no reason why a private endowment could not provide the same service.
Some in the arts community have already proposed plans by which a private
institution could be funded (Wills 1995, Brustein 1995). One plan would
extend the payment of royalties from fifty years past the death of the
artist to seventy-five years, with the proceeds in the intervening years
going not the artist’s estate but rather to the private foundation. For
example, “instead of paying gross receipts, say, to the O’Neill estate
for the rights to The Iceman Cometh, a theater would send its check to the
[privatized] NEA after the play entered the public domain” (Brustein
1995). This system would raise much more money for the arts than the NEA
ever could, while performing the same services.
supporters also claim that, if the Endowment were to go away, America
would be the only developed country without a government arts program.
However, many countries with such programs are autocratic if not
totalitarian and use state-sponsored “official” art to oppress
independent, private art. It is true that the relatively benign social
democracies of Western Europe subsidize art, but as Jonathan Yardley
points out, these countries “are accustomed to state influences (in
religion as in the arts) that our ancestors crossed the ocean to
escape.” Furthermore, they are small and homogenous, and can “reach
consensus on certain matters that we, precisely because we cannot agree on
them, prefer to keep out of the hands of government” (cited in Boaz
artists are upset that the government is intruding into the arts and
telling them what they can and cannot do, then further government
involvement in the arts hardly seems like a tenable solution. To preserve
the autonomy and independence of the arts, and to prevent the
government’s nose from snooping into tents in which it doesn’t belong,
the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished.
Jane. “Our Investment In Culture,” Vital Speeches of the Day,
January 15, 1996.
David. “The Separation Of Art And State,” Speech at the Delaware
Center for Contemporary Arts, May 3, 1995.
Robert. “Another Way To Privatize The NEA,” The Arizona Republic,
February 6, 1995.
Clarence. “The General Welfare,” The Freeman, August, 1983.
“Arts Funding: It Makes Sense,” The Arizona Republic, February 1,
Karen. Interview with the Author.
Molly. “Right-Wingers Target NEA Grants,” The Arizona Republic,
February 1, 1995.
Laurence and Leslie Carbone. “There They Go Again: The NEA Grants
For 1997,” Insight, June, 1997.
Robert. “The National Endowment For The Arts: Misusing Taxpayers’
Money,” Backgrounder, January 18, 1991.
Kenneth. “Culture Wars’ Next Battlefield: Arts Agencies On Firing
Line In Funding Fight,” The Arizona Republic, January 22, 1995.
Lee. “Arts Community Responds To Decision On Decency,” The
Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1998.
Endowment for the Arts. Web Site. http://www.nea.gov.
George. “Not In The Constitution,” ABA Journal, January, 1961.
James. “Where Have All The Dollars Gone? How The Government Robs
Peter To Pay Him Back,” Reason, February, 1994.
Katha. “Honk If You Like Art,” The Nation, August 11, 1997.
“Jane Alexander: NEA Fosters Life Of The Spirit,” Sacramento Bee,
October 24, 1995.
Gene Edward. “NEA’s Chilling Effect Support The Arts: Abolish
Federal Funding,” World Magazine, July 18, 1998.
Jacob. “Bullwhips, Yes; Barney, No,” New York, February 6, 1995.
George. “Hysteria Colors NEA Debate,” The Arizona Republic,
February 3, 1995.
Robert. “It’s Time To Consider New Ways To Handle Funding For The
Arts,” The Arizona Republic, February 22, 1995.
Jennifer. “America Loves Its Arts,” The Christian Science Monitor,
September 25, 1998.