NEA promotes American culture, loses funds in return

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I was applying for a job recently (and by “job” I mean a non-paying, just-for-the-experience internship), and one part of the application required me to write a short report on any federal program. I chose the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It may not be as sexy as NASA or as chic as the Environmental Protection Agency, but it’s been with us for our whole lives, hiding in the background, quietly and happily feeding us morsels of culture and making our society more well-rounded. Over the past decade and a half, Congress has noticed the NEA’s good works and rewarded it by slashing its budget to levels unseen since the early 1980s.

Just in case you have never heard of the NEA: It was created in the 1960s, when many important artistic and cultural events were limited to major cities, the only places where there was adequate financial support. Outside of these large areas, there was simply not enough money to produce or broadcast plays, concerts, ballets, and other types of art. For many amateur poets and writers outside of big cities, it was impossible to earn a living. The National Endowment has helped create local and regional arts programs and grants fellowships to promising young authors across the nation.

Some of the NEA’s greatest triumphs are the television programs it funds on the Public Broadcasting Service. Listen carefully at the end of a PBS program and you may hear the National Endowment for the Arts mentioned somewhere between “funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting” and “viewers like you.” The educational and entertainment value of many PBS programs far exceeds anything else offered on commercial television, yet without the National Endowment for the Arts, such programming would not have nearly enough financial support.

Unfortunately, the National Endowment made a slight mistake in the late ’80s — it started supporting avante-garde art. Among the thousands of writers and budding artists it helped, among the musicians, the jazz masters, the radio stations, and the television programs, it also funded a cohort of controversial artists including Robert Clark Young, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Young is famous for his novels about alcoholism, abuse of power, and corruption in American life. Serrano came under attack in the culture wars of the early ’90s for his “Piss Christ,” a crucifix steeped in urine.

And Mapplethorpe? Well, he’s like Anne Geddes, except instead of babies wearing flower suits, he photographs naked men wearing other men.

So it would appear that the NEA is anti-American, anti-Christian, and pro-ambiguously gay duos. Conservatives in the late ’80s and early ’90s certainly thought so. When the conservative American Family Association (AFA) got wind of the NEA’s funding choices, it pushed for the NEA to be punished. The AFA conveniently forgot about the NEA’s support of hundreds of regional and local theater programs. It chose to ignore the NEA’s uplifting and educational television and radio programs. It forgot that the NEA’s foremost goal is to foster American culture and make it accessible to everyone in the country.

The conflict over the NEA throughout the ’90s had far-reaching consequences. In 1996, the Republican Congress slashed the NEA’s budget by about 40 percent from $162 million to $99 million. Congressional conservatives, along with groups like the AFA, wanted to abolish the National Endowment entirely. In 1998, the Supreme Court decided in favor of a law that required the NEA to take decency into account when considering funding. The logic there: People should not be forced to pay their hard-earned tax money to support art they find offensive.

It’s funny; the same conservatives that argued people should not be forced to support art they do not approve of haven’t thought twice that people who don’t support the war in Iraq are forced to pay for it.

The cost to taxpayers of the controversial art shows: a few hundred thousand dollars. The cost of the war in Iraq: over $200 billion. Punishing the organization that brought you the first National Symposium on Access to Cultural Programs for disabled and older individuals: priceless.

But why should we care? This all happened a decade ago. Well, not exactly. Even though the funding level increased to $124 million in 2006, Congress has still enacted rescissions (fancy talk for cuts) in the NEA budget annually since 1999. The marginal increases in the NEA’s budget are mainly due to inflation, non-federal gifts, and transfers between different federal agencies. The NEA’s current funding level now is nowhere near the level it was before the “scandals” of the past two decades.

But why? The NEA has reformed its dastardly ways. It no longer funds individual artists, and it prides itself on maintaining decency. Is quality radio, television, theater, poetry, and literature only worth a hundred million dollars? I do not propose that the government allocate to the NEA the billions it does to defense, but it should demonstrate a stronger commitment to the massive sector of our culture that the NEA supports. Society as a whole often views the arts as an extra. Art and music programs, for example, are the first targeted cuts at schools when money runs short, and so it goes on a national level. When the national budget is developed, it is too often the NEA that has to pinch its pennies to keep its many endeavors afloat.

What the National Endowment does is admirable and would be no matter what amount of money it had to distribute. The amount the NEA receives now, however, even after it has changed to appease opponents, is a slap in the face.

I’m not disappointed on behalf of the NEA, because when it comes down to it, the NEA is just a clearinghouse. I’m angry for the budding writers, local actors, amateur filmakers, and artistic entrepreneurs that will never see a red cent. I am angry because the nation is shooting itself in the foot by abandoning a program whose goal is merely to foster awareness of a unique American culture. I’m certainly not asking Congress to adopt a “No Painter Left Behind” Act, but maybe a “We Understand the Arts Are Important and Are Actively Seeking to Increase Our Investment In Our Own Culture” Act is in order.