Posts Tagged ‘stimulus’

Retro-Politics: Conservatives Go After the NEA (Again)

February 4, 2009

Right on time, Representative Don Manzullo appeared on the Rachel Maddow show last week, citing funding for the NEA as one reason for his opposition to the economic Stimulus Plan.  As it has been widely reported, he and all Republican house members voted against the plan despite concessions. 

In expressing his opposition, Representative Manzullo resurrected the art-bashing politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  During that time, Jesse Helms and conservative groups sought to reduce or eliminate funding for the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) based upon the government agency’s funding of artists like Karen Findley and Andres Serrano.  Helms and his collaborators targeted certain NEA funded artists as purveyors of the offensive, obscene and immoral.  They publicly attacked the financial support of such artists with government funds.

Government funding of the NEA has fluctuated over the last two decades, with a high of around $180 million to a low of about $99 million.  The problem with the NEA isn’t funding, however.  Rather, as self-defense against conservative attacks, the NEA preemptively ceased funding individual artists.  Despite, perhaps, saving the agency from a complete death at the time, it was severely hobbled by that decision.

During the 1980s and ‘90s artists and their supporters fought back against the conservative condemnation.  The attack on the NEA was, rightfully, described as an attempt at censorship.  The First Amendment ensures that the government will not enact laws that limit the freedom of speech, and the contemporaneous argument was that the reduction or elimination of funding was tantamount to government limitation of speech.  Conservatives and others that supported the attack claimed that the reduction of funding was a withholding; not an affirmative limitation of speech.  However, since the NEA self-limited itself, the Constitutional question was avoided–that of Congressional allocation of funding being equivalent to a law that limits speech.

However, the specific goal sought, at least in the public sphere, was the silencing of artists.  Anti-NEA conservatives claimed that this denial of grant opportunities was not censorship either because the artists could still speak–they just wouldn’t get paid for it.  Superficially this may be true, but most artists struggle for funding, so in fact the lack of public money very likely did prevent some artworks from being created.

 A side issue is that of obscenity.  Singling out a few artists from the many that received NEA grants, the NEA opposition claimed that obscene and offensive artwork was being funded by the agency.  In other forums, e.g., the courts, the definition of obscenity has seen progress over the years, changing from an I-know-it-when-I-see-it perspective, to one that accounts for potential, even if tiny, social, cultural or scientific value.  The NEA artists that were attacked never received the benefit of court review based upon the legal definition of obscenity, but rather were condemned based upon sensationalistic descriptions and misrepresentations about the purpose of their work.

In the context of art theory and criticism, artwork such as this should be evaluated on the success of the speech that it is producing.  A proper question might be whether Findley’s work evokes a feminist message or whether Serrano’s Piss Christ is a well-enunciated statement of religion and physicality, or just a gimmick.  Approaching these works from the perspective of “obscenity” is simply erroneous, simplistic, and serves only to sensationalize and politicize speech.

The NEA, as it exists today, is less than a shadow of its former self.  It exists only to fund groups and community projects, which are certainly worthy, but for purely political–speech based–reasons, it does not fund individual artists at all.  By not funding individuals, the NEA removes itself from making potentially politically reverberating decisions.  The agency censors itself.  In the past, artists valued the NEA, not just because it was a source of funds, but because it was non-discriminatory in allocating its grants, thereby truly promoting the progress of the arts (and in consequence, socio-cultural discourse).

The NEA is still hedging its position today.  On the NEA website, the Visual Arts grant information page states, “The Arts Endowment is committed to advancing and preserving the work of contemporary visual artists that reflects serious and exceptional aesthetic investigation.”   (Emphasis added).  The main grant page states that, “In most areas, funding is limited to organizations.”  The Art Projects area, which in the past would have encompassed individual artists, lists several main categories for which grant applications may be entered, including: “Access  to Artistic Excellence…organization; Challenge America:  Reaching Every Community Fast-Track Review Grants; and Learning in the Arts…organization.”  (Emphasis added).

Despite the position taken by the anti-NEA conservatives, there are probably many reasons why artists were targeted, then and now.  I believe that in using anecdotal information only, it is reasonable to state that very few, if any, artists have the same political leanings as Jesse Helms, Representative Manzullo and their conservative colleagues.  Attacks on the NEA are not only based upon superficial moral, and potentially religious differences, but they are attacks based upon political objectives.  Few NEA artists are likely to be Rep. Manzullo’s constituents, and based upon history, he may believe that he can score points with his actual constituents through this method.  Therefore, the attacks on NEA, in the 1990s or now, can also be seen as an attempt to create cultural divisiveness for political gain.

On his website, Representative Manzullo, who represents Northern Illinois, has posted his grievances with the stimulus package, citing that NEA funding is “non-job creating.”

“The non-job creating spending in this bill includes:

[item] a)  $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.”

( January 29,2009)

As supporters have pointed out, artists, in fact, do work and funding to the NEA does create jobs.  This seems particularly true given the present configuration of the NEA, which would tend to allocate funding to community groups and organizations.  Personnel will be needed to organize events, teach classes, usher audience member to their seats, build backdrops, etc., etc.  In turn, particularly in regards to performance-based art and visual art exhibitions, cafes and restaurants also benefit by the presence of  local art events and the patronage of attendees.  If individual artists were able to receive grants they would, as probable conditions of the grant, spend the full allocation on producing artwork by purchasing supplies and services–which of course, puts money directly into the local economy–and produces jobs.  In turn, individual artists also tend to work with community organizations and galleries, which also creates audiences that are likely to buy an extra cup of coffee or have a meal nearby.  NEA funding creates jobs.

It would be more than a shame if we let retro-politics determine how we perceive the funding of the arts.  Rather than limiting NEA funding, this is clearly an area that benefits local economies.  It also, just as importantly, advances the socio-cultural discussion.  The stimulus bill’s provision for additional funding for the NEA should be supported, but artists and art patrons should also lobby the NEA to relax its self-imposed restrictions and once again promote free expression.



National Endowment for the Arts 

Update 2/18/2009:

The Stimulus Bill, signed by President Obama yesterday, ultimately retained $50 million in funding for the  NEA.

N.E.A. Press Release

History and Text of the Stimulus Bill is available on the Library of Congress site here.

Additional Resources:

To Encourage Great Art, Help Great Artists by Raymond J. Learsy, 2002, NY Times