by Micah Mattix
Earlier this year, when Senator Rand Paul proposed to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in his "Cut Federal Spending Act of 2011," it was but the latest call to defund or significantly lower the budget of the agency in its short and often precarious history.
While Richard Nixon oversaw the agency's greatest expansion—more than quadrupling its budget in four years—in 1981, Ronald Reagan became the first President since the Endowment's inception in 1965 to propose a significant cut. The figure Reagan proposed was 50%, though ultimately the budget was cut by a little more than 10%. In part, Reagan was motivated by fiscal matters. Inflation was running in the teens and the country was badly in debt. However, President Carter's decision in 1977 to appoint Livingston Biddle, a Democratic insider, as chairman created the impression—rightly or wrongly—that the arts organization was being politicized. Doubtless, this had some affect on how Reagan viewed the institution.
After 1982, the agency's budget increased regularly during Reagan's tenure in office, and when President George H. W. Bush was elected, he provided the agency with its highest appropriations to date—$177.9 million in 1992. Yet, following the indirect financial support of a number of questionable works of art in the early 1990s—Andres Serrano's Piss Christ among them—the agency again faced regular calls for its budget to be slashed or for it to be defunded entirely. In 1996, the NEA's budget was cut to $99.5 million.
Newt Gingrich, who led the effort, explained in Time that the cut was motivated by fiscal concerns and by the agency's perceived politicization. After all, Gingrich noted, the agency had given grants to support The "Ecco Lesbo / Ecco Homo" festival in California, where acts such as "Not for Republicans" and "Dyke Night" were performed. If this isn't politicking, what is?
Gingrich was right; it was politicking. Yet, those on the right have tended to ignore the thousands of uncontroversial, civic initiatives funded by the Endowment in favor of the few political ones, at least until recently.
Artists, on the other hand, particularly those on the left, have tended to disdain the Endowment's popular initiatives, like the recent "Shakespeare in American Communities Program." In an interview for NPR in 2004, Norma Munn argued that the NEA should support living artists, whose work is sometimes challenging. Indeed, some artists see NEA funding as essential because they view the American public, in the words of Adolph Gottlieb, as "incapable of responding except to what is crass."
One way to put this divergence is: Should the arts enrich or challenge? The answer, I think, is both. Art is relational. The proper goal of the artist, as Calvin Seerveld put it recently, is to create works that "serve my neighbors wisely with love in God's world headed for the eschaton."
Yet, the problem with large, centralized organizations like the Endowment is that they are often unable to take such relational elements into account. The Endowment in particular has tended to oscillate between supporting living artists, some of who strike a false avant-garde pose of "challenging" bourgeois sensibilities, and supporting safe "enrichment" initiatives. But I wonder if either is an example of wise love for one's neighbor. If one often challenges out of hate, the other sometimes lacks the love to challenge at all.
However the arts are to be funded, this relational element of art must be taken into account. Instead of encouraging artists to write against their audience out of spite or merely play it safe, funding should help artists to flourish while encouraging them to communicate the truth (of which speaking "prophetically" is part) in love. I wonder if funding the arts at the local level might help to do exactly this.
Maybe there's not enough money in local communities and businesses to support the arts; yet, in a report released by the NEA on April 28, it was shown that Americans spend more on the arts than on the movies. Granted that's one genre against at least four, but the movies! No small fish for a country that was re-invented by Hollywood.
—Micah Mattix is an assistant professor in Literature at Houston Baptist University and the review editor of The City. He is the author of Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying "I" (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2011).