Sculpt This Into Your Pipe and Smoke It

Lawrence Weschler is a staff writer at the New Yorker whose most recent book is "A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts With Torturers" (Pantheon, 1990)

What follows is a sort of modest proposal for seeing our way clear of the current NEA debacle.

To begin with, though, a bit of analysis. Apparently we've come to the point in our national political life where it is seriously being argued that if the grant for a particular artist or artwork or exhibition could conceivably be deemed objectionable to a single citizen--or a small minority of citizens, or even a sizeable plurality--well, then, that grant must not be awarded, since a fraction (admittedly a minuscule fraction) of his or her or their tax dollars could then be seen to be promoting such work.

This is a novel theory. I notice, for example, that such logic was never applied to funding for the Stealth bomber or aid to the regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala or any number of other such initiatives that I and many of my fellow citizens find obscene. By the logic applied to the National Endowment for the Arts, none of those programs should have been allowed to proceed. But OK. Let's assume that (astonishingly) that logic is now going to be allowed to hold sway in the coming debate on NEA funding.

There's a simple solution: Currently the very first item on everyone's standard 1040 tax form reads: "Presidential Election Campaign: Do you want $1 to go to this fund? Yes? No?" And there's a little note over to the side: "Checking 'yes' will not change your tax or reduce your refund." So, fine, let's simply divide the upcoming NEA appropriation. The vast majority of the authorization, the noncontroversial portion that everyone pretty much agrees on, let's just pass outright. As for the rest, let's add two new boxes to the top of everybody's next 1040 form. The first would read: "National Art Fund: Do you want $1 of these taxes to go to a fund for art and artists, which would be awarded on the basis of traditional peer review criteria without regard to specific content?" (followed by the proviso as to how checking "yes" would in no way affect one's tax liability). This way, nobody would be seeing his or her moral qualms abused; such people's money wouldn't come into it and their opinions would have no standing.

The second new box would read: "North Carolina Tobacco Farm Subsidy." Some of Jesse Helm's most influential backers could expect to garner precisely as many dollars (and not a penny more) as there are citizens who don't consider that particular boondoggle to be a continuing national scandal.

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