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Arts and Heritage Foundation

Christopher Knight’s column (“The Heritage Foundation Takes the Fight Over the Arts to Ignorant New Lows,” Opinion, Feb. 24) was a parody, right? If Knight reads it aloud, surely he will get a government grant for performance art. It fits the current National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) standard, which, as I understand it, is a “cutting edge” work characterized by rage, name-calling and little substance. Bravo, Mr. Knight. On the other hand, the tone of his attack on my Heritage Foundation report on the NEA is so personal and ferocious there must be more to it. Did I run over Knight’s dog or what?

Amid the thesaurus-like litany of epithets, Knight does make a couple of coherent, if groundless, charges.

He indicates that a Spy magazine article I cited is satire. But Spy’s expose of abuses in the NEA’s peer review panel process was solid investigative reporting.

Also, Knight criticizes my use of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged to define avant-garde . He dismisses it as a “popular” definition. The edition I quoted is used by scholars from Stanford to Princeton. If Knight wants to invent his own definitions, that is understandable, given some of the art he critiques.

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Knight contradicts my assertion that the NEA has a bias against traditional, representational art. He says NEA regularly funds representational works, and cites the sado-masochistic, sexually explicit photos of Robert Mapplethorpe as an example. Good point! If Mapplethorpe can be counted in the “traditional, representational” category, things are worse than we thought.

Knight also quibbles with my description of the grant application for a show of artist Mike Kelley’s work at a Boston museum. In this way, Knight plays the NEA shell game. The NEA says: “We don’t fund the artist. We give the money to the museum, which then pays the artist.” Knight does this again when he states that NEA “has never given a grant to a porn star, past or present.” NEA records show that porn star Annie Sprinkle performed at The Kitchen, a New York theater that received an NEA seasonal grant explicitly earmarked for paying performers during the time Sprinkle performed.

Finally, Knight says Heritage backs “government censorship of the arts.” This old argument that artists are somehow “censored” if they cannot siphon money from other people’s paychecks is ludicrous. Just ask any of the artists now emerging in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They’ll tell you what the word really means.

ROBERT H. KNIGHT

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Senior Fellow for Cultural Policy Studies

Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C.


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