THE NATION / THE CULTURE WARS : A Day in the Death of the NEA: Did Agency’s Success Cause Its Demise?

<i> Christopher Knight is an art critic for The Times</i>

Sometimes, nothing fails like success.

It seems inevitable that conservative Republicans who dominate the new 104th Congress will demolish the National Endowment for the Arts--and, while they’re at it, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum Services and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. After all, the NEA is historically identified with Democrats.

The endowment, if not eliminated altogether, will likely face a crippling budget cut. But House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other bully-boy congressional denouncers of failed government won’t be beating up the agency on account of its 30-year record of failure. No, they want the NEA gone because of its record of success .

A chief accomplishment of public arts support has been that the American cultural landscape today is far more diverse than it ever was prior to the 1965 birth of the National Endowment of the Arts, when the private funding so dear to Gingrich was art’s sole engine. David Mendoza, executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, recently noted: “Before there was public funding, there was no El Teatro Campesino (San Francisco), no Northwest Asian-American Theater (Seattle), no Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (San Antonio), no Dance Theater of Harlem or Ballet Hispanico (New York) . . . . And Bill T. Jones, an African American, openly gay, HIV+, male dancer-choreographer was not on the cover of Newsweek.”


Certainly NEA programs aren’t the only factor in this shift. For example, the efflorescence of a black middle class during the same period cannnot be overlooked in the recent emergence of African-American artists into greater prominence.

But there’s no denying that public support has been hugely influential in the change, or that the NEA’s successful record as an economical government program rebukes the Gingrich rhetoric. The frugal agency’s pivotal role in diversifying American cultural life is precisely why the right has made re-privatizing the arts a priority.

Need more evidence? Consider the NEA-funded targets in the culture war, launched in earnest by the right in 1989.

Without exception, every artist whose work has been assaulted by congressional conservatives has been either not white (Marlon Riggs, Andres Seranno), not male (Merry Alpern, Barbara DeGenevieve, Karen Finley), not heterosexual (Ron Athey, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tim Miller) or some combination thereof. Coincidence? Sure, and the November election results had nothing to do with the motivated disaffection of straight, white men.

Because our new Speaker of the House dares not speak this truth, facile rationales for slashing the arts appropriation will be marshaled as diversions. Expect to hear a litany of phony claims, as the federal expenditure is excoriated for reasons quite simple to refute.

Arts grants will be denounced as an inappropriate task for government (really? name one great civilization in world history whose government was not a major arts patron); as a barrier to deficit reduction (at $168 million, out of a $1.5-trillion federal budget, the tiny sum would barely cover coffee breaks over at the Defense Department); as welfare for the rich (most artists receiving grants keep their day jobs, because choosing to be an artist in America almost guarantees a life of penury); as taxpayer-funded pornography (sex is art’s oldest subject and no court has ever found an NEA grantee obscene), and on and on.

Are you ready for the Yahoo Congress? Its conservative leadership will act swiftly to pull the plug. Whether traditional NEA supporters will vigorously defend its critical role is problematic, since they’ll probably be too busy confronting assaults on basic social programs.

Yet, the liberal minions ought not take refuge on the moral high-ground. They should instead take a cold, hard look at themselves in the nearest mirror.


Responsibility for the agency’s fate must be shared across the political spectrum. The right may be the chief culprit of the NEA’s imminent demise (or fiscal dismemberment). But the left, which exacerbated a disabling threat to another kind of artistic diversity, is not without blame.

The past 15 years have witnessed a resurgence from the left of an art whose form does not take shape in the privacy of the studio, with paint or bronze, but evolves in public through political activism and community organizing. This activist art has had some notable practitioners, particularly in the canny use of graphic media such as billboards and bus cards. Groups like the AIDS awareness collective Gran Fury in New York and, in San Diego, the border-artist team of David Avalos, Louis Hock and Elizabeth Sisco have done important work.

However, the debilitating climate of social neglect in the 1980s, which boosted this utilitarian art, also had a pernicious effect on agencies meant to support the arts. Competition between arts and social-welfare agencies for scarce public dollars grew fierce. Arts groups, worried about rivalry with health and homelessness and literacy programs, began to embrace the resurgent idea that art could be useful in solving social maladies.

The network of funding entities was by then a sizable, interlocking arts bureaucracy of federal, state, local and private programs. Utilitarian art for community outreach and social healing became a watchword throughout the field--and the embrace quickly became a stranglehold. In Los Angeles a city Endowment for the Arts even went so far as to exclude from grant eligibility any artist who did not practice social activist art.


Ironically, the overdue support for diversity in race, gender and open sexual orientation among artists ran headlong into an inimical repression of diversity in art itself--a narrowness concocted to justify the bureaucracy’s existence. The arts bureaucracy was no longer following the pluralistic lead of artists. Now, socially useful art was being mandated through bureaucratic funding priorities.

With rare exception, the left has refused to deal with this gruesome predicament, which has alienated countless traditional allies of public arts support. Now the Yahoo Congress--largely oblivious to it, but hell-bent on quashing the NEA--will deal with it for them.