Jesse Helms Was Right: Kill the NEA

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is the author of "End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History" (SUNY Press, 2000)

In his long Senate career, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) almost always has been wrong. But he was right about the National Endowment for the Arts. He wanted it closed down.

The flash point came in the late 1980s, when Helms realized that there was political hay to be made from condemning a handful of grants that the NEA had made to controversial artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and Andres Serrano. When people found out the content of the work of those artists, many were outraged.

I personally think that all three of those folks are (or were; Mapplethorpe is dead) interesting and important artists, and I have no trouble with the content of their work. But the outrage was a legitimate reason for withholding their grants.


In a democracy, the people who pay the taxes ultimately have discretion, expressed through their elected representatives, over how their money is spent. It is sometimes said that the grant-making functions of the NEA can or should be insulated from the political process, and should be accomplished by boards of politically neutral experts. But that is simply anti-democratic, and it ignores where the money comes from.

The arguments of Finley and others that having their grants removed amounted to censorship was as obviously self-serving and fallacious as any argument can be. As has been said many times by the NEA’s opponents, and even by some of its supporters, I may have an obligation not to shut you up when you say things that disturb me, but I don’t have an obligation to pay you to do it.

Given that government funding for the arts must be subject to the political process, it’s the existence, not the elimination, of the NEA that squelches free expression in the arts. You should support the NEA only if you’re happy with the idea of an official art, an art that represents the interests of the state and the tastes of the average taxpayer.

The tastes of the NEA will, in the long run, come to reflect the tastes and interests of philistines like Helms. And the pecking order of the art world will at least in part start to drift in the same direction.

It is a familiar point that the work of artists will come to reflect the will of the patrons. This is true of the artists who are actually applying for grants as well as the ones who expect to down the road. And in a world in which receipt of a government grant constitutes prestige and is an index of success, most of the artists are at any given time applying for a grant or intending to apply for one later on. Thus they’re all tempted to be the toadies of Helms and his successors.

So if you want a wild, cool, free art world in which people do what they want, you should absolutely oppose government funding.


Now I know artists, and many of them are broke. They need money, and it seems harsh to get rid of any real source of it.

But if we think about the arts as a whole, it’s easy to see that the endowments have moved us dramatically toward a fully institutionalized, bureaucratized and univocal art, an art that is infinitely more hostile to subversive voices of the right or the left or nowhere at all.

For that reason, the NEA--like Jesse Helms’ Senate career--should cease to exist.