The GOP is not known for its generosity towards the arts, even in flush times, and Republicans have never made a secret of their desire to starve National Endowment for the Arts out of existence. Why, then, in a sluggish economy, is President Bush proposing to give the NEA a $15-20 million jump in funds next year, the largest increase in two decades?
The low point in NEA-GOP relations came in the 1990s, when the arts body was funding works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, which conservatives deemed “obscene” and “sacreligous.” The agency was denounced by Republicans as a “threat to the nation’s moral standards.” When Republicans gained control of Congress in 1995, they cut the agency’s budget almost in half to slightly less than $100 million. To this day, public support for the arts remains a touchy subject for many Republicans.
(The agency, by the way, has a budget of $121 million, still 31 percent lower than at its peak of $176 million in 1992. Some perspective: the cultural budget of the city of Berlin is $330 million.)
Why the turnaround? It could be that Bush is hoping to soften his edges with an eye to snagging moderates in the election.
But he has to take care not to alienate his core conservative supporters, who are mad at Bush for spending a lot and don’t want him to spend any more on anything, never mind art. He seems to be trying to square this circle by channeling arts funding to very specific, noncontroversial art projects. That way, he’ll get credit for supporting the arts without risking association with wacky art projects, like, say, portraits of the virgin Mary made out of elephant dung.
Many conservatives, though, are skeptical, to say the least. Tom Perrault, the weblog editor of the Christian site Crosswalk vents his frustration:
“What is the president thinking on this one — that the Left will suddenly stop calling him names and instead embrace him if he supports the “art” sponsored by the NEA? Bear in mind that we’re often discussing such less-than-artistic endeavors like crucifixes in urine and similarly ‘enlightened’ displays. Clearly, as some nutballs in the arts community would suggest when such horrific works are attacked by critics, I ‘don’t get it.’ Still…a gigantic increase for the National Endowment of the Arts?
Also, let’s not forget the little matter of out-of-control spending, including huge increases in virtually every budget area — resulting in a painfully swollen deficit. Now, an enormous stipend for the NEA…authored by none other than George W. Bush. Stay tuned.”
Bush’s announcement got mixed reactions in and out of Congress as the New York Times writes:
“Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, an advocacy group, said, ‘We’ll be fighting tooth and nail for the increase.’
Some conservatives, like Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, vowed to oppose the increase. Even without support from the government, he said, ‘art would thrive in America.’
Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said she was delighted to learn of Mr. Bush’s proposal. ‘There’s nothing in the world that helps economic development more than arts programs,’ Ms. Slaughter said. ‘It was foolish for Congress to choke them and starve them. We should cherish the people who can tell us who we are, where we came from and where we hope to go.’
Mr. Tancredo expressed dismay. ‘We are looking at record deficit and potential cuts in all kinds of programs,’ he said. ‘How can I tell constituents that I’ll take money away from them to pay for somebody else’s idea of good art? I have no more right to do that than to finance somebody else’s ideas about religion.'”
Clearly conservatives have their own ideas about what constitutes art, and they don’t think those ideas jibe with the NEA’s. But they needn’t be too concerned. Bush announced that the bulk of the proposed money would be used for a new initiative called “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius,” a program to take works of American art on tour to large and small communities in all 50 states. Some of the new money would also expand initiatives with broad bipartisan support, including performances of Shakespeare’s plays and “Jazz Masters” concert tours. So while appearing to be more open to the creative side of life, Bush at the same time makes it clear that the money will mostly go towards canonical, classic American art and not be used to fund new, modern, creative, experimental and potentially controversial endeavors. Just as Bush administration ‘sex education’ money is really used for ‘abstinence education’, his arts funding is tied to similar political restrictions that aim to define ‘good’ art.
Some conservatives, like National Review columnist Roger Kimball, appreciate Bush’s attempt to shape and influence art funding in a more traditionalist direction:
“Under normal circumstances, the White House announcement that the president was seeking a big budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts might have been grounds for dismay. Pronounce the acronym “NEA,” and most people think Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs of crucifixes floating in urine, and performance artists prancing about naked, smeared with chocolate, and skirling about the evils of patriarchy.
But things have changed, and changed for the better at the NEA. The reason can be summed up in two trochees: Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet and critic who is the Endowment’s new chairman.
Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent “transgressive” freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a concentration camp.
Mr. Gioia is moving on other fronts as well. He has hired a number of able deputies who care about art and understand that what the public wants is more access to good art — opera, poetry, theater, literature — not greater exposure to social pathology dressed up as art. After a couple of decades of cultural schizophrenia, the NEA has become a clear-sighted, robust institution intent on bringing important art to the American people.
There is plenty of room for debate about whether and to what extent government should be directly involved in funding culture. But there can be no argument that if we are going have public support of the arts, it should be done in an enlightened and life-affirming way. This is the George Bush approach to cultural reinvigoration. Conservatives — by which term I mean people who are interested in conserving what is best from the past — should applaud his efforts. After years in the wilderness, the NEA has finally come home.”
This last line hints at what the real aim of the budget increase might be: to tighten control over the kind of art the NEA supports.