The role of the NEA: Is there a place for controverial art in the government’s budget?

A piece about arts funding by David Smith, author of Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy, was run in the Wall Street Journal today. The column discusses President Obama’s selections of Jim Leach and Rocco Landesman to head the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), respectively. Many in the arts community are disappointed with these choices, as they seem to signal that there will be no change from the somewhat conservative status quo. But Smith embraces these choices; indeed, he argues:

Privately funded art need not steer clear of controversy, but publicly funded art should. In addition to hurting the endowments’ standing in Congress, controversy undermines in the public eye the idea that the arts and humanities are important to civic life and are worthy of public funds.

What’s more, he distinguishes between grants made to individual artists, and grants made to programs:

On the surface there’s certainly nothing wrong with either cultural agency disbursing grants to individuals. But the debate over such grants highlights the question of who should be the real beneficiary of the endowments: artists and scholars or the public? In truth, the NEA functions just fine without making individual grants. In fact, absent this practice it’s easier to see the agency as its creators back in 1965 intended: one whose primary beneficiary is to be the American people as a whole.

The foundation for each of these positions is the belief that the American public as a whole does not benefit from controversial art. But is this assertion true?

In fact, some of the most valuable artistic contributions that have been made have also been controversial, in style, subject matter, or both. These include Goya’s Naked Maya and Los Caprichos, Turner’s The Slave Ship, the works of the Impressionists, Picasso’s Guernica, and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans.

In literature, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Ulysses by James Joyce have all sparked debate and been banned or censored from various institutions.

In fact, one appeal of a lot of good art is its ability to provoke controversy, because this often indicates that it is also provoking thought. Certainly there is work that shocks gratuitously, but the fact that an artist presents something shocking or controversial does not make it gratuitous. Nor does it make it self-serving. I can think of no better way to benefit American society than to encourage and stimulate thought.

Smith trumpets such NEA sponsored programs as Shakespeare in American Communities and Poetry Out Loud because these programs foster a sense of appreciation for the arts, which he believes is in keeping with the spirit of the original NEA mission. But, the NEA’s stated mission is:

to foster the excellence, diversity, and vitality of the arts in the United States, and help broaden the availability and appreciation of such excellence, diversity, and vitality.

If we are to foster excellence, diversity, and vitality of the arts, then we are to encourage not just appreciation, but also actual making. And, to be fair, the NEA does do that, in the form of grants to organizations that then redistribute the grants to individual artists. The Vermont Studio Center, The Women’s Studio Workshop, Aljira Inc, Art in General, and Public Art Fund Inc are examples of organizations that have received NEA grants for “Access to Artistic Excellence,” in other words, money that they will pass along to individual artists, often to do a specific project.

I don’t know that returning to a system in which artists apply directly to the NEA for money would be the best way to promote and advance new work. However, I would be interested in exploring whether eliminating some of the middle-men could be a cost-saving measure that doesn’t undermine the integrity of arts funding.

Furthermore, Smith ignores the fact that grants for art appreciation could also spark contoversy. In fact, the poets whose work is included in the Poetry Out Loud program include Jimmy Santiago Baca, who spent 6 years in prison for drug possession and intent to sell, Allen Ginsberg, whose work Howl, was the catalyst for an obscenity trial against San Francisco book dealers, and Gertrude Stein, the lesbian author of one of the earliest coming-out stories, Q.E.D, and whose other works, like Tender Buttons, often commented on lesbian sexuality.

Indeed, many of the museums and arts institutions received NEA grants specifically for exhibitions that might be deemed controversial. The Williams College Museum of Art funded the exhibition of controversial African American artist Kara Walker with a $40,000 grant from the NEA. The recent Jenny Holzer exhibition at the Whitney, Protect Protect, which is highly critical of the Iraq war, was made possible with a grant from the NEA.

And that’s a good thing. The government should not deny funding to artists or organizations that promote artists simply because the artwork is critical of a societal institution. To do so is indirect censorship. That is, it encourages those in the arts community to abstain from riskier, controversial endeavors in favor of safer, less critical projects that will more readily receive funding. And if we do that, then what we are not “fostering a vitality of the arts in the United States,” but rather a degeneration of American culture.

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Filed under Art, Controversial Art, Politics

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