To state that many if not most federal agencies should be abolished is to state the obvious, for they regulate our daily lives in ways unthinkable to our Founding Fathers and unacceptable to today’s responsible citizens.
One agency, however, does not regulate behavior. It does worse: it tampers with our souls.
The National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society scheme. Its 2016 budget is nearly $148 Million. A president-appointed chairman and up to 26 committee members make funding decisions, which to date totals a whopping $5 billion of taxpayer dollars in grants to artists and organizations.
Lauded by some and loathed by others, the NEA gives grants to community orchestras, theaters, and art organizations that might not exist without government funding, which elicits praise. Criticism abounds regarding choices of grantees. Famous examples: Andres Serrano for his 1987 photograph “Piss Christ,” depicting a plastic crucifix in a glass of the artist’s urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe for his 1989 “The Perfect Moment” homoerotic photographic exhibition, both of which inspired legislation requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”
Based on that legislation, grants were denied to four performance artists in 1990 because their proposal included Karen Finley’s “indecent” smearing of her bare breasts with chocolate (symbolizing excrement), which led eventually to a 1998 Supreme Court 8-1 decision upholding the “standard of decency” statute as constitutional.
Congress and the Supreme Court dictating standards for art? Define “decency.” Is any of the above art?
Controversy continues over choices, but a different fire flamed in 2009 when emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act revealed that White House associate director of public engagement, Kalpen Modi, was arranging an NEA-hosted telephone conference with tax-supported artists to encourage the creation of propaganda art to generate public support for President Obama’s political agendas.
Choices? Politics? Deeper issue: Why should art of any kind be defined, endorsed, and supported by the collective judgment of up to 27 (presently 17) individuals giving away taxpayer money?
It seems apodictic that as national arbiter of artistic validity the NEA puts an official seal of approval on “art” that accords with the aesthetic-social-political values of its committees, and by rejecting other art it acts as a censor.
Deepest issue: Every artwork is unique. Of all things in this world, art is one of the most personal because it physically manifests values.
Visual artists create entities (paintings and sculpture) that embody visions of their values and match those of individual viewers . . . or not. Composers create audio embodiments of their values via melody and harmony . . . or noise. Authors create whole fictional worlds full of characters readers want to know . . . or disdain.
Art is an individual creation, an aesthetic but inherently philosophical communication from the value center, the soul, of one artist to the resonating soul of each individual who responds to it. Aesthetic technique can be judged objectively, but shared appreciation of content is only possible between individuals with compatible values; therefore, art should be championed and supported or decried and denied in the marketplace of aesthetics and ideas.
America, itself, has a value center, a soul, from which all other national values emanate, and that fundamental animating principle is individualism. Because of this philosophical base, artistic creations must flow freely from artists to audiences, not thrust upon a public involuntarily funding objects or oddities by government decree.
Finally, art is eternally a reflection of the primary cultural values of any era or country. For a nation in turmoil such as ours, free market art choices between a canvas covered with glued-together rags and oil paintings of exquisitely crafted, idyllic landscapes can both be available in art galleries.
Piles of bricks and heroic bronze sculptures may reside in the same museum. Melody in one concert hall makes the heart soar while cacophonous sounds dull the brain in another. These different expressions of (supposedly) the same art forms thrive side by side, displaying dissimilar tastes as well as the conflicting ideas of a country experiencing a century-long identity crisis.
In every measurement of our social fabric, art, education, science, business, politics, foreign policy, America’s historic values of individualism, rationality, and responsibility are undergoing challenge.
Predictably, amid this whole-culture value conflict, art offerings are also conflicted because art is and always will be, at root, a philosophical-psychological-aesthetic-personal expression of the deepest conditions of the human spirit from creative soul to responding soul.
This is the core reason why individuals and private, voluntarily funded organizations — not any government agency with taxpayer money — should decide the future of art in America. Solution? Abolish the NEA.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "The Innocent." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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