July 16, 1998

July 16, 1998 | Commentary on

Welfare for Artists

Know how you can get the government to fund religion? Produce a play depicting Jesus as a practicing homosexual and call it "art."

Yes folks, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the people who brought you "piss Christ" and the Maplethorpe photo exhibit, have given two grants to a theater company that produced a play called "Corpus Christi," in which the "Messiah" has sex with his apostles and is crucified as "king of the queers."

The NEA tells us its entire budget costs each American about 36 cents per year, a mere pittance compared to other items in the federal budget. Given NEA's warped definition of "art," I want my 36 cents back. But that's not about to happen. On the contrary, President Clinton has requested a 37 percent funding increase for the NEA's 1999 budget.

Every year lawmakers call for the elimination of the NEA, but thanks to lobbying by Alec Baldwin and other wealthy performers the agency survives. Surely if the NEA's $98 million budget is as minuscule as they suggest, enough hats could be passed around Hollywood and Broadway to fund it.

Don't confuse my opposition to the NEA as opposition to the arts. I'm just saying that true art will survive without federal handouts. The NEA didn't exist before 1965, but that didn't stop Tennessee Williams and Frederic Remington from blessing us with their works.

And don't think the NEA grants are going to starving artists. In 1996, New York's Metropolitan Opera generated $133 million in revenue, but that didn't stop it from receiving a $390,000 NEA grant. In fact, business and individuals already donate about $10 billion a year to the arts. And patrons spend billions more on concerts, exhibits, plays and art purchases. It's only work unworthy of support from the free market that needs the NEA as an umbilical cord.

How much would you pay to read the poem 'lighght?' This is not a typo, nor is it the title of the work. The entire poem is 'lighght,' and the "artist" received a $1,500 grant for it.

Some mistakenly believe the NEA can be reformed. They point to NEA standards requiring "decency and respect." The problem is that critiquing art is not a role that government should play. Indeed, some have even challenged the constitutionality of these standards-and the Supreme Court will soon announce a decision regarding four "artists" denied grants because their works focused on homosexuality and urination.

Another problem with "reform" of the NEA: Money is fungible. "Corpus Christi" itself did not receive a grant, but those who produced it did. It doesn't take a bookkeeping genius to shift money from an "NEA-approved" project to one that is more offensive.

Eliminating the NEA won't stop Americans from attending their favorite opera or museum. And you won't see Pavarotti living under a bridge with a "Will Sing for Food" sign. What you will see are some cultural degenerates having to find real employment.

Artists have a legitimate First Amendment right to be as creative, or warped, as they want to be. But "free speech" does not mean the taxpayer has to subsidize it.

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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