The most recent round of the national debate over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) ended one year later, on July 21, 1998. On that day the House of Representatives approved $98 million for the NEA for fiscal 1999 and rejected the conservative Republican position that tax dollars should not be used to support the arts. This is the latest chapter in a concerted assault on the arts -- and eventually humanities -- that has been raging with more or less ferocity since May 1989 when Sen. Jesse Helms, on information supplied by the conservative Christian American Family Association, condemned Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" in an NEA-funded exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
"The National Endowment for the Arts has always been bigger than life," Mr. Armey said. "What makes it so big? It is made big by the concerted, well--funded, well--motivated efforts of the arts elite in America who want the focus to be not whether or not there will be funding for the arts but whether or not they will be in control." (1)Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, Republican Majority Leader, July 10, 1997
But conservative discomfort with the endowments has existed since their founding; it first received national attention during the Reagan Administration. The real debate is not about money, or accusations of obscenity, or even -- as the National Endowment for the Humanities was dragged into the controversy -- over disagreements about how history is taught in our nation's schools. There are enduring enmities between those who favor a government role in supporting our national cultural life, and those, who for a variety of reasons, do not. Those in favor point to the record of support by governments in Europe, historical precedent, and the need to foster arts and scholarship in locations and disciplines where such activities would not be supported by market forces or private philanthropy. Opponents often take a libertarian approach, arguing against government involvement at all, or as social conservatives they oppose support for the arts and humanities on moral grounds as part of a broad-based critique of government rooted in religious beliefs that are at variance with prevailing public policy and values.
The philosophical differences between the two sides represent varying views about human nature and its relation to government. Endowments proponents generally hold modern liberal-moderate political views: minimal intrusion on the part of the state in private life combined with confidence in an activist government to guarantee individual rights and broad access to social goods such as economic, educational, and cultural opportunity. This view is opposed by many political opponents of the endowments, but by far the strongest opposition comes from Christian conservatives who advocate elimination of the NEA (and the NEH in the heat of the 1995 funding crisis) as part of their broader social agenda. For them individual rights and free expression, fundamental values in the liberal tradition, are radically at odds with a world view from an older ideology that sees human beings as basically flawed, their capacities for good nurtured only in the strict observance of Christian dogma. A government that fails to enforce these precepts is at odds with their deepest beliefs and must be changed. The Reverend Peter J. Gomes described the fervency of these political convictions in "The New Liberation Theology":
Within the Christian Coalition are groups adamantly opposed to abortion, homosexual civil rights, and the United Nations. Many are in favor of "creation-science" as an alternative to the theory of evolution; seek some kind of constitutional amendment that permits prayer in the public schools; want government vouchers for private education. Nearly everyone in the Christian Coalition agrees that the coarsening of our culture -- through pornography, sexual violence, and the demise of the traditional nuclear family -- comprises the greatest threat to our civilization. Their agenda is clear, and they now have the resources to put that agenda before the American people. They are organized, ambitious, and filled with a zeal that contrasts sharply with the tired-out politics and issues of the major parties. They are at war with the powers that be, and with the culture, that have for so long denied them and the legitimacy of their aspirations.(2)While members of the Christian Right are certainly the most organized and vocal opponents of the endowments, their position also reverberates with those -- mostly the politically ambitious -- who attack the "eastern Establishment" and "cultural elite" in timeworn but often effective arguments that divide Americans along class and sectional lines.
The Terms of the NEA/NEH Debate
The arguments on both sides are, by now, familiar to many Americans. The Right, on the attack in the culture war of words, employs powerful arguments that are based in emotion and are hard to refute rationally. Their campaign is well funded, well organized, and apparently able to exert an influence in the press and in Congress disproportionate to their number. The two sides of the debate often take the following positions:
Opponents: Should the United States, which has no history of royal patronage or an established church, be engaged in directly sponsoring arts and learning? At risk, opponents of arts funding argue, is the independence of expression. Should America have an official art? Should it commission scholarship? A body of work that has been approved and funded by government agency smacks of communism or fascism.The Dollars Involved
Proponents: Exactly the opposite is true. The U.S. government, like all countries, has an interest in fostering the nation's culture. It is in the interest of American taxpayers to protect accessibility and freedom of expression by supporting culture with their tax dollars. Otherwise the arts and learning become the province of the few. The wealthy elite and corporations will inevitably silence points of view in opposition to their interests if they are paying the bills. Moreover, without government support the arts cannot survive in the American free enterprise system where media conglomerates aggressively market entertainment as "art" to an insatiable popular audience.
Opponents: Elitist! Large cultural institutions, artists, and intellectuals -- most of the them located on the East Coast -- have no right to use the tax dollars of working people across the nation to subsidize arts and scholarship that benefit only themselves. It is far more democratic to let the market decide which art should prosper. Besides, great artists will produce their masterpieces in spite of -- perhaps because of -- poverty. Look at Vincent Van Gogh, Mozart. Artists with NEA grants get lazy, too comfortable. If big museums and symphonies were producing what people really want, they wouldn't need subsidies.
Proponents: For each American taxpayer, the price of two postage stamps was the value of the federal contribution to the arts in 1994; today it is almost half that. The nation's great cultural and educational institutions, its artists and scholars, produce cultural "capital" that benefits the whole nation through traveling museum exhibitions and theater and opera productions, scholarship and preservation projects that inform the nation through research products that include TV and film productions, better informed teachers, and scholarly monographs that extend the frontiers of knowledge. Should America renounce its world leadership in the arts and higher education for the price of two postage stamps per taxpayer?
Opponents: Federal support for arts and education is unconstitutional. It is another misguided product of the 1960s Great Society that we can no longer afford.
Proponents: The federal government has been in the business of advancing arts and education since the founding of the Library of Congress in 1800 and the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Since the establishment of the two national endowments in 1965, America's cultural life and educational leadership have grown to an unprecedented degree. American arts and learning are the envy of the world. Without federal dollars and the imprimatur of a federal grant that attracts private support, the arts will wither away.
Opponents: Americans will always be world leaders with or without federal subsidy. That "imprimatur" issue is exactly the point. There should be no "government seal of approval" on any art. And it certainly should not be on obscene and pornographic art, and as for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian -- and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- they're on our list, too.
It is well known that the actual dollar contribution of the federal
agencies to the nation's cultural life is minute. The combined 1998
appropriations for the two national endowments is $.78 per person in the
United States, while the total government (including state and local)
spending on culture in this country is $6.25. In other Western countries
the government share of spending on culture is much higher: $27.40 per
person in the United Kingdom and $97.70 in Finland, the biggest spender in
Europe. The combined budgets of the NEA and the NEH will amount to
approximately 1/100 of 1% of the 1999 federal budget of $1,751 billion.
In the United States private philanthropy's share is much more important
than it is in other countries, but it only amounts to another $2.96 per
person -- bringing our total support for culture to less than $10 per
NEA and NEH appropriations since 1966 are shown in Figure 1.(3)
Early Efforts to Establish Cultural Endowments
The National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 provided for the establishment of a National Council on the Arts and a National Council for the Humanities, the two endowments, and ultimately arts and humanities councils in every state. The two endowments probably trace their roots most directly to the Depression-era WPA programs: the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Theater Project. Besides providing needed employment for artists, they also gave many Americans their first experience with "public art" as communities dealt with artists on civic boards determining standards for highly visible public commissions in schools, post offices, and city halls. Art and artists were no longer the province of the "high" society of art museums and symphony orchestras, but rather of society as a whole. (4)
During the Depression some legislation was proposed at the federal level that would have had the power to institutionalize some of these activities on a permanent basis. (5) But with the beginning of World War II, the political will to establish a national cultural agency disappeared. As the economy improved, WPA legislation was phased out and conditions largely returned to their pre-war stasis: government support for the arts -- with the exception of practical necessities such as monuments and military bands -- was perceived as a frill and outside the legitimate realm of government support. During the war the government sponsored propagandistic arts projects to advance the war effort; but with the exception of programs sponsored by the Office of Inter-American Affairs (headed by Nelson Rockefeller), which sponsored tours and cultural exchanges with Latin America, whatever modest arts funding existed was usually buried in the budgets of nonarts programs.
The immediate precursor of the national endowments came as an extension of Rockefeller's activities with the OIAA during World War II. In 1954 Rockefeller, then an undersecretary in Eisenhower's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, developed a plan based on the Arts Council of Great Britain to create a National Council on the Arts. But necessary legislation failed in Congress. Nancy Hanks, who worked for Rockefeller at the time and was later to become a popular chair of the NEA, described the derision with which this proposal was met in Congress where the bill was referred to as the "President's toe dance bill." Nonetheless, according to Hanks, this legislation saw life a few years later in 1960 when Rockefeller became governor of New York and it served as the model for the New York State Council on the Arts. (6)
The 1965 federal legislation was also patterned after the 1954 bill (according to Hanks) and it was in that year that cultural and educational advocacy efforts in a number of areas finally coalesced. The Rockefeller Panel Report, The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects, made front page news describing serious funding problems in some the nation's largest arts organizations. The Elementary and Secondary School Act, authorizing schools to "develop innovative projects which . . . utilize the service of arts groups and cultural resources in their communities" was passed, and a crucial piece of legislation was crafted in Congress that brought together the parallel but divergent efforts of arts and humanities advocates.
As had been the case since the 1930s, advocacy for the arts and humanities -- while never popular among American political leaders -- enjoyed the support of a few leaders at the highest levels. The Kennedys' Camelot, inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy's love for the arts, briefly placed the arts at the center of the national life, with practical policy consequences. For example in 1961, Arthur Goldberg, secretary of labor for the Kennedy Administration, brought the department into action as arbitrator in the Metropolitan Opera Strike, stating, "the nation must come to accept the arts as a new community responsibility and part of this responsibility must fall to the federal government." In 1963 August Hecksher, former director of the Twentieth Century Fund, who had been appointed two years earlier by President Kennedy as his special consultant on the arts, issued a special report on the relationship between the arts and the federal government. This led to the establishment within the Executive Branch of a special advisor on the arts. In 1964 President Johnson appointed Roger L. Stevens, a theatrical producer, to the newly permanent post of special assistant to the president on the arts. Stevens became an active arts advocate with Congress and succeeded in getting a plank in the Democratic National Committee platform that year pledging continued support for the arts. (7)
At the same time humanities advocates organized the first Commission on the Humanities, a "blue-ribbon" panel of scholars convened by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools, and Phi Beta Kappa that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The commission issued a report calling for the establishment of a national agency consistent with President Kennedy's "New Frontier," a national call for excellence in scholarship justified by a belief in the implicit value to the nation of a thriving cultural and intellectual life.
As support for cultural funding grew, long-standing political divisions that had stymied previous federal efforts became more public as debate intensified. Arts and humanities advocates were generally liberal Democrats and Republicans, while conservatives of both parties espoused small government and untrammeled free enterprise. Not insignificantly, arts and humanities supporters were also well educated and drawn from urban areas where many leading cultural and educational institutions were and still are concentrated. Their opponents were often from the South or rural areas and frequently anti-intellectual.
By 1965, the year of the successful legislation that combined the two separate arts and humanities advocacy efforts into a single National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, more than 100 separate bills in favor of cultural funding were introduced in the 89th Congress. The leading sponsor in the House was Frank Thompson of New Jersey joined by John Brademas (Indiana), Sidney Yates (Illinois), John Lindsay (New York), Lloyd Meeds (Washington), and many others. Leading supporters in the Senate included Claiborne Pell (Rhode Island), Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota), Jacob Javits (New York), Claude Pepper (Florida), Joseph Clark (Pennsylvania), and Abraham Ribicoff (Connecticut). It was Pell who spearheaded the combined arts and humanities legislation, joined in the House by Thompson. (8)
Opponents in the early 1960s used arguments against the endowments that still ring familiar: "With the nation $290 billion in debt," declared Rep. Howard Gross of Iowa, "an additional $200,000 each year for a council might be better deferred until we have a balanced budget in this country and start retiring the Federal debt." Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia, an outspoken foe and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, displayed his animosity for the cultural elite":
What are the arts? And here is where I display my ignorance. I do not know. . . I suppose fiddle players would be in the arts and the painting of pictures would be in the arts. It was suggested that poker playing would be an artful occupation. Is this going to subsidize poker players that get in trouble? (9)
In Senate debate over the National Arts and Cultural Development Act in 1963, another precursor to the final legislation, Strom Thurmond was the only opponent of the bill to speak. Doubting the constitutionality of arts subsidies, he objected to the supporters' contention that government involvement in arts subsidies was covered under the "general welfare" clause and raised the specter of government control of the arts: "the Federal Government has the power to control that which it subsidizes and experience proves that when the Federal Government has the power, that power is eventually exercised." (10) This argument of the defeated opposition would surface again and again in the next thirty years.
The Reagan Crisis
The 1966 appropriation to the NEA was nearly $2.9 and $5.9 million went to the NEH. Funding and programming at the endowments grew throughout the 1970s, expanding to new audiences and dramatically increasing the arts and humanities presence in local communities and national institutions.
To be sure, there were controversies in the 1970s since the endowments were always easy targets. One of Sen. William Proxmire's "uncoveted" Golden Fleece awards was given to the NEA in 1977 for a grant it made to an artist who filmed colored crepe paper as she threw it from an airplane. The NEH received its share of Golden Fleeces, too. Joseph McLellan, writing for the Washington Post in the mid-1980s, recalled "sporadic, scattered protests (usually in Congress, sometimes in the press) about budget increases" and noted that when in the first ten years Nancy Hanks increased the NEA budget from $2.5 million to almost $75 million, George Will called her "the Mayor Daley of the Arts." Proxmire "found the NEA budget as hard to cut as the Pentagon budget. When he attacked the soaring NEA budget, his phone rang off the hook with protests from grant recipients all over Wisconsin." (11)
But in late 1980, the criticism suddenly took a more ominous turn as Hilton Kramer reported on the front page in the New York Times just three weeks after the election of Ronald Reagan:
An important debate on the future course of Government policy on the arts is in progress in the inner councils of President-elect Ronald Reagan's advisers on cultural affairs. . . . Its outcome is likely to determine how the two Federal agencies will allocate funds and establish priorities for years to come.
At the crux of this debate is a firmly held belief, reported to be virtually unanimous among otherwise divided Reagan advisers, that the activities of both endowments have been profoundly compromised by politicization and an accompanying lowering of standards under the Carter Administration.
Despite their consensus on the problem, Reagan arts policy advisors were reported to hold widely "widely divergent conclusions" on solutions:
One calls for the adoption of narrower programs designed to meet stricter standards of professional accomplishment. This, in effect, would mean a significant withdrawal from programs of popularization and mass appeal, and a renewed emphasis on programs encouraging high art and professional scholarship.
The other was characterized as "more extreme":It takes the view that the endowments have strayed hopelessly off their intended courses and become mired in social and political causes unsanctioned by the legislation that brought them into being. As a result, there is now no alternative but to abolish them altogether. It would, of course, require an act of Congress to abolish the agencies. (12)The Washington Post carried a far less alarming piece, in which the chairmen of Reagan's two transition team study groups apparently tried to quiet the rumor mill:
"Some people have said they are concerned that the Moral Majority and NCPAC are out to get the National Endowment for the Humanities," said Richard J. Bishirjian of Ronald Reagan's transition team. "The important thing to understand is that Reagan has no intention whatsoever of turning loose people who are destructive to the humanities. That's not the case at all."
Across the street, transition official Robert S. Carter said, "All we're going to do is to make a report by Dec. 22 on the situation as we find it at the National Endowment for the Arts -- with very possibly no recommendations." (13)
But such comments did little to quell the anxieties of cultural advocates. Neither did reports in both newspapers that Michael Joyce, executive director of the James M. Olin Foundation, had prepared a report for the Heritage Foundation that was called "highly critical" of both agencies. As part of a larger study of the federal government prepared as a "blueprint for a conservative American Government," the report found in both endowments "a tendency to emphasize politically inspired social policies at the expense of the independence of the arts and the humanities" and called for "redirecting the endowments toward the highest purposes for which they were intended." Joyce was also identified as serving as a member of Bishirjian's NEH transition team study group and William J. Bennett (then head of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina who would become Reagan's NEH chair) was cited as a consultant to the Heritage Foundation report. (14)
By early 1981 the first major NEA/NEH funding controversy was in full swing. Its dimensions are suggested by the number of newspaper articles on the NEA and NEH that were carried in major papers. Instead of thirty-seven articles which had been the nearly invisible level of coverage prior to 1980, suddenly there were close to one hundred. But still the fracas was limited in scope: it was a story largely covered by and for Washington and arts insiders. All but one story, which was carried by the Christian Science Monitor, were found in either the New York Times or the Washington Post. Nonetheless, the sequence of stories selected from that year's coverage outlines a pattern of activities and press coverage that would become familiar and broader in scope with the next two funding controversies:
January 16, 1981, Washington Post, "NEA, NEH Seek Budget Increases for '82."
February 5, Washington Post, "Budget Cuts Threaten Arts."
February 18, Washington Post, "Reagan Seeks 50% Cuts in Endowment's Budgets."
February 25, Christian Science Monitor, Midwestern Edition, "Arts Groups Efforts to Keep U.S. Funding: Just the First Act."
March 22, Washington Post, "Cutting the Endowment: An Argument," Toni Morrison.
March 25, Washington Post, "Distinguished Voices Protest NEH Cuts: Pleas and Protests, Fall of the Ax, Cont'd."
April 15, Washington Post, "Arts Reshuffle? Arts Reshuffle? NEA, NEH May Be Replaced: Independent Agencies May Replace NEA, NEH."
April 29, Washington Post, "Endowment Staffs May Not Face Cuts: OMB Says Budget Slash Shouldn't Mean Firings."
May 7, Washington Post, "NEA, NEH Review: The Endowments: Task Force Named."
May 16, Washington Post, "NEH Freezes Grant Awards: Proposed Endowment Cutback for This Year Prompt Humanities Group's Interim Action."
June 5, Washington Post, "Arts Task Force Named, White House Task Force Named, And Rescissions from NEA, NEH 1981 Budgets Will Be Less Than Expected."
June 9, Washington Post, "Charlton Heston to the Rescue: The Actor Comes to the Aid of the Arts."
June 11, Washington Post, "Higher Funding Ceilings Advocated for Endowments."
June 12, Washington Post, "Higher Funding Backed for Arts, Humanities: Endowments Funding; Subcommittee Supports 'Essential Program.'"
July 14, Washington Post, "Task Force Favors Saving NEA and NEH."
July 18, Washington Post, "Individual Grants May Be Prohibited."
July 23, Washington Post, "House Boosts NEA, NEH Funding."
September 11, Washington Post, "Reagan Aide in Line for NEA . . . Frank Hodsell Expected To Be Named Chairman."
September 17, Washington Post, "Tax Breaks for Arts Patrons?"
September 26, Washington Post, "Touching All the Bases: Arts Staffs Go to Bat for the Sake of the Game: Going to Bat for the Arts and Humanities."
October 24, Washington Post, "NEA, NEH Bonuses: Bonuses Going to 102 Employees of NEA, NEH, Cash Awards to 102 Endowment Employees."
November 5, Washington Post, "Conferees Clear NEA, NEH Funds."
December 13, Washington Post, "The Amazing Endowment Scramble: When Politics and Professors Meet, the Fracas is Anything but Academic.'
December 24, Washington Post, "NEA, NEH Funding Bill Signed." (15)
Familiar in these headlines -- because they would recur again and again in future press accounts -- are reports of grassroots advocacy efforts; celebrities testifying on Capitol Hill and writing op-ed pieces pro and con; threats to gut the agencies, privatize them, and cut grants to individuals; countermoves by the agencies; and antiendowment stories that highlight arts patrons, college professors, and endowment staff as beneficiaries of federal largesse. But these articles in major newspapers give only the barest indication of what was going on throughout the country. Arts advocates reacted vocally, which quieted the endowments' opponents and helped their supporters in Congress:
In 1981 the Reagan administration ran into a . . . flood of protests when it threatened to cut the Carter arts budget in half. Star-studded protest parades marched down Broadway to Lincoln Center; theaters staged momentary blackouts to dramatize the budget situation; volunteer lawyers began to talk about class-action suits of artists against the Reagan administration; audiences were given postcards to send to their congressmen. (16)
In the end both agencies did sustain cuts, which appeared at the time to be minor. In fact, the 1982 cuts were severe. The arts appropriation dropped from $158.8 million in fiscal 1981 to $143.5 million the next year. The NEH lost close to 14 percent of its $151.3 million budget in 1982 and would not regain its 1981 level of funding until 1989. In an era of double-digit inflation this represented a real dollar cut of approximately 50 percent over the course of the 1980s -- an amount consistent in the end with the Reagan administration's original objective. The NEA, which had a more effective lobbying network in well-known performing arts advocates and a large and dedicated institutional base of arts organizations, did return to (and exceed) its 1981 appropriation by 1984; however, even that did not keep pace with inflation. (17) Figure 2 shows the effect of inflation on the endowments' appropriations. (18)
If by 1985 the opponents had not succeeded completely in their original budget cutting objectives, they had nonetheless found their flash point. In September of that year, McLellan wrote that a few weeks earlier a "trio of Texas congressmen" had spearheaded the effort to withhold grants to individual artists whose work was "found offensive to the average person." He dismissed the effort as "a bit of noise" that was "quietly buried by the endowment's congressional friends, who have by now accumulated a lot of experience in handling such problems." (19) But his sanguinity was proved wrong. In 1989, when the next furor broke, the charge that the NEA funded "offensive" art found a national audience as social and political conservatives joined forces with those who saw political advantage in attacking the "arts elite."
The Serrano-Mapplethorpe Controversy
The storm . . . broke on the Senate floor on May 18, as Senator Alfonse D'Amato rose to denounce Andres Serrano's photograph Piss Christ as trash. "This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity," he said. . . . Not to be outdone, Senator Jesse Helms joined in the denunciation: "The Senator from New York is absolutely correct in his indignation and in his description of the blasphemy of the so-called art work. I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk. . . . Let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord." Within minutes over 20 senators rushed to join [D'Amato] in sending a letter to Hugh Southern, acting chair of the NEA, demanding to know what steps the agency would take to change its grant procedures. "This work is shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever" the senators wrote. (20)
The offending work was a 60-by-40 inch photograph of an inexpensive wood and plastic crucifix submerged in a transparent container of the artist's urine. It had been shown, with no public outcry, in a three-city exhibit organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. SECCA had received an NEA grant, as it had for years, for its "Awards in the Visual Arts" series and had selected Serrano and nine other artists from among five hundred applicants for inclusion in the exhibition and as the recipients of $15,000 fellowships. But as Carole S. Vance, who summarized the controversy in a September 1989 article for Art in America put it, "How the senators came to know about the regional show was not accidental."The show had closed by the end of January 1989, yet throughout the spring, the right-wing American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Mississippi, attacked the photo, the exhibition and its sponsors. The association and its executive director, United Methodist minister Rev. Donald Wildmon, were practiced in fomenting public opposition to allegedly "immoral, anti-Christian" images and had led protests against Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ the previous summer. The AFA newsletter, with an estimated circulation [of] 380,000 including 178,00 churches, according to association spokesmen, urged concerned citizens to protest the art work and demand that responsible NEA officials be fired. The newsletter provided the relevant names and addresses, and letters poured in to congressmen, senators, and the NEA. (21)
A few weeks later when "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" was scheduled to open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the furor escalated. The Mapplethorpe show had been organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania. The ICA had received $30,000 from the NEA for the show, which originated in Philadelphia and was scheduled to travel to five other cities.
A retrospective of the artist's work over a twenty-year period (Mapplethorpe had died of AIDS in March 1989), the exhibit included more than 150 photos: formal portraits, flowers, children, and sexually explicit gay and sadomasochistic erotic poses. It was presented in Philadelphia from December 1988 through January 1989, where it was well received, and then moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where its run was uneventful. But according to Vance, what happened next was entirely a different story.
. . . But by June 8, Representative Dick Armey (R-Tex.) sent [NEA acting chair] Southern a letter signed by over 100 congressmen denouncing grants for Mapplethorpe as well as Serrano, and threatening to seek cuts in the agency's $170 million budget. . . . Armey wanted the NEA to end its sponsorship of "morally reprehensible trash," and he wanted new grant guidelines that would "clearly pay respect to public standards of taste and decency." Armey claimed he could "blow their budgets out of the water" by circulating the Mapplethorpe catalogue to fellow legislators prior to the House vote on the NEA appropriation. Before long about 50 senators and 150 representatives had contacted the NEA about its funding. (22)
Amid cries of censorship from the arts community and liberals, the Corcoran canceled the show rather than run it in Washington during budget negotiations. Outraged, a local alternative arts group, the Washington Project for the Arts, ran the show instead. With the exhibit later scheduled to travel to Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, trustees there voted to uphold their contract with the ICA and hosted the show accompanied by warnings and other safeguards against children viewing the explicitly sexual material. Nonetheless, the museum's director, Dennis Barrie, was arrested on charges of violating community standards of decency. The arrest was a result of pressure exerted on Cincinnati law enforcement officials by a local religious alliance, Citizens for Community Values, which included among its program objectives a determination to fight pornography through the criminal justice system. After a trial that shook the museum community to its core, Barrie was acquitted by a jury of four men and four women in October 1990. (23)
The turmoil affected the budget debates in both houses. Angry members of Congress vowed to gut the NEA budget, though they were stopped by more moderate amendments that signaled congressional disapproval of the controversial grants by deducting the total cost ($45,000) of the Serrano and Mapplethorpe grants from the 1990 appropriation. In late July Jesse Helms's bill to prevent the NEA from sponsoring "obscene or indecent" art passed a Senate voice vote but died in the House of Representatives. Congress authorized a $2 million increase in the NEA budget but withheld $45,000 -- the amount spent on the Serrano and Mapplethorpe exhibits. In September a Congressional committee added an antiobscenity clause to NEA appropriations that would ban federal funds for art that "may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." (24)
While it had no immediate impact on funding for the arts, the controversy secured the conservatives' first concession to their agenda and inaugurated a new wariness on the part of the arts community. As described by Judith Tannenbaum, who was then acting director of the ICA:
The bill that was finally passed by both the House and the Senate in October 1989 represented a compromise from the original Helms amendment and the harsh punitive measures earlier proposed for both ICA and SECCA. That legislation, enacted to appropriate funds for both the NEA and the [NEH] in 1990, however, did include a clause requiring that Congress be notified of any grants recommended for funding to ICA or SECCA. No one could have predicted just six months before that we would now be grateful for what amounted to being placed on probation, and that, similarly, the arts community would accept an obscenity clause of any kind. Yet these compromises represented a victory of sorts, given the more extreme Senate bill that might have been adopted. (25)
In the spring of 1990 the National Council on the Arts voted to reject two grants to the ICA that had been recommended for funding by peer review. It was felt that funding the exhibits, although their content was entirely uncontroversial in nature, might be perceived "as an act of defiance towards Congress." (26) That decision was overturned the following August, but the council refused to reconsider grants that had been rejected on similar grounds to performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller. It was their case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the "obscenity clause" as constitutional in June 1998. (27)
The 1995 Funding Controversy
With the election of the 104th Congress in 1994, Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time since 1954 and for the first time since the founding of the cultural endowments. Those elected among the 367 Republican candidates who signed the Contract with America took seriously their pledge "after four decades of one-party control, to bring to the House a new majority that will transform the way Congress works. That historic change would be the end of government that is too big, too intrusive and too easy with the public's money. It can be the beginning of a Congress that respects the values and shares the faith of the American family." (28)
Major provisions of the Contract called for congressional term limits, a balanced budget amendment, the line-item veto, and welfare reform. Less noticed in the Contract's appendix was call for the outright elimination of the NEA and NEH. (29) In the companion "contract" produced by the Christian Coalition in 1995, Contract with the American Family, "profamily" stipulations also led to calls for the elimination of the federal Department of Education; the repeal of Goals 2000 -- the hard-won legislation leading to national educational standards in key areas of elementary and secondary student performance -- and elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). (30)
The influence of the Christian Coalition was evident when their Contract was announced at a May 17 press conference in the Capitol attended by a number of prominent senators and members of Congress, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Prepared by Ralph Reed, Jr., then the organization's executive director, with assistance from Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, Douglas Johnson of National Right to Life, and representatives from RNC for Life and the American Family Association, the Christian Coalition Contract urged "privatization of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) because we do not view such funding as a proper role for the United States Government." But the Coalition quickly moved to justify its position in terms of the NEA's support for "public funding for obscene art" growing out of the Mapplethorpe-Serrano controversy: "Over the years, the NEA has incurred the anger of individual members of Congress, but it was not until 1989 that the agency became the focus of intense criticism." Their attack on culture also included the CPB and NEH, which was charged with "politicization." The recently released National History Standards were held up as the prime example. (31) The Christian Right's objections to the endowments were now codified in a single document endorsed by the congressional leadership.
In the framework of the Republicans' Contract, elimination was addressed more often as a budgetary -- rather than ideological -- issue. Advocates for culture and education were told that if the nation were ever to achieve a balanced budget, the nation simply could no longer afford the "bloated bureaucracies" of the Department of Education and the cultural endowments. The Department of Education carried the additional onus of inconsistency with the American tradition of local control of education. (32) At this early stage in the dispute it appeared that the three disparate wings of the Republican party -- fiscal conservatives, libertarian advocates of small government, and the cultural and religious right -- were powerfully united in opposition to national cultural and educational activities.
The attack on the NEH took many by surprise when in January 1995 the Senate voted 99 - 1, in a "sense of the Senate resolution," to oppose the National History Standards. Almost immediately the history standards were linked to the NEH as Mapplethorpe was to NEA. And on January 24 William J. Bennett and Lynne Cheney, both former NEH chairs, called for elimination of the NEH in a House committee public hearing. This marked the transition for the NEH to the forefront of the controversy. It was now publicly known that the NEH, along with the NEA, was a target for the Christian Coalition, Heritage Foundation, and Cato Institute and culture wars press coverage now included the humanities as well as the arts. (33)
Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the NEH from 1986 to 1993, set forward the conservative critique of her former agency in a March 10 New York Times op-ed piece:Reading the world history standards, one would think that sexism and ethnocentrism arose in the West, when Western civilization has in fact led the way in condemning the unjust treatment of women and encouraging curiosity about other cultures. The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism (mentioned 19 times) are far more important than George Washington (mentioned twice) or Thomas Edition (mentioned not at all). So outlandish was the standards' version of history that 99 members of the U.S. Senate voted to denounce them. (34)Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the NEH at the time, saw the Senate vote against the history standards in an entirely different light. In his view the argument against the standards had been structured in such a way that disagreement with Lynne Cheney and the conservative critics was essentially a "lost cause." In an interview he pointed out that the senators knew that arguing against Cheney was impossible because she described the content in such a way that a vote in favor of the standards was a vote that favored Sojourner Truth over George Washington. "That's really why the Senate voted that way." But the "rapidity and content of the attack floored [the drafters of the History Standards.] They were not ready." (35)
No one in the humanities community was ready for the onslaught. Suddenly the humanities, along with public broadcasting, was cast into the center of the press maelstrom. As in the Mapplethorpe-Serrano controversy five years earlier, the media coverage of the endowments reached fever pitch again, although it had never fully subsided after 1990. (Figure 3) What was new was the involvement of the NEH.
The calls for elimination of the endowments were incessant and they had their intended impact in Congress. The three-year reauthorization that both endowments received in 1990 expired and in 1993 and 1994, in a climate still heated by Mapplethorpe-Serrano, neither the White House nor leaders in Congress had pushed for reauthorization. Continued funding was appropriated on a temporary year-to-year basis, thereby avoiding the all-out confrontation of reauthorization hearings. To the endowments' opponents in the new Congress, this was unacceptable. One of the first pledges made in January as the 104th Congress reorganized was "no appropriations without authorization." And in March, when $5 million appropriated to each agency by the previous Congress was rescinded, arts and humanities advocates felt the first blow to their budgets. But like the strange sense of relief experienced by arts people five years earlier, when the final 1990 appropriation legislation carried a compromise version of the original punitive Helms amendment on obscenity, the $5 million rescission seemed more a relief than an assault. Or, as it was put in a retrospective memo sent to humanities councils: "By March, a lot had happened. We avoided a serious rescission, and the councils were fortunate to take no cut at all. Did we dodge a bullet, or the bullet?" (36) Like the arts advocates who had faced years of vocal attack that threatened their core purposes, now the humanities constituency was grateful for small abuses.
And so amid the press clamor in the winter and spring of 1995, reauthorization hearings were held with friends and opponents testifying. By March advocates were lined up to counter the damaging testimony from opponents such as Cheney and Bennett who spoke in January. Charlton Heston once again testified on behalf of the arts; David McCulloch and Ken Burns were among those favoring the humanities. By May a House committee approved the Goodling/Cunningham bill (named for its chief sponsors, William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania and Randy Cunningham of California) calling for a three-year phase out of the NEH, two years for the NEA, with significant cuts every year leading to "zero" funding.
Chilling as these provisions were to the arts and humanities communities, they at least paved the way for appropriations discussions, which took a tortuous route in the House throughout the summer of 1995. In the Senate the authorization committee headed by Sens. James M. Jeffords (Vermont) and Nancy Kassebaum (Kansas) approved a reauthorization bill proposing a gradual series of cutbacks totaling 20 percent over five years. Varying appropriations proposals in both houses called for everything from "zero" funding to cuts of 20, 40, and 50 percent. The most effective friends of the endowments were moderate Republicans like Jeffords, Kassebaum, and Alan Simpson (Wyoming) in the Senate and Reps. Steve Gunderson (Alaska), Peter J. Torkildsen (Massachusetts), Nancy Johnson (Connecticut), and Marge Roukema (New Jersey), who worked strategically within their own party. In the House Democrats Sidney Yates and Pat Williams (Montana) continued their strong support, as did the ever loyal Claiborne Pell. "Dear Colleague" letters were circulated and trade-offs negotiated, which at times involved funding for the National Biological Survey and the Naval Petroleum Reserve and even the Federal Emergency Relief Agency. In the House the appropriations battle came down to a single up or down vote on what came to be known as the Chabot Amendment (after Steve Chabot from Ohio), which would have eliminated the NEH; the amendment was defeated by a wide majority. According to Jamil Zainaldin, president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, this was the crucial moment for the NEH. It clearly demonstrated that the House leadership was not willing to "fall on its sword" over the NEA and NEH, nor possibly were a majority of Republicans. (37)
The result in the House was a bill that called for the NEH to receive $99.9 million in 1996 to be phased out in three years. The NEA was to receive a similar amount, but was subject to a two-year phase out and formal reauthorization before it would receive its 1996 funding. The Senate subsequently approved a budget for the NEH of $115 million and $99.9 for the NEA. Finally, in September a House-Senate conference committee reached a compromise of $110 million for the NEH and $99.5 for the NEA.
But this was only the beginning of the end of the story. The federal fiscal year ended on September 30, but by November only three of thirteen appropriations bills had passed Congress and received presidential approval. The Interior appropriations bill, which included the cultural endowments, was among those in limbo. At issue was the Contract with America provision to balance the budget in seven years with the Congressional Budget Office and the Administration's Office of Management and Budget offering differing estimates of annual targets needed to achieve a balanced budget by 2002. As late as March 28, 1996, six months into the fiscal year, Congress was still debating five of the spending bills, dealing with nine cabinet agencies and the District of Columbia. They were eventually melded into a single $160 billion measure covering spending for the last half of the year. (38) Only a series of thirteen "continuing resolutions" or temporary spending agreements between the White House and Congress kept the government functioning at all between October and April, but not without disagreements that led to two federal government shut-downs. Americans felt these most acutely in delays in securing passports and visas and in closed Social Security and Veterans' Affairs offices, but the greatest outrage resulted from the closing of the National Gallery of Art during the international tour of the Vermeer exhibition. Bad press also resulted from the closure of national parks, monuments, and the Smithsonian Institution. And in the end people blamed Speaker Gingrich and the Contract with America.
Finally, on April 25 Congress approved funding for the agencies that had received no appropriation and the endowments were funded at the level agreed to in the conference committee the previous September. The president signed the appropriations and national attention turned to the presidential election. Press coverage of the endowments fell below its 1989 level (39) and, at least in Washington, the NEA and NEH breathed a sigh of relief. Yet each had been dealt a crippling blow: the cut to the NEA budget was 39 percent and to the NEH 36 percent.
Fifteen months later, in July 1997, the crisis began its final phase. On July 10, in a 217-216 vote, the House voted to eliminate the NEA and disperse its remaining budget of $99.5 million to the states. (40) A day later conservatives voted to strip the agency of $10 million in shut-down costs and rejected the provision for distributing the balance to the states; they voted instead for elimination. The unity of the 104th Congress's first 100 days gone, the debate split the Republican party into factions. Ultimately this showdown lead to the defeat of efforts to eliminate the NEA:
The windup to the debate in the House today over the endowments produced passionate speeches from both sides of the issue, a rare floor speech by Speaker Newt Gingrich and an odd circumstance in which warring Republican moderates and conservatives joined forces to defeat the block-grant compromise that Mr. Gingrich had championed.President Clinton threatened to veto the entire $13 billion Interior Department appropriations bill if funding were not restored to the NEA. The vote to totally eliminate the NEA also faced strong opposition from moderate Republican Sens. Slade Gorton (Washington), Jeffords, and John Warner (Virginia), who held key positions. In the fall the NEA emerged from a House-Senate conference committee with a $98 million for 1998.
"We are not going to give the money to aging hippies anymore to desecrate the crucifix or do other strange things," said Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican of California. . . . Mr. Hunter was one of a number of Republicans who support an amendment offered by Representative Vernon J. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican, to replace the arts agency with a block-grant program.
The Republican leadership had aggressively pushed Mr. Ehler's proposal on Thursday as a compromise to head off a floor fight between moderates and conservatives. . . . Mr. Gingrich was the last to speak on the issue, imploring House members to support "a new approach and a new way of funding the arts at a Federal level." But in the end the block-grant amendment was rejected, 271 to 158. (41)
At the same time -- July 1997 -- efforts in the House to eliminate the NEH failed by a voice vote. NEH Chairman Hackney had known the crisis was over for the NEH a few months earlier "when the NEH was reported out of [Ohio Rep. Ralph] Regula's [appropriations] subcommittee with $110 and the NEA $0, [and] a reporter from the DC Times asked Regula why and he replied, 'Nobody's telling me they're doing terrible things.'" (42)
For the NEA it took a year longer. On June 26, 1998 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, "The NEA found unexpected support Thursday on the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, which reversed an earlier decision by one of its subcommittees to eliminate financing the agency next year."
The cultural endowments are badly hobbled but cautiously optimistic after their struggles against elimination. Their budgets have not recovered their pre-1994 level and there is little immediate prospect for such. Both agencies underwent massive layoffs and major program restructuring in the wake of the 1995 assault. Their ability to support large national projects, individual artists and scholars, and -- in this year's appropriations language for the NEA -- grants to New York cultural institutions are now curtailed. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the NEA's 1990 "decency clause." But looking toward the future, both agencies are now headed by respected intellectuals with strong roots in Southern and heartland culture, who are expected to be able to bridge the chasm between the opposing sides in the culture wars. William J. Ivey, chairman of the NEA, was formerly director of the Country Music Foundation in Nashville, a research and educational institution. (43) NEH chairman William E. Ferris, Jr., a folklorist, was founding director of the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
The Leadership Issues
At the time of their founding the endowments were championed by a powerful group of bipartisan leaders: Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Nelson Rockefeller, and a group of influential senators and congressmen. Richard Nixon, never a friend of the endowments, nevertheless found political advantage in their support. At the urging of Leonard Garment, his "arts loving saxophone playing legal aide," he oversaw substantial increases in the endowments budgets -- at least until his 1972 nomination was secure. (44) Also under Nixon (although credit for them must go to Claiborne Pell) the state humanities councils were organized, expanding public programs in the humanities to local communities through relatively modest grants to the states -- and, not incidentally, building a political base for the humanities in local communities. (45) Budget growth continued during the Carter Administration accompanied by a number of initiatives at both endowments that extended the reach of the arts and humanities to minority communities and other nontraditional audiences.
With the election of Ronald Reagan, however, the dynamic shifted. Critics at the time made their arguments on political grounds that opposed the expansion of arts and humanities programs to traditionally Democratic constituencies. The Heritage Foundation report prepared at the time of Reagan's election decried the NEA's Expansion Arts Program (described in the endowment's 1979 annual report as "a point of entry for developing groups that are established in and reflect the culture of minority, blue collar, rural and low-income communities") as an example of the dilution of aesthetic standards. The NEH was lambasted for sacrificing "scholarly excellence" in favor of "political" projects that did not properly belong "in the realm of humanities." A 1980 grant of $199,953 to a group called the Working Women: National Association of Office Workers, which held classes and film forums on the struggle of office workers for improved conditions, was criticized as an example of the politicization of the humanities with "populist" or "social action" programs considered to have little scholarly merit.
Ironically -- in terms of later charges of elitism against the endowments -- those involved in crafting the Heritage Foundation critique were proponents of elite culture. Their interest in limiting endowment expenditures in nontraditional areas coincided with Republican political objectives. The report on the arts endowment, written by Samuel Lipman, a concert pianist and music critic for Commentary magazine, assisted by Hugo Weisgall, a composer and professor of music at Queens College, was particularly telling on this point, as reported in the New York Times:
"Because the current direction of the NEA is in the hands of those with few esthetic commitments and less discernment, art is increasingly seen as mere entertainment, a diversion whose importance -- and the amount of money it receives -- is measured by the number of people who can be found to make up its audience." Deploring what it calls "a flawed conception of art" and the "trifling sums" now allocated for individual composers, writers and visual artists, the report goes on to say that "the NEA spends millions of dollars yearly to fund programs and policies which are unconcerned in any way with enduring artistic accomplishments; the best of these projects do no more than fossilize the popular culture of the past, and the worst are little more than high-flown welfare and employment schemes." It calls for a categorical distinction to be made between "serious art" and what it characterizes as "art for the sake of social service." (46)
However, it was not until the Mapplethorpe-Serrano controversy, when the religious Right joined the political Right, that criticism of the NEA captured national attention.
But the 1980s criticism took its toll in terms of leadership. With Reagan budget growth for the endowments was no longer championed by the president, and by 1989 the endowments relied ever more heavily on their friends in Congress, primarily Claiborne Pell and James Jeffords in the Senate and Sidney Yates and Pat Williams in the House. (Frank Thompson and John Brademas left Congress in the 1980 and 1981, respectively.) With this change in leadership and increasing criticism during the Reagan administration, by 1989 the endowments were vulnerable and were subjected to furious press coverage -- much of which was negative and broadened to encompass the whole country.
Figure 3 documents the number of articles on either the NEA or NEH appearing in major newspapers for the twenty-year period since the late 1970s, showing the rise and fall of their public visibility coinciding with the major assaults on the agencies by conservative activists. Most articles in the late 1970s and 1980s were carried in the Washington Post or the New York Times; modest increases in coverage are registered for 1981 and again 1985, when early budget cutting efforts were initiated. But in 1989-90 with Mapplethorpe-Serrano, the number of articles skyrocketed and expanded to include newspapers across the country. The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, St. Petersburg Times, Newsday, San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Chicago Tribune, San Diego Union-Tribune, Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), and Christian Science Monitor regularly covered the controversy. In the early 1990s the number of articles moderated slightly but never again dipped to the nearly invisible levels that the endowments had earlier enjoyed. Coverage by newspapers throughout the country became regular; no longer was the fate of the endowments presumed to be of interest only to the readers of the Washington Post and the New York Times. The content of the coverage also changed. Earlier debates over budget growth, quality, and politicization of the endowments were replaced by appeals to emotion in the charges of pornography and attacks on the cultural elite. A June 1989 Washington Times editorial by Patrick Buchanan, founder of the Christian Coalition, was a clarion call for what would become the culture wars of the 1990s:
The decade has seen an explosion of anti-American, anti-Christian, and nihilist "art." . . . [Many museums] now feature exhibits that can best be described as cultural trash . . . as in public television and public radio, a tiny clique, out of touch with America's traditional values, has wormed its way into control of the arts bureaucracy. . . . As with our rivers and lakes, we need to clean up our culture: for it is a well from which we must all drink. Just as a poisoned land will yield up poisonous fruits, so a polluted culture, left to fester and stink, can destroy a nation's soul. . . . . We should not subsidize decadence. (47)Participants were forced to take sides in an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all conflict that was largely fought in the media. Citizen outrage expressed to members of Congress was the ammunition and budget cuts to the cultural endowments were the spoils of war. The mediated nature of virtually all communication on the issues put rational argument at a disadvantage. Simplification and emotionalism on the part of the opponents were more powerful and effective than the defenders' appeals to free speech and "good news" stories about the agencies' many successes. A comparison between Figures 2 and 3 shows that public criticism of the endowments has always been an effective tool for opponents: as press coverage increased, the endowments' budgets declined over the past twenty years. Nervous members of Congress counted the postcards, telephone calls, and letters from constituents as harbingers of public sentiment, but in the end news coverage meant criticism, which translated into fewer cultural dollars.
In the most recent controversy, support for the endowments from elected leaders was badly compromised by the newly empowered conservative Republicans emboldened by the power of the religious Right. Stalwarts such as Yates, Pell, and Pat Williams continued to support the endowments, but their help was often behind the scenes and subject to the vagaries of an uncertain political landscape. Republicans too were at a disadvantage, their power circumscribed by the fervor of the new conservative Republican majority. Other leaders, including the president, seemed more inclined to wait and watch, choosing their moments for action very carefully.
Nevertheless and at the most important level the political process worked. Despite the extreme rhetoric and distortions that characterized much of the press coverage, within Congress the endowments received their hearing. Part of it might be attributable to a continuing culture of civility within Congress itself. For example, some believe that this year's failure to carry through on plans to eliminate the NEA was testimony to the respect many members of Congress feel toward long-time arts advocate Sidney Yates, who is retiring this term. (48) And Zainaldin saw a sense of fair play at work in Ralph Regula's handling of his appropriations subcommittee hearings in 1995. "I think Regula had made a decision that he was not going to let the NEA and NEH go down without a public hearing, which allowed for a bigger debate to take place." Zainaldin found that Regula, while maintaining his loyalty to the Republican leadership and while he had many "bones to pick" with both endowments, made sure that Yates, who was on the committee -- and through him other supporters -- were allowed to make their case. In so doing he let the public debate move forward, allowing the political process to work. Regula, according to Zainaldin, "played a high-minded role. He was civil." (49)
In the end a real national conversation on the arts and humanities took place between and among members of Congress and their constituencies. Unlike in the past, leadership came not from highly placed elected officials but rather from vocal conservatives outside of government -- Ralph Reed, the Reverend Donald Wildmon, Lynne Cheney and William J. Bennett. Cultural advocates relied on a network of organizational leaders (the American Arts Alliance, American Council for the Arts, American Association of Museums, American Council of Learned Societies, Federation of State Humanities Councils, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, National Association of Local Arts Agencies, National Humanities Alliance, to name a few) but looked principally to NEA Chair Jane Alexander and NEH Chair Sheldon Hackney for personal leadership.
Hackney's approach was decidedly lowkey. In countless speeches and meetings he articulated rebuttals to the libertarian argument by describing important projects of national scope that would not have been possible without the NEH. At the same time, he stayed out of the headlines by avoiding a direct show-down with the religious Right: "the more of that [high-profile confrontation] I was seen doing, the less chance the NEH had of surviving," he stated in an interview. Distinguished and respected, he was effective in forging important ties with Republican Senators Mark Hatfield (Oregon), Slade Gorton, James Jeffords, Robert Bennett and Nancy Kassebaum. (50) His was a leadership that sought consensus rather than polarization. Through his efforts the often antagonistic entities within the humanities community learned to be mutually supportive. Characteristically, he believes that in the end the "real thing that worked" was the outpouring of citizen support for the endowments through letters, telephone calls, faxes, and telegrams to members of Congress throughout the country, demonstrating that the endowments were providing solid programs that were valued by millions of Americans.
Jamil Zainaldin, of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, seconded Hackney's conclusion on the value of grass roots advocacy. He also gives credit to another sort of quiet leadership: effective lobbying by influential citizens, particularly on behalf of the arts, which has a constituency that includes prominent board members of major cultural organizations. He credits Jane Alexander's visits to every state and more than two hundred local communities, where she spoke about the arts with great "integrity" and from the "soul," with mobilizing influential Republican supporters. Grass roots proponents also pressured their members of Congress, often in alliance with influential board members and business leaders. (51)
Grass roots advocacy was perhaps most effective with members of Congress from rural areas, whose constituents had benefited from many state humanities council programs. "The combined effect of arts and humanities advocacy at the grass roots and through powerful constituencies and the diplomacy of Hackney and Alexander was," according to Zainaldin," to win over some Republicans whose conservative credentials were impeccable -- Thad Cochran (Mississippi), Slade Gorton, Nancy Kassebaum, and Robert Bennett." This, in turn isolated the most radical conservatives in their opposition to the endowments. What was proved was that the majority of Americans, while nervous, did not buy the elimination of the endowments. "Most people," according to Zainaldin, "are pretty tolerant if they think a problem is an exception to the rule, if they can see the big picture." (52)
But that was certainly not the view shared at the time by the leaders of the endowments' defense. Rather, they feared that the Republican leadership would work very hard for the abolition of the endowments to keep their most conservative members happy. Balancing the unstable elements within the Republican coalition -- traditional economic conservatives, libertarian small government advocates, and the cultural/religious Right -- was the central GOP leadership problem. (53) The fact that the endowments survived at all is testimony not only to the cultural advocates' leadership skills, but also to moderate Republicans' ability to assert their influence within the party.
The years between the founding of the endowments and the conservative assault saw dramatic shifts in the position of the arts and humanities in America. Born out of a Cold War and Great Society ethos that trumpeted American achievement in the arts and scholarship as a point of national pride, by the 1990s critics charged artists and scholars with being destructive of the American family and un-American; the endowments, as their federally funded standard bearers, had to be abolished for the good of the country. Cultural advocates, forced to defend themselves, truly became politicized; they turned to their allies in communities and institutions and marshaled public and Congressional support for their survival. Deeply affected by the debate, cultural advocates are wary now. They have learned to live with lower budgets and in the public eye, self-censoring and careful to avoid public controversy. (54) But many also learned the importance of funding and delivering programs that have meaning and value for Americans in all their geographic and demographic diversity.
Is the conflict over? Probably not. Doctrinaire conservative opinion makers continue to oppose the endowments as evidenced on the websites of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Family Research Council -- all of which continue to carry position statements advocating the abolition of the endowments in the summer of 1998. And in a highly publicized meeting arranged last March by James Dodson, the Colorado religious broadcaster whose "Focus on the Family" radio broadcasts reach millions, Speaker Newt Gingrich met with Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed and secured the speaker's commitment -- against a threat by the religious Right to abandon the party -- that the Republican party would press three initiatives important to Christian conservatives: the religious freedom amendment, which Christian conservatives hope would reintroduce prayer in the schools; tax deferrals for tuition at religious and private schools; and elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. (55) For the most part, opposition to the NEH seems to have once again receded to the background, while opposition to the NEA on "family values" grounds continues -- as it has since the Mapplethorpe-Serrano controversy -- to animate opposition from the religious Right.
But there are encouraging signs in the middle, which may well represent the enduring victory of the culture wars. A rancorous and emotional public debate that was started by radical conservatives with the goal of damaging the cultural endowments may ultimately prove to have strengthened them. Because, in the contest for the endowments' survival, members of Congress heard from citizens across the country about support for the arts and humanities and learned that culture is no longer the province of the few. The president listened, and whether from political instinct or personal preference, appointed endowments chairmen whose scholarly and artistic specialties reflect the broad interests of Americans whose culture has long been considered outside the province of high art and serious scholarship.
No longer championed unquestioningly by presidents and powerful friends in Congress, the endowments in the past decade have been the subject of a national debate centered around their value in American society. The debate has been messy, as politics always are, but the result has been a demonstration that culture in America has many faces. It has strong roots in local communities and in a variety of artistic and intellectual traditions. The Christian conservatives may never be satisfied; but in the contest for control of American culture, the endowments, albeit battle scarred and perhaps chastened, can take heart in the knowledge that their right to exist has been proved in Congress and in the court of public opinion.
What that signifies is enormous. It means that the most extreme charges have been put aside and that there is a bi-partisan consensus -- very likely for the first time since the endowments' founding -- for a legitimate role for the federal government in the support of American culture. Charges of elitism and domination by East Coast intellectuals and moneyed interests simply did not hold up under public scrutiny when arts and humanities organizations from across the country demonstrated that local communities in Kansas and Utah, Washington, and Mississippi value the federal agencies.
It also means that the new leadership of the endowments have an
unparalleled opportunity. For the past decade millions of Americans have
engaged in a national conversation in defense of the arts and humanities.
Now is the time to keep that conversation going by involving an even
greater number of Americans from all walks of life in exploring the world
of ideas. If this is accomplished the NEA and the NEH can look forward to
playing an even more important role in our national life in the decades to
I am grateful to former NEH Chairman Sheldon Hackney and Jamil Zainaldin, former president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, both of whom were interviewed for this paper and guided me with their comments on the first draft. Also Esther Mackintosh, associate director of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, and Judith Tannenbaum, associate director and senior curator of the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, graciously answered my questions and provided me with useful information. I also thank Steve Cherrington at the NEH and Aaron Fineman at the NEA for supplying budget information. Ann Young Orr at the NEH was also very helpful.
(1) Jerry Gray, "House 217 to 216, Votes to Replace Arts Agency with Grants to States," New York Times, 11 July 1998, p. A15.
(2) Peter J. Gomes, "The New Liberation Theology," 99, no. 2 Harvard Magazine (November-December 1996): 35.
(3) Figures compiled from budget information provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts; 1997 population statistics from the Agency for International Development; "Pop Grants Unsettle British Arts," New York Times, 25 June 1998, p. E-7; and information on philanthropy from Creative America: A Report to the President (Washington, D.C.: President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 1997), p. 19.
(4) J.C. Taylor, "A Poignant, Relevant Backward Look at Artists of the Great Depression," Smithsonian, 10, no. 7 (October 1979): 52 as quoted in Fannie Taylor and Anthony L. Barresi, The Arts at a New Frontier: The National Endowment for the Arts (New York: Plenum Publishing Corp., 1984), p. 10.
(5) In early 1937, Rep. William I. Sirovitch of New York offered a joint resolution that called for a Department of Science, Art and Literature, whose head would carry Cabinet level rank. In August of the same year Rep. John M. Coffee of Washington introduced a bill calling for the establishment of a Bureau of Fine Arts, with a Commissioner appointed by the President, directors responsible for six fields of artistic endeavor, and a system of four regional bureaus. In January 1938 Claude Pepper introduced Coffee's bill in the Senate, and the measure received consideration, but failed to pass. Taylor and Barresi, Arts, pp. 10-11. I am indebted to Taylor and Barresi, chapters 1-2, for much of the historical information on the founding and early history of the NEA.
(6) This sequence of events is described in Taylor and Barresi, Arts, p. 13.
(7) R. W. Apple, Jr., "Elected Bodies With Hardly a Cultured Bone," New York Times, 26 July 1998, p. AR2:2 describes politicians' reluctance to be involved with the arts and Jacqueline Kennedy's role in encouraging JFK's interest; other historical information from Taylor and Barresi, Arts, p. 26-29.
(8) Taylor and Barresi, Arts, pp. 41, 42, 50.
(9) Ibid., p. 32.
(10) Ibid., p. 34.
(11) Joseph McLellan, "NEA: The First 20 Years; Looking Back On the Up-and-Down Union of Government and Art," Washington Post, 26 September 1985, p. D1.
(12) Hilton Kramer, "Reagan Aides Discuss U.S. Role In Helping Arts And Humanities," New York Times, 26 November 1980, p. 1.
(13) Carla Hall, "Reagan and the Endowments; Early Optimism from the Transition-Team Leaders, But an Uncertain Future for Federal Arts Funding," Washington Post, 23 November 1980, p. G1.
(14) Kramer, New York Times, 26 November 1980, p. 1.
(15) Selected results from Lexis-Nexis search of major newspaper coverage of NEA and NEH for 1980.
(16) McLellan, Washington Post, 26 September 1985, p. D1.
(17) Budget figures supplied by National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities.
(18) Adjustments for inflation supplied by the NEH.
(19) McLellan, Washington Post, 26 September 1985, p. D1.
(20) Carole S. Vance, "The War on Culture," Art in America (September 1989), reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., Culture Wars: Documents from Recent Controversies in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992), p. 106.
(21) Ibid., p. 107.
(23) Information on the Citizens for Community Values received from their website, July 1998. The outcome of the Barrie trial is stated in Judith Tannenbaum, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Philadelphia Story," Art Journal (Winter 1991), pp. 73-74. The American Association of Museums scheduled an emergency session at its 1990 annual meeting to hear from Board members and Dennis Barrie of the Contemporary Arts Center.
(24) "NEA Chronology," Christian Science Monitor, 6 August 1993, p. 13.
(25) Tannenbaum, "Robert Mapplethorpe," p. 74.
(27) National Endowment for the Arts et al. v. Finley, 000 U.S. 97-371 (1998).
(28) Contract with America: The Bold Plan by Rep. Newt Gingrich, Rep. Dick Armey, and the House Republicans to the Change the Nation, ed. Ed Gillespie and Bob Schellhas (New York: Times Books, 1994), p. 7.
(29) There is some uncertainty about inclusion of the endowments in the Contract with America. Sheldon Hackney and Ann Young Orr, now chief of staff at the NEH, recall the outright elimination of the two endowments as appearing in the appendix of the originalContract in circulation in the fall of 1994. The published version cited above makes no mention of the endowments. Jamil Zainaldin believes the appendices were never clear, but recalls that the original Contract contained a provision in an appendix to reduce funding to the endowments by 5 percent a year for the next three years. In the weeks between the election and the swearing in of the new Congress in January, he believes those provisions were eclipsed by the drive for elimination. He identified William J. Bennett and Lynne Cheney as activists promoting this shift.
(30) Contract with the American Family: A Bold Plan by Christian Coalition to Strengthen the Family and Restore Common-Sense Values, intro. Ralph Reed (Nashville: Moorings, 1995), pp. 105-15.
(31) Contract with the American Family, pp. 110-11.
(32) I am indebted to Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the American Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), pp. 218-19 for their analysis of the connections between conservative opposition to Goals 2000 and the cultural endowments.
(33) Jamil Zainaldin, "Chronology of 1995 Legislative Activities," report delivered to the National Conference of State Humanities Councils, September 10, 1995.
(34) Lynne V. Cheney, "Mocking American at U.S. Expense," New York Times, 10 March 1995, p. 29.
(35) Interview with Sheldon Hackney, March 11, 1998.
(36) Zainaldin, "Chronology."
(37) Interview with Jamil Zainaldin, September 21, 1998.
(38) "Latest Federal Shutdown Threat Lacks Crisis Atmosphere," New York Times, p. 11.
(39) See Figure 3.
(40) Jerry Gray, "House 217 to 216 Votes to Replace Arts Agency with Grants to the States," New York Times, 11 July 1997, p. A15.
(41) Jerry Gray, "House Votes End of Federal Funding for Arts Agency," New York Times, 12 July 1997, p. 1.
(42) Interview with Sheldon Hackney, March 11, 1998.
(43) Melinda Henneberger, "Something Different at the Arts Endowment: Optimism," New York Times, 30 August 1998, p. 16 reports on new signs of support for the NEA. Reps. Dick Armey and Jesse Helms were reportedly favorably impressed by Ivey's ties to country music.
(44) Apple, New York Times, 26 July 1998, p. AR2:26 and personal correspondence with Sheldon Hackney, September 30, 1998.
(45) State humanities councils have a distinctly separate history from the arts councils, which came into being as state arts agencies in 1966. Enabling legislation for the humanities councils was spearheaded by Claiborne Pell in the early 1970s.
(46) Kramer, New York Times, 26 November 1980, p. 1.
(47) Vance, "The War on Culture," p. 109.
(48) Henneberger, New York Times, 30 August 1998, p. 16.
(49) Interview with Jamil Zainaldin, September 21, 1998.
(51) Henneberger, New York Times, 30 August 1998, p. 16.
(52) Interviews with Jamil Zainaldin, March 5, 1998 and September 21, 1998.
(53) Personal correspondence with Sheldon Hackney, September 30, 1998.
(54) Interview with Judith Tannenbaum, June 30, 1998.
(55) "Religious Right, Frustrated, Trying New Tactic on the GOP," New York Times, 23 March 1998, p. 1.
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