Foolish Noblesse By: Daniel S. Greenberg

Daniel S. Greenberg

September 10, 1990

WASHINGTON — IF ONLY the artsy-museum crowd would shed its naive illusions about federal money, it might share the fruitful experience long enjoyed by its scientific cousins at the public trough.

All that's required, the scientists have found, is the realistic notion that federal money comes with strings and the paymaster holds the right to set the rules. But no, aesthetic sensibilities gag on such political acquiescence. And that has led to a nasty though needless squall on the issue of whether the National Endowment for the Arts may finance 'obscene' works.

The political right has responded with predictable tirades against subsidized filth. Many moderates have prudently ducked, figuring this is one they can sit out. Meanwhile, leading figures in the art world have challenged the obscenity restrictions as intrusions on artistic integrity. And some artists and institutions won't take money tainted by the rules.

How principled, but foolish, as can be seen from an examination of the sciences, which are senior to the arts in beneficial dealings with Washington. For all the turmoil about the Endowment for the Arts, it runs on an annual budget of merely $170 million, whereas the sciences receive over $10 billion from a flock of supportive government agencies.

Science, too, encounters disagreeable political dictates about the use of government money, but it doesn't go kamikaze in response. For example, one of the most promising lines of research for treating Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders involves transplanting fetal tissue into patients' brains. The Reagan and Bush administrations have banned the use of federal funds for such procedures on the grounds that the prospect of putting the tissue to good use might tilt a wavering woman toward an abortion.

Some researchers have publicly expressed dismay at political intrusions into their professional jurisdiction. But there's been no storm of protest or repudiation of federal support. The medical-research community is currently directing a great protest at the federal government, but it concerns one subject: more money for medical research.

During the Cold War, the Pentagon's desire for close research ties with universities collided with academia's self-righteous insistence on the tradition of openness in research. No problem. Universities simply adopted the fiction of off-campus laboratories working on classified projects for the Defense Department. The charade dismayed many academics, but it endures as a feature of academic science -- alongside the proud tradition of openness.

Where the artists might also emulate the scientists is in the tactic of depicting the federal government as destructively neglectful, no matter how bountiful the support may be. For example, under a New York Times opinion piece headlined "Medical Research in Ruins," the dean of Yale University School of Medicine recently wrote, ''Today our nation's health research program is burning, and the conflagration is spreading.'' He did not mention that the budget of the National Institutes of Health nearly doubled during the past decade and that the number of NIH grants is at an all-time high.

If the artists are going to make the big time in Washington, they'll have to jettison some pride and colleagues who who persist in offending the patrons. There's gold in the capital for those who bend with the rules. For particulars, check with the scientists.

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