Philistines Vote, Too

February 28, 1992

Sacking John Frohnmayer as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts was a cheap way for President Bush to parry the thrusts of his rightwing challenger, Pat Buchanan, who crowed that he had "taken my first scalp." Mr. Frohnmayer is in bad odor among cultural conservatives for approving grants to controversial artists, and he is fighting a civil-rights lawsuit by four artists whose grants didn't get approved. Double-sided scapegoats are rare; Mr. Frohnmayer will be missed.

Still, neither censorship nor taste is the core of the arts-funding issue. Accountability is. As long as tax money is used to benefit the arts, taxpayers have a right to question how the money is spent. Generally they don't mind when their money underwrites an art gallery's new wing, or fixes a concert hall's leaky roof. They do mind when it supports a man who urinates on stage, a woman who strips and smears chocolate on her body, a poem associating Jesus with oral sex or an exhibition of photographs depicting homosexual acts.

These objections may be philistine, but they are not censorship. Indeed, it mocks the sacrifices of artists and writers who have braved prison for the right to create when their struggles are equated with the denial of government handouts.

So long as funds are finite, every scheme for public support of the arts will involve approving some applications and rejecting others. Which means philistine taxpayers will meddle in funding decisions. So what else is new? When princes and popes were the patrons, artists had to please them. Now taxpayers are the patrons.

Yet the arts are vital to a nation's soul and should be supported. The lavish subsidy of the arts in Europe is envied in the U.S. arts community, but arts grants in most European countries usually do not go directly to individuals or to support particular performances or exhibitions. They go, instead, to arts infrastructure: theaters, galleries, museums, conservatories. With overhead costs subsidized, the directors of these institutions then may have the freedom to present non-commercial, even controversial, work. Taxpayers can make market decisions about whether they want to look at it, but at least they don't have to bankroll it directly.

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