Bashing the NEA

April 02, 1992

In an emotional speech recently in Washington, John Frohnmayer, the ousted head of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered a scathing indictment of the Pat Buchanan-Jesse Helms style of New Puritanism. "If the NEA gets picked off," Mr. Frohnmayer warned, "public broadcasting is next, and after that research funds for universities, and after that research funds for science."

One needn't accept Mr. Frohnmayer's predictions at face value to be troubled by the turn taken by the arts funding debate, which has been hijacked by right-wing ideologues and religious fundamentalists bent on manipulating uneasiness over obscenity and blasphemy into a Know-Nothing groundswell that would destroy the nation's arts institutions and public funding agencies.

Yet while Mr. Frohnmayer may deplore this development, he is at least partially to blame. Had he been more thoughtful in overseeing NEA projects, cultural troglodytes like Helms and Buchanan never would have found the agency such a ripe target for the politics of resentment.

What did Mr. Frohnmayer think would happen when the trivial homo-erotic photos of Robert Mapplethorpe were included in a major retrospective with which the NEA was closely identified? (Ironically, Mapplethorpe's color flower photographs, perhaps his most original creations, were barely represented in that show.) Similarly, the reaction to Andres Serrano's infamous "Piss Christ" was entirely predictable. Even after the work had been exhaustively discussed by the media, most people never got much beyond an impression of adolescent blasphemy. It was a poor choice for the official imprimatur implied by public funding.

Does this mean government should engage in censorship? Absolutely not. But the issue never was censorship -- no one advocates restricting what artists do. The question is what kind of art is appropriate for public support. Should government patronize only "safe art" or "established masterpieces," as a recent Wall Street Journal article suggested? Not at all. New, unconventional forms of expression are vital to a thriving cultural scene and must be encouraged. Moreover, in a pluralistic democracy disputes in matters of taste are inevitable and to be expected.

Yet that doesn't absolve officials of a responsibility to exercise ordinary common sense in deciding what to encourage and what to ignore. Mr. Frohnmayer seemed oblivious to such distinctions. Ultimately it was his blindness as much as the ranting distortions of right-wing critics that resulted in damage being done to the agency he headed.

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