Uncle Sam is not an art critic

August 16, 1994|By Philip M. Crane

THE NATIONAL Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965 ostensibly so that the federal government could help discover the next Ernest Hemingway living amid the bean fields of Illinois. Congress is now in the process of determining the NEA's appropriation for its 30th anniversary, a fitting time to look at the future of this agency. I submit that it is time for the NEA to go the way of communism in Russia.

My primary objection to the NEA has always been contained within the larger debate regarding the proper role of the national government. Simply stated, I do not believe that the NEA is a constitutionally defensible responsibility of the U.S. government.

During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, delegate Charles Pinckney introduced an amendment calling for the federal government to subsidize the arts in America. The Founding Fathers overwhelmingly rejected that idea, wisely believing that the federal government should be more concerned with responsible tasks, like providing for the common defense.

As Congress has created a nearly $5 trillion national debt, we need to get our fiscal house in order. We must prioritize our scarce resources and we can start by ridding our federal budget of nonessential government spending. How can we rationalize spending millions on the NEA when we do not even have enough money to effectively deal with the illegal immigration crisis or the crime in our streets?

The amendment I introduced on the House floor would have completely eliminated funding for the NEA. The $171.1 million of taxpayer money for the NEA could easily be replaced from a very gracious private sector, which provided more than $9 billion to the arts and humanities in 1993. In fact, this argument could best be demonstrated in California, where the entertainment industry has provided working capital to some of America's finest artists, who, in turn, have been able to show their works all over the world, without subsidies from Washington.

Federal money always comes with federal control. Congress has the right and duty to ensure that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent. In the case of the NEA, federal control typically comes in the form of content restrictions. While I realize that the NEA funds some very distinguished art and artists, the agency has been notorious for funding some art that the majority of Americans find offensive. In these instances, Congress has every right to place restrictions on NEA-funded art. If the arts community wants to retain its independence, it should totally reject federal funding of art.

Another area of concern relates to the disparity of NEA grant distribution. For example, more grant money was given to Washington than to the entire state of Illinois, even though Illinois had 350 more grant applicants than Washington. Surprisingly, the district received more money than 48 states.

Americans and the arts community would be far better off without the federal government sitting in judgment of art and artists. Due to the obvious budgetary implications of such a policy, the NEA cannot possibly fund every artist asking for a federal handout. It must pick and choose. Currently, the NEA awards grants to one in four applicants -- rejecting three out of four. These grants are, by NEA design, seed money for artists, who, having received a blessing from the NEA, now have the attention of private donors. Thus, by the NEA's own admission, in practice, the federal government has become the most powerful art critic in America, and is in the position of determining the future of one artist over three others. One would think that the concept of the federal government determining what art should prosper in America would be anathema to the arts community.

In short, the NEA is not constitutional and is not necessary to the survival of art in America. Given a choice between relying on Washington bureaucrats to continue to fund the arts or the gracious private sector, I say give the arts back to the people.

Rep. Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., is a ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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