Big Bird may survive Newt, but not arts endowment

January 15, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

Buried deep in an addendum to the Republican "Contract with America" is a pledge to cut more than $500 million from "all arts and humanities funding" in America in the next five years.

And Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others.

But I have a feeling that when all the huffing and puffing is over, Big Bird and Barney will continue to get funded.

The NEA, however, may not.

And that is because Big Bird and Barney never cut themselves with razor blades, smear themselves with excrement or expose their private parts on stage. (They may not even have private parts.)

pTC The NEA spends most of its time and money on things that offend nobody: concerts, ballets, operas, plays.

But in the area of visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.) and what is known as "performance art" (people doing nontraditional things on stage or in public), the NEA manages to offend a lot of people, including, most importantly for its future, conservative members of Congress.

These people wonder why tax dollars have been spent on:

* Ron Athey, a performance artist who is HIV-positive, who cuts himself and a noninfected assistant with razor blades, blots the assistant's blood on paper towels and then dangles them over the audience.

* Andres Serrano, who displays a photograph of Jesus on the cross in a vat of the artist's urine.

* The late Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs include a bullwhip protruding from his rectum.

* Two women who smear their naked bodies with chocolate and bean sprouts.

* A woman whose artistic display contains the remains of her own aborted fetus.

How much money does the NEA give to such performances, either directly or indirectly? Not very much. The NEA doesn't give very much to anybody.

And that's because, in governmental terms, the NEA is tiny. Its budget is about $170 million per year (out of a federal budget of about $1.5 trillion).

Private contributions to art, on the other hand, amount to $9 billion per year.

So if the NEA disappeared tomorrow, as some would like it to, the arts in America would not collapse.

Take the Kennedy Center in Washington. Newt Gingrich doesn't see why it should get tax dollars. (Though I wonder if he would feel differently if it were named the Reagan Center.)

But you know how much the Kennedy Center gets from the NEA? Some $600,000 a year. Know what the Kennedy Center's annual budget is? Some $70 million a year.

"It's very useful; I hope we continue to get it," Kennedy Center Chairman James Wolfensohn said of the NEA money recently. "But it's not something that is terminal."

L But, to some, any money that the NEA spends is money wasted.

"I don't think there's an automatic right to coerce the taxpayer so we can finance people to do weird things," Gingrich said recently.

And the conservative Heritage Foundation claims that the NEA grants, no matter what their size, "consistently favor novelty rather than excellence."

It says the NEA favors the exotic, the weird and the offensive, while short-changing "representational" artists, i.e., those who paint trees that look like trees, people who look like people, etc.

"Traditional, representational artists . . . repeatedly are blackballed in the NEA grants process," the Heritage Foundation claimed in a study conducted in 1991.

The NEA denies this and says that for all the controversy, the continuation of the NEA makes economic sense because its grants generate $37 billion in economic activity and $3.4 billion in federal income taxes each year.

So isn't a little controversy worth it?

No, say some very powerful people in Congress who will soon be voting on whether to continue the NEA.

"They [the NEA] gave a $15,000 grant to an artist who urinates in a jar and puts a crucifix in it and takes a picture of it," said Ed Gillespie, spokesman for Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the new House majority leader. "It takes an average worker in Dick Armey's congressional district 200 days to earn $15,000."

MONDAY: An alternative.

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