Billions for Star Wars but not one cent for the arts! That apparently is going to be the battle cry of Congress' new Republican majority, heroes all.
Conservatives have long accused the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities of being ''elitist'' institutions dominated by insular liberal cliques remote from the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Never mind that most large arts institutions that receive federal subsidies are governed by blue-blooded boards made up of conservative businesspeople and the old-money establishment. Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are hardly hotbeds of radicalism.
And pay no heed to the fact that of the tens of thousands of grants to institutions and individuals made by government over the years, fewer than a dozen have provoked the kind of controversy sparked by Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs or Robert Serrano's notorious crucifix dipped in urine.
Those probably weren't the kind of works that deserved public funding anyway (though controversy, per se, isn't something artists necessarily ought to avoid).
Everybody makes mistakes. Do we abolish the Air Force because the Pentagon was foolish enough to pay $600 for a toilet seat? It would be equally short-sighted to allow the whole concept of public support for the arts to be discredited by one or two bad choices.
Yet now that they have the power, the new conservative majority wants to flex its muscles by eliminating funding for the arts and humanities endowments, which support a broad range of cultural activities in Maryland and across the country.
This isn't about saving money or even about attacking those perennial bogeymen, ''waste, fraud and abuse.''
The people calling for an end to federal support for the arts are motivated by pure partisan ideology, not prudence. They are filled with righteous indignation.
Not even House Speaker Newt Gingrich pretends that abolishing the cultural endowments will make a dent in the deficit. Spending for them amounts to less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.
Cutting federal funding for the arts would give Mr. Gingrich a symbolic victory in conservatives' self-declared ''culture war'' -- a phrase coined by right-wing commentator and presidential wannabe Patrick Buchanan and endorsed by many freshmen GOP lawmakers in the Republican ''Contract with America.'' For them, winning is everything.
But slashing federal arts programs would cripple institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, the lTC Baltimore Symphony and Center Stage, which depend on federal seed money to attract private and corporate donors for new projects and programs. Meanwhile, many smaller arts groups would slowly bleed to death.
In the 30 years since the national endowments were founded, local arts organizations have flourished largely as a result of the modest federal investment in efforts to bring
dance, music, theater and the fine arts to Americans living in all parts of the country, not just the big cities.
Those efforts produced not only a remarkable democratization of the arts but also a renewed recognition and appreciation of the rich diversity of America's cultural heritage.
Yet at a time when politicians are talking about taking money away from poor mothers and putting their children in orphanages, is art really so important?
At a time when Congress can kill the ill-fated Superconducting Supercollider -- the nation's best shot at retaining world technological supremacy into the 21st century -- on the grounds that it is a ''pork barrel'' project for the ''scientific entitlement mentality,'' isn't the uproar over arts funding misplaced?
Maybe, but nations are judged not only by their military might or economic strength, but also by their willingness to support the expansion of art and culture within their borders. Throughout history governments have recognized a responsibility for maintaining what we call civilization.
It is not an obligation any nation can evade without impoverishing its people and diminishing its place in history.
The day this country becomes so politically demoralized and spiritually exhausted that it believes it can survive only by bankrupting its art and culture will be the day Americans no longer aspire to greatness as a people and a nation.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.