Latest NEA Controversy Isn't the First


The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is always one of the hottest topics in the theatre community. A huge amount of theatre in the US is created or presented at non-profit theatres that operate under the protection of or were first started with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The latest NEA controversy broken here at Big Hollywood by Patrick Courrielche has become a fascinating Rorschach test within the theatre community. The response has been disappointing yet predictable from the left-leaning proponents of the NEA and this administration.


Robert Mapplethorpe

To fully expose the inconsistencies and intellectually dishonest positions they have taken in their knee-jerk defense of everything Obama, we first need a little background for the Big Hollywood readers who might not remember all of the details in the recent history of controversies with regard to NEA funding in the theatre community.

NEA Primer: Now I don’t pretend to suggest that the following breakdown of the NEA struggles dating back to 1990 is a definitive or even thorough explanation of the recent history of left vs. right combat over the NEA. I encourage all of my readers to research and read about this issue. And, I especially want them to read the perspective of liberals/progressives/leftists who were in the middle of the struggle on the other side. It is informative and enlightening to read how they really feel about the subject.

That being said, the following synopsis of the NEA fights from twenty years ago is meant to be a short-hand account of the debate from the perspective of the right… from “Stage Right,” if you will:

The NEA was created in 1965 as an independent agency of the Federal Government for the purpose of funding artistic endeavors to enrich the cultural fabric of our society.

Not coincidentally, many of the most influential non-profit theatres in America date their creation back to years between 1966 and 1979. The new influx of federal grants as well as many state and local granting agencies that followed the Fed’s lead helped in the creation of these new theatre groups

In the early 1990’s, after 25 years of relatively unfettered growth and autonomous operation it was discovered that recent grants were given to individual artists whose artistic output included projects that are objectively seen as offensive, if not profane. These projects include the infamous “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic self-portrait showing a bullwhip shoved in his anus. The famous “NEA Four,” a group of performance artists including Karen Finley, were denied an NEA grant despite the fact that they had been approved by a peer panel. Finley’s performance art involved her smearing feces-symbolic chocolate on her nude body while singing.

jesse helms twn

Conservatives (not just Republicans) led by Senator Jesse Helms objected to a government agency funding artists who were creating these objectionable pieces of art and they attempted to call into question the NEA’s granting criteria. Liberals cried foul and suggested that any governmental interference or oversight with regard to the content of the art created by NEA grantees is tantamount to an infringement on the first amendment.

Most conservatives heard this argument and wholeheartedly agreed. Their solution: Get the government out of the business of financing artistic endeavors all together. The rationale was that if the government can’t have any input into the art that they are financing then they should not be financing it. Otherwise, the American taxpayer can’t be guaranteed that they are actual getting what they pay for. You see, if an agency is created to fund an artist to create work that will enrich the cultural fabric of our nation, and then the actual art does not enrich but actually degrades the fabric of our culture and offends a vast majority of our citizens, then the money is not being used in the way it was intended. When congress dispenses federal funds, it is their responsibility to ensure that the funds are used for the purposes they were intended. Otherwise, if the congress can’t question the proper use of the funds, then we have created an agency that is immune from any kind of governmental oversight and therefore should not continue to exist.

That reasonable and logical argument was met with howls from the left screaming about the right wanting to cut off funding to all of those theatres… those employers of writers, actors, directors and techies all living off of their non-profit theatre jobs. It was at this point that a huge shift occurred in the theatre community, painting very stark lines between conservatives and liberals. Up to this point, as a conservative, I was tolerated and sometimes even engaged in friendly debate at my workplace or at cocktail parties. Not anymore. Conservatives became the enemy. They wanted to take food off of the table of my co-workers by cutting off funding for the arts. And if I argued on their behalf, I was the enemy too.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. The NEA would no longer fund individual artists but would continue funding institutions. The institutions, in turn, would use the grants for administrative purposes, so they were not necessarily tied to a specific product that could be seen as objectionable. Even after the GOP had control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, no realistic attempt was made to shut down the NEA. (In 1996, with President Clinton in the White House and a GOP congress, the NEA budget was slashed to just under $100 million from its high of $160 million. It grew back to $140 million under President George W. Bush (that Nazi) and it is now up to $155 million for FY 2009).


But, the lines had been drawn by the left as a result of this episode. If you were a conservative you had to fall into one of two camps:

  1. You were a censor infringing on the rights of artists and trying to control their speech. You were worse than the Popes who dared to dictate what Michelangelo could paint at the Vatican with church funds. The Hubris! You freaking fascist!
  2. You were a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal who saw no use for the arts in our society. Only wanted the Federal government to fund bombs and the military industrial complex but only wanted art to exist in the context of a free market and therefore you were actively trying to shut down all of the non-profit theatres that were only surviving due to the NEA grants they were receiving.

(OK, I might be exaggerating, but the caricatures are not far from the truth.)