CUTTING CULTURAL FUNDING: A REPLY

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Two weeks ago, TIME devoted nine pages to a Robert Hughes essay on Congress, America's priorities and the arts. This is an important topic worthy of serious debate. Yet, instead of debating the message, Hughes decided to attack the messengers. It is unfortunate Hughes chose to resort to name-calling: "Neanderthals," "Jurassic...[with] limbic forebrains," "insatiable Fundamentalist Christian right wing" and "Jacks-in-office" are not helpful contributions to an important discussion of our nation's priorities.

TIME's readers deserve better. It is important to present the whole picture, not the distorted outline Hughes sketches. The American people need an actual debate to understand where federal funding of the arts fits in with larger issues confronting our nation. Balancing the budget, restoring a civil society and seeking alternatives to the pervasive intrusion of the Federal Government are part of this debate. Federal funding of the arts should not and cannot be discussed separately from the larger questions.

Hughes' essay rests on the misguided liberal premise that the Federal Government equals America. The cover declares, WHY AMERICA SHOULDN'T KILL CULTURAL FUNDING." Inside, the story is titled, "Pulling the Fuse on Culture." It is curious that such an apocalyptic tone is generated in defense of agencies that did not even exist for the first 189 of the nation's 219 years. Even Hughes admits the federal share of cultural funding ($620 million) is dwarfed by the more than $9 billion in private-sector contributions. With some changes in tax law, total funding of the arts and humanities could increase while the Federal Government role shrinks.

Hughes seems to think the arts and humanities should be exempt from the same vigorous scrutiny that virtually every other part of the federal budget is undergoing. When we have a national debt of nearly $5 trillion, it is the height of arrogance to believe that anyone's pet programs should be sacred cows. This view, by the way, is not the partisan attack Hughes would have readers believe. Even the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, stated in its 1993 Mandate for Change that it opposed federal funding for the arts and humanities.

There are many well-intentioned programs the Federal Government funds that have not produced results we are satisfied with, including our education and welfare systems. Many of us believe that federal bureaucratic funding of the arts and humanities falls into this category. Has the overall culture flourished in the 30 years of public funding of the arts and humanities? Or has it decayed? Many Americans would argue the latter case.

Even while taxpayer money may subsidize some worthwhile artistic projects, too often the seed money that Hughes endorses actually cultivates bad seeds. This is vividly illustrated in a new book by Alice G. Marquis of the University of California at San Diego, Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding. Marquis, a history scholar and self-identified Democrat, notes, "The [National Endowment for the Arts'] shotgun policy of passing out masses of small grants has conjured up an unsustainable array of needy groups and individuals ... Well meaning in its objective, [it] has also produced unexpected consequences. Art is not a product like soybeans, but rather the outcome of imaginative endeavor by talented people, of whom there is always a limited supply. When grants prop up artists unable to attract audiences, individuals with limited abilities persist, crowding out superior talents." Should the American people be forced to underwrite cultural dependents who add to our decay and undermine our values rather than enhance our lives?

Republicans share the basic optimism of the American people and prefer to emphasize a positive vision of our nation's future. Our first strategy to achieve that better future is to renew American civilization. This goal rests on the belief that America is multiethnic but one civilization. Renewal means we first must identify its strengths and then identify the factors that serve to corrupt it. Some aspects of government-subsidized art are clearly designed to undermine our civilization. For example, despite its prominent reproduction in a full-page photo, Piss Christ, Andres Serrano's blasphemous, NEA-underwritten exhibit, is barely addressed by Hughes. That is not too surprising. The Piss Christ is difficult to defend aesthetically and is completely indefensible as a taxpayer-subsidized project.

Serrano's work is prototypical of the cancer eating away at our civilization. It is deeply offensive to Christians. Moreover, it is repugnant even to the many who may not call themselves Christian but who nonetheless have a deep, abiding faith in a higher power. Our Founding Fathers saw the wisdom of rejecting any state religion. Yet they also recognized a Creator who endows [us] with "certain unalienable rights." Putting the government's imprimatur on Piss Christ sends a signal that it is acceptable to mock and blaspheme faith in the Creator upon whom our rights depend.

Contributions to federal political campaigns are not tax deductible, because taxpayers should not have to subsidize the political activity of their fellow citizens. With the voluntary exception made for the presidential-election fund, taxpayers do not pay for political campaigns. Why then should they be forced to pay for skillfully presented political statements masquerading as art? Far too frequently, NEA grants have been utilized to express explicitly narrow political views rather than to celebrate legitimate cultural issues. As much as Hughes would like to pass off Serrano as an anomaly of the NEA process in the '80s, the fact is the beat goes on: This summer, California's Highways performance-arts center received a $15,000 NEA grant to help put on its "Ecco Lesbo/Ecco Homo" festival. With such acts as "Not for Republicans," "Dyke Night" and others with names unsuitable to be printed here, it is filled with political statement. Why should the American people be forced to pay for the political posturing of a few?

Those believing America to be one multiethnic civilization would rather celebrate what unites us instead of what divides us. That sentiment is clearly at odds with trends in the elite cultural world. As Hughes himself put it in his 1993 book, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, "The catalogue convention of the '90s is to dwell on activist artists 'addressing issues' of racism, sexism, aids, and so forth. But an artist's merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin color or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public . The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted." Republicans couldn't agree more. We further ask: Why is it in the best interests of a country to continue funding that which contributes to its cultural fraying? Should we fund that which is intended to be separatist, divisive and dismissive of our civilization's standards?

The arts and humanities communities seem united only by their desire for taxpayer subsidies. Yet they want our money without any accountability. Despite Hughes' charge that this is an unfair conservative attack, the controversy over the American-history standards is illustrative. This revisionist look at American history, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, judges former Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (mentioned 19 times) more worthy of discussion than George Washington (mentioned twice). It consistently distorts and undermines American history. The standards were so far beyond the pale that they were repudiated on the Senate floor, 99 to 1. Another example of the alite's repudiation of our civilization occurred when Yale University was forced to return a gift of $20 million because its faculty could not agree on what constitutes a Western-civilization curriculum. Given this elite cultural bias, it stretches the imagination to believe that even culturally aware Washington bureaucrats could make informed decisions regarding the humanities.

America has a unique civilization based on individual liberty and the right to pursue happiness. Despite Hughes' admonition that Congress's agenda "is going to depress the quality of cultural and educational life for everyone in America," we believe that removing cultural funding from the federal budget ultimately will improve the arts and the country by returning power and authority to the private sector.

Numerous ideas already are being discussed to ensure that America's arts and humanities remain fully funded. We can start, as Republicans will this fall, with restructuring the tax system to create further incentives to contributing to the arts and other worthwhile charities. Over the years, the tax code has in many cases hampered giving to charities and cultural foundations. One provision Republicans are supporting restores full-market deductions of gifts to private foundations. Currently, the law differentiates between deductible gifts of appreciated property (an art collection, for example) to public charities and to private foundations, even though the foundations are more likely to be involved in projects involving the arts and humanities.

Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham proposes to privatize the national endowments. He would put the responsibility for their funding in the hands of those best able to judge and appreciate artistic endeavor, namely the arts community itself. Senator Abraham challenges the same entertainers who visited Washington this year, lobbying for increased NEA funding, to produce a series of benefit concerts and records while utilizing traditional fund-raising approaches to fund a privatized endowment.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), too, has several options at its disposal, including licensing the revenue generated by many of its popular programs. After all, the Discovery Channel, Mind Extension University, the Learning Channel and the Arts & Entertainment Network, as well as C-SPAN, all survive and compete with PBS without tax subsidy. Alice Marquis reminds us that in 1973 the NEA issued a $5,000 grant to author Erica Jong to help her finish writing the novel Fear of Flying. How much could the endowment have received if it had requested a percentage of the royalties for putting up seed money for the work, which went on to become a huge best seller?

These are just a few of the many alternatives to taxpayer funding. Let's pursue them. Our nation has thrived for most of its existence without federal intrusion into the arts and humanities. That tradition has produced a formidable cultural heritage--Mark Twain, Eugene O'Neill, George Gershwin, James Whistler, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, to name but a few. It is time to restore that tradition. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself."