It used to be that the mere mention of the National Endowment for the Arts would immediately draw fire from the right. In the 1990s, “Defund the NEA” became a rallying cry that was regularly heard in the halls of Congress. Demonizing the NEA was a fundraising tool that kept giving and giving and giving.
Over the past decade, however, in part because the agency appeared to consciously distance itself from funding controversial art projects, and in part because the Christian Right moved on to other issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration), fighting funding for the NEA was no longer at the top of their agenda.
Concern over how President Barack Obama’s stimulus money is being used is again focusing attention on the NEA. A July 30 Fox News report pointed out that some stimulus money (the Recovery and Reinvestment Act) earmarked for the NEA wound up stimulating an NEA-funded “pornographic” film project, a long-running pansexual performance series, and a dance production featuring naked dancers.
While the Fox report acknowledged that the bulk of the $80 million in stimulus funds the NEA received was going to “needy artists nationwide, and most of the money [was] being spent to help preserve jobs in museums, orchestras, theaters and dance troupes that have been hit hard by the recession,” nevertheless, it pointed out that a small portion of the funds went to support ‘pornographic’ offerings such as an adult horror film shown at San Francisco’s Frameline Festival. (See here for the full list of NEA Recovery Act grants.)
Despite the fact that the Edge noted that Frameline “was given $50,000 of stimulus money, a sum equaling one tenth of one one hundred and sixtieth of the money meant to be distributed by the NEA,” several Religious Right groups were outraged.
The Fox piece was unclear about “whether or not the money went toward any screenings of the ‘pornographic’ film … titled “Thundercrack,” which the article noted was described as ‘the world’s only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla,’ the Edge reported. The Fox report quoted Frameline director K. C. Price: “The grant is not intended for a specific program; it’s to be used for the preservation of jobs at our media arts nonprofit organization over the next year during the economic downturn.”
Another San Francisco arts outfit, CounterPULSE, which programs a “long-running pansexual performance series” that is advertised with an invitation to “join your fellow pervs for some explicit, twisted fun,” received a $25,000 grant, according to the Fox News article. .
A third grant of $25,000 was given to the Jess Curtis/Gravity, which is currently promoting a “Symmetry Project,” a performance art piece in which “Two naked bodies interact…limbs entangle and intertwine creating an inter-corporeal kaleidoscope of flesh. A kind of uber-intimacy develops.”
Fox reported that “more than 50 congressmen sent a letter blasting what they called “indecent” and “abhorrent” art projects funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.” Although claiming that their “intent is not to censor artistic freedom,” the letter, written by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) and sent to NEA acting chair, Patrice Walker Powell, expressed concern
that taxpayers are stuck paying for projects that are antithetical to our values and culture. …There is no justification for using tax dollars on the abhorrent projects. As such, the money should be immediately returned.
The National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965 through the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act. Its mission has been “to foster the excellence, diversity and vitality of the arts in the United States, and to broaden public access to the arts.”
In the early 1990s, conservatives who had for a long time opposed any public funding for the arts – unless those funds were earmarked for a conservative legislator’s district – bashing the NEA (and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) became a lucrative cottage industry. Not a week would pass without getting a hefty envelope in the mail from David Horowitz’s then Center for the Study of Popular Culture (now the David Horowitz Freedom Center), Martin Mawyer’s Christian Action Network, or Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association.
My personal favorite direct mail package — sent by the American Family Association — contained a smallish envelope warning supporters to look inside at their own risk. Inside the envelope was a series of Robert Mapplethorpe photos.
Controversial artists in one way or another associated with NEA-funded projects — Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”), the NEA Four (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller), Joel Peter Witkin – were vilified by the Religious Right. Film festivals, small arts groups, and museum exhibits – whatever venues may have received NEA funding — were scrutinized.
In the Spring of 1995, the Christian Coalition introduced its “Contract with the American Family,” which “argue[d] that the nation should ‘abolish all major federal welfare programs’ and turn them over to ‘private and religious organizations’,” National Public Radio’s Daniel Zwerdling reported on the October 10, 2003, edition of PBS’s “NOW with Bill Moyers.” One of the Contract’s provisions called for Privatizing the Arts (“The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Legal Services Corporation should become voluntary organizations funded through private contributions.”)
While executive director of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed — who currently heads up a new organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition — said that,
The government must no longer subsidize agencies and programs that promote values contrary to those we teach in our homes. Taxpayer funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting should be terminated.
“The NEA grants for self-identified pornography or an ‘inter-corporeal kaleidoscope of flesh’ takes the affront to taxpayers to an entirely new level,” The New American, the magazine of the John Birch Society maintained. “Pornography is objectionable to most Americans, and Thomas Jefferson once correctly observed: ‘To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.’”
In an interview with the conservative weekly Human Events, Rep. Stearns got in his licks against both the NEA and the stimulus package:
The fundamental question is this: Why is the federal government subsidizing ‘artists’ that citizens refuse to support in the marketplace? We are funding bestiality and children appearing with nude adults. As to the economic stimulus rationale, there’s none. There are no long-term jobs in this stuff. This is politics, political correctness gone awry. They’re just funding pornography, and there’s no legitimate reason for it. And the American people understand that it is undermining our culture and glamorizing perversion on their dime.
The NEA currently receives about $190 million in annual funding.