THE DRAINING of Washington's most fetid cultural swamp, the National Endowment for the Arts, gets underway in earnest today when the NEA chairman, Jane Alexander, appears before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. As an accomplished actress, Alexander is skilled at camouflaging reality behind veils of illusion. But not even her considerable talents can sustain the illusion that the NEA is good for the nation, good for art or good for the taxpayer.
At long last, the NEA's plug is going to be pulled. Because a bunch of unlettered Republican boobs, who wouldn't recognize great art if they tripped on it, were elected to Congress last November? Hardly. Leading the campaign against the NEA are sophisticated PhD's with names like Lynne Cheney, William Bennett and Richard Armey. Alexander grouses that "the right-wing is very organized with its campaign against the endowment." But when Congress cut the NEA's budget by $3 million last year as a signal of disapproval, the House and Senate were still in liberal Democratic hands.
Though Alexander and the "arts community" choose not to acknowledge it, the NEA's troubles are entirely self-inflicted. For years the agency persisted in awarding cash grants to artists bent on insulting and scandalizing the public. What did they imagine would happen when the public started finding out how its money was being spent?
Found out, for example, about "Piss Christ" (Andres Serrano's NEA-funded photographs of a crucifix submerged in his urine)? Or about "Four Scenes in a Harsh Life" (Ron Athey's NEA-funded performance that involves slicing a man's back with a scalpel, soaking up the blood on paper towels and dangling them above the audience)? Or "Annie Sprinkle: Post-Porn Modernist" (the New York Kitchen Theater's NEA-funded show by pornographist Sprinkle, who masturbated on stage with sex toys, inserted a speculum into her vagina and called up audience members to examine her cervix with a flashlight)? Or Artists Space (the NEA-funded gallery whose exhibits included "What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag," which required viewers to walk across an American flag on the floor)?
Mention these examples, and NEA partisans grind their teeth. Most of the agency's funds, they argue irritably, are not used to subsidize such gross and obnoxious "art."
But you'll never hear them regret those subsidies or apologize for them. On the contrary, they defend them. They embrace them. They maintain that art is supposed to "challenge our most sacred values," that the artist's role is to "shatter preconceptions" and "provoke society." Such definitions reduce the idea of art to little more than self-indulgent rudeness. It is a sign of how badly the currency of contemporary culture has been debased that so many artists and arts bureaucrats insist that debauchery and degeneracy are compatible with art -- insist, even, that they are art.
That attitude of hostility to mainstream sensibilities is entrenched within the NEA and its logrolling "peer review" panels. The NEA consistently rewards novelty over quality. Its grant recipients are often distinguished by little more than intolerance toward traditional standards and art forms. Artistry, beauty and craftsmanship are routinely rejected in favor of radical politics, victim chic and anger.
The controversies of the last six years have made one thing clear: The endowment will not change. Its acolytes are proud they offend Main Street, and are convinced they have a constitutional right to be paid for it. When members of Congress proposed a few years ago to restrict NEA subsidies to works that weren't obscene, the arts world exploded: Censorship! Repression! First Amendment!
"I think the National Endowment for the Arts is one of the great comic spectacles of our time," says novelist/journalist Tom Wolfe. "Imagine some poor, rejected former NEA artist going to Voltaire or Solzhenitsyn and saying, 'They're attaching strings to my money! I went to the government for money for my art and they're attaching strings to it!' The horse laugh that even Solzhenitsyn -- who is not given to horse laughs -- would have given them would be marvelous to hear."
According to the 1965 law that created the arts endowment, "encouragement of excellence" is to be the No. 1 criterion for awarding grants. By now it should be obvious to all that excellence is the last thing the NEA is interested in promoting.
Chairman Alexander warns that "our nation would surely be the poorer" without the NEA and contends "that the system that the endowment has for judging is very sound." Well, if Annie Sprinkle's gynecology lessons and Robert Mapplethorpe's rectal probes and the Whitney Museum's displays of vomit and menstrual blood have enriched our nation's culture and deepened our understanding of art, she may be right.
But a less prejudiced observer might conclude the reverse. After 30 years and billions of government dollars, the NEA's most notable contributions to American art have been cynicism, insufferability, banality and tastelessness. The time has come to turn it off -- and to free Alexander to return to the stage.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)