The NEA And "Culture Wars"

[Sermon written and delivered by Stephen R. Caldwell at the Black Hills Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, Rapid City, South Dakota  -  14 November 1993]

Introduction -- Good morning. Today I will discuss the issue that generated more letters to congress during the Bush Administration than the Savings and Loan crisis. What I will be talking about is government funding for the arts (primarily federal government funding). Even with the change in Presidential Administration in 1993, we will be seeing debate on this issue at all levels of government in the next several years. At the 1992 Republican Convention, former candidate Pat Buchanan said, "We are in a war for the soul of the American people." (According to Molly Ivins, the speech sounded better in the original German.) In August of this year, the Cobb County, Georgia County Commission voted 5-0 to eliminate funding for the arts at the urging of a commissioner who warned the arts are furthering a "gay agenda." The event that precipitated this was the acclaimed off-Broadway play, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which deals with the subject of AIDS. In the August 22, 1993 Rapid City Journal, George Will, in an Op/Ed column, blasts the National Endowment for the Arts for funding controversial art that was selected through a valid peer review process. Due to the volatile mixture of money, religion, sex, politics, and homosexuality; the art world and the NEA in particular have been beat like a rented mule from 1989 to 1992. Jane Alexander, the current NEA chairwoman, will probably get a few weeks or months of "honeymoon," but something will eventually come along to upset the religious right: 
"The first grant, where you see the kind of Mapplethorpe art,
then you will see conservative groups like ours come back
into the fold and demand that the NEA step back from this and
ultimately stop receiving funding." (Pat Trueman, Dir, The
American Family Association)

This dispute over the money and images is symptomatic of a wider problem in our country today—an inability to settle differences using rational discourse, procedure, and true dialog (not shouting). Whether it's abortion, disturbing images and words, or sexual matters; we have a long way to go when it comes to achieving dialog without shouting.

NEA Impact on Our Lives -- What is the impact of the NEA and government art funding on our lives? I've got some questions and I would like to get a show of hands on this, please. Who listens to Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz on public radio? Jazz at Lincoln Center? Saint Paul Sunday Morning? Prairie Home Companion (started with seed money from the NEA in 1974 and now doesn't require NEA subsidy)? Who watches the P.O.V. documentary series on PBS? Great Performances? Live from Lincoln Center? The musical A Chorus Line (first production funded with NEA money)? The movie Driving Miss Daisy (The play that was basis for the movie was funded with NEA money)? The Children's Theater Company's production of The Jungle Book (The group is from Minneapolis and presented this play last winter in Rapid City)? Who saw the Names exhibit (the "AIDS" quilt) last December? In last Sunday's paper (7 Nov 93), the NEA and the South Dakota Legislature presented the Black Hills Community Theater with a $1,652 grant (category: General Operating Support Underserved Population Grant). As you can see from these examples I've presented, the NEA funds many projects that touch our lives. From the sheet I've handed out, you can see that the NEA provided the State of South Dakota with $752,400 in FY 1992. The endowment spends 68¢ per person per year (on average) to fund these projects.

My personal opinion about the role of the arts in our country is that the arts (both traditional and experimental) are part of our educational system (and only the heartless, the childless, and the libertarian would object to government funding of "education"). The arts and art education teach us design, organization, cooperation, creativity, risk-taking, and the most important lesson of all—we need to be active participants in our society (instead of "couch potatoes" and "tater tots"). The arts give an opportunity to build community—as John Frohnmayer said in his March 23, 1992 National Press Club speech: 

  "...  In this increasingly attack oriented society, we need some
way to begin a dialogue to build that social consensus that will
allow us to survive. The arts, often through nonverbal means,
give that opportunity. Look, in music, how jazz, salsa, and
Eastern traditions have influenced Western composition and
performance; or dance with the same amalgamations. Students in
grade school class in Los Angeles, after a week of Latino visual
artists, musicians and dancers, are much less inclined to terrorize
Latino classmates after school. T.S. Eliot wrote: 'Poetry can
communicate before it is understood.'"

And, finally, the arts are important to our national "soul." Our lives without the arts would be dreary in comparison. Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography writes the following:

  "... artists are suspect in American society, as they bring
uncomfortable truths to the surface. But the silence here
disturbs some who seek after the truth; I've heard both
clergy and board members of the North Dakota Arts Council
wonder aloud what it means to have so few writers in the region
... [quoting a North Dakota minister] 'I worry about us if we
aren't producing artists here who can tell our story. A people
with no art has lost its soul.'"

Unfortunately, our country is becoming so afraid of the "uncomfortable truths" that artists deliver that we seem to be willing to trade our soul for "safety" from uncomfortable truths.

Background History -- From 1989 to 1992 was a lively time for the arts and the NEA. However, this wasn't the first time that public art and public funding of art has produced controversy. For the first 176 years of our nation's history, government funding of the arts followed a "British" model (limited government involvement) instead of a "continental" model. The earliest government art controversy I found in my reading was Horatio Greenough's 1832 statue of George Washington (currently on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History). Statue pose is George seated, nude with lower torso covering loosely draped around him. The "naked statue" was denounced by many in and out of government. Other than the Smithsonian museums and WPA arts projects during the Great Depression, our federal government has funded very little art until the founding of the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 during the Johnson administration. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter were all solid patrons of the arts. During the Reagan administration, OMB proposed cuts of 50% in the NEA budget. Congress was able to hold these cuts to 10%. In 1988, John Frohnmayer was nominated and subsequently confirmed as Chairman of the NEA. (Some books report erroneously that Mr. Frohnmayer worked in President Bush's campaign in 1988. This wasn't true—he couldn't vote for a ticket with Dan Quayle on it.) Mr. Frohnmayer was a Oregon attorney and arts activist/supporter. Along with his legal background, he also has a background in theology and Christian ethics (liberal Christian--theology of inclusion--not theology of damnation). During Mr. Frohnmayer's stay at the NEA, he suffered through repeated onslaughts from Pat Buchanan, Representatives Dornan and Dannemeyer, Senator Helms, and Reverend Donald Wildmon. Eventually, he was canned for defending an NEA-supported publication that contained a graphic poem depicting the thoughts of a 13 year old child involved with the Central Park rape. The religious right was quoting six lines of this poem out of context. His defense of the poem's literary merit was the last straw for the Bush administration.

Legal Background -- What role does the Government have in the regulation of speech that is facilitated with Government money? To quickly cover the legal background, let's start with the restrictions on privately funded art. Privately funded art is protected under the First Amendment--unless it is libelous or legally obscene. The legal definition of obscenity isn't the one that you or I might use. The legal definition is derived from Miller v. California (1973) which Constitutional law expert Kathleen Sullivan has explained the following way:

"... expression that appeals to the 'prurient interest' through
'patently offensive' depiction of sexual conduct that lacks
'serious' artistic or other merit"

Obviously one of the regulatory problems with this is how can a work trigger sexual arousal and disgust at the same time. Additionally, the work as a whole must be considered (i.e. you don't take images or words out of context when evaluating a work). And private patrons can exercise complete control to what the content is. The two opposing positions taken during the NEA controversies are the following:

1. Any content restrictions (other than libel or legally
defined obscenity) are government censorship.
2. "He who takes the King's shilling becomes the King's Man."

In 1897, Supreme Court Justice Holmes ruled that the government forbidding public protest in public parks is no more an infringement on the First Amendment than "the owner of a private house to forbid it in his house." This restricted view of the First Amendment was enlarged after later court decisions. Even government employees don't loose their constitutional rights to free expression (with the possible exception of the military). In a Supreme Court case, the court ruled in favor of a police clerk that favorably commented on President Reagan's assassination attempt. Just because she was a government employee didn't mean that she lost all her constitutional rights. If this was true, it would mean the government could use its "badge" and its checkbook to regulate speech and political discourse. (Paying for Democratic expression and banning Republican expression both amount to the same thing--a diminishing of certain forms of expression due to government coercion.

If the Government can't regulate expression it funds (except for prohibiting legally defined obscenity and libel), then what restrictions can the Government place on subsidized art? Well, subject matter isn't a reason to withhold funding. However, poor quality is (the problem is how to define poor quality). The NEA currently uses a "peer review" process (similar to Federal funding of scientific research) with multiple independent panels (to prohibit conflict of interest, you don't decide on your own grant request). The grant requests are reviewed by the National Council on the Arts. The NEA Chair then either approves or disapproves using the recommendations of the National Council for guidance. This process may not be the most efficient. However, it does attempt to fund the most promising artists and institutions in an environment free from political interference (assuming the NEA Chair can withstand the political pressure).

Disputes During Mr. Frohnmayer's Tenure -- To illustrate the pressures that Mr. Frohnmayer put up with while on the job as the NEA chair, I will briefly cover these several areas that were controversial during Mr. Frohnmayer's tenure: "blasphemous art" and "homosexual art".

Blasphemous Art

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

I'm sure that everyone has heard of the famous (infamous?) photograph titled Piss Christ. The photo by Andres Serrano depicted a plastic crucifix submerged in a transparent container filled with urine. To Reverend Donald Wildmon, it was "anti-Christian bigotry". The meaning that the artist intended was much deeper than that. The artist intended the photo as a statement against commercialized Christianity. A "recovering" Catholic who had renounced the church, Seranno had struggled with doubt, faith, and the role that religion had played in his life. When Mr. Frohnmayer talked to Seranno about the meaning he intended in his photograph, he indicated that the photo expressed disgust with the "sugarcoating" that hides the theological significance of the cross depicting Man's inhumanity to the Son of God (If Jesus were a modern-day religious figure, his followers would be wearing electric chair necklaces instead). Mr. Frohnmayer--upset with the religious right's simplistic interpretation--contacted Dr. William Long (interim pastor of Westminster Prebsterterian Church and former professor of religion at Reed College in Portland, Oregon).

Here's what Mr. Frohnmayer wrote in his book about the Piss Christ photo:

"... admitting that Piss Christ might be repulsive or blasphemous,
[Dr. Long] said, 'It also asserts that the cross, the very heart
of the Christian faith, is itself an offense to God and human
decency. Seen from this perspective, the work of Seranno may have
the unintended effect of reminding Christians and others of the
ignominy and repulsiveness of the symbol they hold so dear.' ...
Dr. Long suggested that in Christian theology the crucifix is a
symbol of rejection and pain ... In our culture the cross has lost
its repulsive character. In contrast, urine, in the modern parlance,
is used to test for truth: for steroids, drugs, and alcohol.
[Dr. Long] asked, 'If we see urine as truth serum, does the crucifix
in urine reflect some of the unyielding cruelty in human beings which
we so desperately ignore or minimize?'"

 Frohnmayer goes on mention Dr. Long quoting Philip Brooks defining the role of the preacher "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." If one used the reaction from the religious right, one could hardly believe that Piss Christ would provoke any thought towards the meanings behind Christian religious symbols.

A second image that the religious right thought mocked Christianity was a collage by David Wojnarowicz showing Christ with a crown of thorns and a needle in his arm. President Bush sent a photo of this collage with a note attached to it that expressed his concern. Many others in the religious right were also offended by this image. Here are Mr. Frohnmayer's thoughts:

"In fact, an image of Christ with a needle in him arm, particularly
when his is not holding the needle, is consistent with an
interpretation of Christ taking on the sins of the world-hardly
a blasphemous concept."

As we see, the religious right--from all appearances--was trying to hold all artists that commented on religion to one standard of belief (a bad idea and certainly illegal under our Constitution).

"Homosexual" Art -- During the 1989 Senate Appropriations Bill deliberations, Senator Helms proposed a content restrictions amendment. This was in response to the "homoerotic" content of several NEA-funded projects including the Mapplethorpe photo exhibit. Here's what the final appropriations bill had for it's language:

"None of the funds authorized to be appropriated ... may be
used to promote, disseminate, or produce materials which in
the judgment of the National Endowment for the Arts ... may be
considered obscene, including but not limited to depictions of
sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children,
or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole,
do not have serious artistic, political, or scientific value."

Helms' language was very cleverly crafted. He linked the obscene and the indecent. It placed sadomasochism and homoeroticism alongside obscenity (which isn't protected by the First Amendment) and the sexual exploitation of children (a political "hot potato"--a vote against Helms' language could be considered a vote for child porn). Unless you're Senator Helms, sadomasochism and homoeroticism (a vague term) aren't obscene and can't be prohibited under the First Amendment; however, they're linked together with child porn with this legislation. Additionally, the executive branch (the NEA) is forced into a judicial role by determining what is obscene. This is a job for the judicial branch (where less overt political games would be played). Mr. Frohnmayer deliberately placed the Helms content restrictions into the funding guidelines that all NEA grant applicants received. He received a lot of flack for this, but he did it for an excellent reason (he wanted it overturned by the courts as unconstitutional).

The NEA has funded several project over the years that have been considered controversial due to the "homosexual" themes. The most famous project was the Mapplethorpe retrospective (Robert Mapplethorpe: A Perfect Moment). I couldn't find a book with the Mapplethorpe retrospective, but I will pass around three books of his work. As you can see, most of his work is tame. A few of the photos were of a more challenging nature (the brutal and extreme world of the gay leather community in New York in the late 70's). A photographer who took a self-portrait of himself with a bullwhip stuck in his posterior is certainly to become a lightning rod for the religious right. Mapplethorpe photographed a few children in a naked or partially clothed state (innocent non-sexual pictures done with the parents' permission). Now we know that museums are full of pictures of children with their genitals exposed (Renaissance painting of Baby Jesus!!) so all graphic depictions of unclothed children aren't automatically obscene. But the combustible mixture of photographs (reality slapping you in the face), graphic depictions of naked children, and homosexuality--the bullwhip didn't help either--was too much for the religious right to bear. Another NEA-funded project that the religious right didn't care for was Poison, an award-winning film that allegorically depicted the AIDS epidemic, societal violence, and homosexual relations. Congress received bushels of letters condemning the film (most from people who didn't see it). Homosexuality is a part of our society and gay creative expression (where it has artistic merit) should be funded by the NEA. As an interesting aside, Mr. Frohnmayer's successor at the NEA, Anne-Imelda Radice (Reagan-Bush loyalist) was later reported to be a lesbian by The Advocate in 1992. Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows!

Future Problems -- The future of NEA seems as murky as it did in 1992. The only difference may be more support from the White House. The three tensions that Mr. Frohnmayer outlined in his National Press Club speech are still with us. The first concerns the role of free expression in our society:

"The first is the tension between the First Amendment
(and its premise that we solve our problems through the
vigorous clash of ideas) and a pervasive strain of
anti-intellectualism in American life. I define anti-
intellectualism as the unwillingness to use thought,
facts and critical discourse to solve problems. We once
had a political party ... that proudly called itself the
"know-nothings" whose agenda was against "Negroes,
foreigners and Catholics." Abraham Lincoln said that if the
know-nothings ever gained control, he would prefer 'emigrating
to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty ...
where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of

The second concerns the role of religion in our society:

"The second tension is between the clause prohibiting
establishment of a religion and a sense of "chosenness"
in American political discourse. Take out a nickel.
It says: "In God We Trust". The Pledge of Allegiance to
our country acknowledges that we are one nation "under God".
Political leaders feel comfortable in telling God to bless us.
There is a sense that one must exercise religion (in Ike's words,
no matter what it is) to succeed in politics. Couple political
use of religious trappings with theological reductionism that
underlies both fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism
and we see why people are calling for laws against blasphemy."

The third tension is between the right of assembly and the electronic isolation that our technology has brought us:

"With the exception of an occasional school board meeting,
we have precious few town meeting or other opportunities
for real public debate and discourse. Hence the lobbing
of electronic bombs by print or airwaves seldom allows an
issue to be squarely confronted, let alone debated ... In
front of our television sets we are both silent and isolated."

The lack of real discourse concerning what truths and values define our country is dangerous. We hear a lot about "family values" but very little about what the term specifically means. Mr. Frohnmayer suggests that we at least address:

  •  Racial and ethnic differences
  • Tolerance
  •  Equality of economic opportunity
  •  Education
  •  Individual Responsibility

The answers to these issues won't be clear or obvious. The alternative is the cultural equivalent of former Yugoslavia. If we don't watch it, our fragile democracy will fly apart due to this lack of dialogue. As Mr. Frohnmayer stated on the 19 October 1993 "All Things Considered" segment on the NEA:

"Are we strong enough to deal with the difference--with
differences of opinion in this society. Because the answer
to that question relates to far more than just a healthy arts
climate, it relates to whether or not we are able to maintain
the fundamental principles on which our democracy's based."

Thank you. Are there any questions?