Strange Bedfellow

The Jesse Helms Ballet

Dance of death at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Every year around this time, the Rite of Spring is performed in Washington. Sadly, this is not the great Stravinksy-Diaghilev collaboration, but a less distinguished ballet choreographed by Jesse Helms. Here’s the synopsis: In the first scene, a Republican trots onto the stage and declares himself mortally offended by some bit of raunchiness connected to the National Endowment for the Arts. (This year it’s Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, who is distraught over The Watermelon Woman, a film about black lesbians.) As percussive storm clouds gather, distinguished artists like Ron Silver and Whoopi Goldberg swoosh in to defend the agency. The battle rages; the agency eludes destruction. The curtain falls on conservatives shaking their fists and vowing to get the NEA next time, like Snoopy cursing the Red Baron.

But does the NEA really escape? Jane Alexander, who has chaired the endowment since 1993, has been a formidable advocate for continued culture funding. She has successfully walked a tightrope in the censorship debates, using her administrative power to block grants that would have spelled trouble while sticking up for those that came under attack after they were awarded. Neither left-wing performance artists nor right-wing senators have called for her head. Her shrewdness and star appeal may have kept the endowment alive through troubled times. But the well-intentioned Alexander may ultimately be seen as the William Westmoreland of the NEA. For the sake of preserving the agency, she has come close to destroying it.

Take a look at the NEA’s just-announced 1997 grants. The chairwoman is not to blame for how few there are. In 1995, Congress cut the culture agency’s budget from $170 million to $99.5 million, and banned awards to individual artists. What is largely Alexander’s doing, however, is that the remaining grants reflect not a serious commitment to high culture in America but a kind of passive, middlebrow populism. Alexander’s survival strategy has been to slosh a thin gruel of artistic mediocrity around the country. The strategy has worked, and may have been necessary, and of course it’s easy to carp from the outside. But I think she has carried it a bit too far.

Until the budget cuts, the NEA gave awards in 17 categories corresponding to familiar disciplines in the fine arts. Alexander’s forced reorganization collapsed the 17 into four: “Planning & Stabilization,” “Education & Access,” “Heritage & Preservation,” and “Creation & Presentation.” Even the names reflect a kind of pre-emptive surrender–no art here, they declare. The biggest chunk of change–$29.5 million–now goes as block grants to state and regional arts agencies. Most of what’s left goes to arts administration and arts education. The little direct support remaining is geared to sound inoffensive. In fact, much of it is political, but in a mushy identity-diversity way. The result is that the agency’s enemies and friends alike may die of boredom before they turn up anything either offensive or inspiring.

T urn to a page of the new awards at random. Fifty-five thousand dollars goes to Ballet Hispanico of New York, “to support the development of a model study unit, utilizing concerts, study guides, teacher training and residences, to celebrate the cultural contributions made by Hispanics to the United States.” A theater in Berkeley gets 75 grand for an “Asian Pacific American Audience Initiative.” An “international festival of Wheelchair Dance” gets 40. Elsewhere, there’s $50,000 for the East Tennessee Community Design Center in Knoxville, to help “design professionals” bring “alternative design” to “underserved areas.” Another $75,000 goes to the Concerned Citizens for Humanity Ltd. of Hartford, Conn., “to support the creation of STOPAIDS, a statewide design project tailored to educate at-risk youth and persons with hearing disabilities on the problems of HIV/AIDS.”

The NEA does still support some elitist high culture, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Seattle Opera. But the drift toward art as self-esteem building and away from art for art’s sake is clear. In part this reflects trends in the art world. It also reflects Alexander’s strategy of encouraging conservative legislators to rethink their philosophical objections to arts spending through the crude but effective device of putting money in their districts. In recent congressional testimony, Alexander began her litany of the NEA’s good works with “important folk arts projects like the one sponsored by the Alabama Folklife Association to publish and document primitive Baptist hymns.” Do I detect a subtle jab even as Alexander outmaneuvered the Baptist primitives in Congress?

The endowment’s supporters in the entertainment industry are less deft. At a rally in Washington in early April, a Broadway composer named Richard Adler sat down at the piano and declared, “I dedicate this medley of my songs to Senator Jesse Helms and to Newt Gingrich–to their destruction.” In the words of Alec Baldwin, who heads the Creative Coalition, “The people who run the Republican Party in this country are really rotten, nasty, horrible human beings.” Such comments can hardly make life easier for the civilized Republicans like Amo Houghton and Rick Lazio of New York, whose dissent from party orthodoxy is all that is keeping the NEA alive at present.

The arguments made by movie stars in defense of the NEA are even sillier. Actors like Susan Sarandon and Whoopi Goldberg seem incapable of grasping that denying someone a government grant doesn’t violate the right to free speech. Hardly more persuasive is F. Murray Abraham’s line that “if farmers can be subsidized for not growing things, why can’t artists be subsidized for producing?” Republicans are quick to point out that they’re phasing out farm subsidies. But even if they weren’t, arts subsidies can’t be justified on the basis that they even out the spending score for urbanites. The justification for the NEA is that we as a nation want a more robust cultural and intellectual life than the market will otherwise provide. Claiming an equal right to pork-barrel undermines that case.

There is, to be sure, plenty of idiocy among the NEA-bashers. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., argued at a recent press conference that government funding for the arts is censorship. Others at the same event made the facile case that federal funding produces bad art. “This is about an elite group who want the government to define what art is good,” Newt Gingrich said. GOP Whip Tom DeLay added that “the American people will get better art once the government gets out of the way.”

It is fun to speculate about Tom DeLay’s idea of “better art.” Maybe fewer pictures of whips in rectums and more of rectitudinous whips? It’s strange that conservatives who insist that the government must make more forceful moral judgments take the relativistic position that it’s incapable of ever making aesthetic ones. And their criticisms of the NEA are self-fulfilling. In the old days, nobody paid much attention, and the artists on NEA panels were free to make meritorious decisions. They supported a lot of great and good art. Now, in an environment politicized by the right, the NEA is supporting more of what Gingrich deems “bureaucratic art.” Whose fault is that?

The NEA is alive, but it’s on life support. Know-nothing attacks and a desperate defense strategy have conspired to wreck what a decade ago stood as a well-functioning, valuable, and inexpensive agency of government. Jesse Helms is still complaining, but he’s having the last laugh just the same.