NEA Grants: "Is This Work Really Art?"

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

[This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared on the op-ed page of the Detroit News, 9 October 1990.]

A big lie has been foisted on the American public regarding the National Endowment for the Arts. But it is not the one the arts lobby has been alleging in its current media campaign to save the embattled endowment.

The American Arts Alliance--representing orchestras, art museums and presenters, and performing arts companies--has published what it calls "The Big Lie vs. the Truth" in one of its recent advertisements. The Big Lie, it charges, is what "narrow-minded zealots" are trying to trick Americans into believing: i.e. that the NEA "funds pornography." The Truth, the Alliance claims, is that the NEA is really in the business of supporting things like Swan Lake, Shakespeare, a Madonna and Child by Raphael, the Tucson Symphony, and a black youngster's learning to play the cello. Illustrations of each example drive the message home.

Still more provocative is a flier prepared by a consortium that includes the Alliance--which is being distributed in theaters and museums across the country. It carries the image of Michelangelo's David, with the sign "Banned in the U.S.A.?" covering his genitals.

What would the arts lobby have us believe from advertisements such as these? First, that the NEA-funded work now under attack is no different from the great art of the past which we treasure. Second, that only narrow-minded zealots would object to it.

In truth, however, the controversial work supported by the NEA has nothing essential in common with the great art of the past. The latter was characterized by profound themes--transcending immediate personal or political concerns--and by the highest standards of craftsmanship. It was the product of severely disciplined effort, building upon complex traditions of creative expression evolved over centuries.

None of the works now under fire belongs in this class. Moreover, contemporary artists who are keeping this cultural heritage alive have been virtually excluded from the NEA's grant-making, because the arts establishment considers them hopelessly passé.

As to the allegation that only narrow-minded zealots find fault with the NEA's grant-making, it is belied by the testimony of none other than a former deputy chairman of the endowment, Michael Straight, one of the agency's earliest and most persistent advocates.

In a memoir of his NEA years (1965-1978), Straight reports having been very troubled by a substantial number of grant proposals he was asked to approve during a period as acting chairman in 1974--proposals ranging from "a series of paintings, 10 to 15 layers of paint deep, consisting entirely of extremely subtle gradations of gray" to a "loop tour of Western U.S. . . . dripping ink from Hayley, Idaho, to Cody, Wyoming." Each of these projects had been endorsed by the endowment's professional advisers. Yet Straight strongly opposed them, ultimately rejecting a score of the proposals.

It is clear, therefore, that objections to contemporary work were on-going at the endowment long before the current uproar over Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. And far more than charges of obscenity were at issue. Then as now, it seems, the question "Is this work really art?" hung in the air.

Ironically, it was the very language of Public Law 89-209, establishing the endowment, that laid the groundwork for confusion and conflict. In defining the key term, "the arts," the legislation gave a laundry list, including ("but not limited to") not only the time-honored major arts--such as music, painting, and sculpture--but utilitarian categories such as industrial and fashion design, and the modern technological media (radio and television). And it indiscriminately referred to all of them as "major art forms."

The deeply flawed legislative language explains how an exhibition of wheelchairs at New York's Museum of Modern Art and a showing of contemporary evening gowns at another major museum recently received NEA support. It also accounts for the proliferation we have witnessed of NEA grants for bogus categories such as Anti-Object Art.

One early NEA-supported "Anti-Object" project consisted of the reputed artist's dropping crepe-paper streamers from an airplane and filming them as they fell. As Michael Straight has suggested, this project was "no more bizarre than hundreds of others" the endowment has funded on the advice of its expert panels.

The Big Truth is that there are fundamental differences between "Anti-Object Art," wheelchairs, evening gowns, or "performance art," and a painting by Raphael, a play by Shakespeare, or Michelangelo's David. As long as the arts establishment tries to trick the public into thinking otherwise, the future of the arts in America will be in dire jeopardy, with or without the NEA.

© Copyright 1990 The Aristos Foundation Inc. [This version of the Detroit News op-ed piece was published in "What Art Is Online" (2000-2003).]

[See also "Blurring the Boundaries at the NEA," by Louis Torres.]