Religious Right Goes After the National Endowment for the Arts, Again














It used to be that the mere mention of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would quickly draw fire from the right wing. 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. 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 more buzz-worthy issues (abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration), fighting funding for the NEA was no longer at the top of the right-wing agenda.

However, new concern over President Obama’s stimulus money is being used to again focus attention on the NEA. A July Fox News report pointed out that some money from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act earmarked for the NEA wound up stimulating a "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 [that] 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," it pointed out that a small portion of the funds went to support "pornographic" offerings. Fox pointed to "an adult horror film" shown at San Francisco’s Frameline Theater, which is a "gay-themed art cinema house that hosts an annual film festival," according to the Edge, a Boston, Massachusetts-based publication. The Edge noted, "the Frameline Theater was given $50,000 of stimulus money," a miniscule portion of the money meant to be distributed by the NEA.

According to the Edge, the Fox piece was unclear about "whether or not the money went toward any screenings of the ‘pornographic’ film …Thundercrack," which the article described as "the world’s only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla." In an e-mail, Frameline director K.C. Price wrote, "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 Fox News.

A third grant of $25,000 was given to Jess Curtis/Gravity, which is currently promoting a "Symmetry Project," described as: "Two naked bodies interact through a highly structured improvisational score, constricted in a specific physical habit; that of moving symmetrically, relative to themselves or to each other. In this space of temporary ‘habitus,’ the two bodies are constantly tuning, reformulating the perception of the self and of the other. In the sharing of a central axis, spine, mouth, genitals, face, and anus reveal their interconnectedness and centrality in embodied experience. Limbs entangle and intertwine creating an inter-corporeal kaleidoscope of flesh. A kind of uber-intimacy develops."

Fox reported that "more than 50 congressmen [sic] 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 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, for conservatives who had opposed any public funding for the arts—unless those funds were earmarked for a conservative legislator’s district—bashing the NEA became a lucrative cottage industry. Not a week would pass without 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 (AFA) that highlighted the NEA.

My favorite direct mail—sent by AFA—contained a small envelope tucked inside a larger envelope warning supporters to look inside at their own risk. The envelope contained a series of bad reproductions of Robert Mapplethorpe photos, which were part of "Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio series [that] sparked national attention in the early 1990s when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by [the NEA].… Conservative and religious organizations, such as the [AFA]… seized on this exhibition to vocally oppose government support for what they called ‘nothing more than the sensational presentation of potentially obscene material’" (Wikipedia).

Controversial artists who were 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 that may have received NEA funding were scrutinized. The New York Guardian reported that an art project about POW/ MIAs that dealt with U.S.-perpetrated atrocities in Vietnam had received NEA funding. The American Family Association criticized an NEA grant given to the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, which supposedly was used to help support three gay and lesbian film festivals.

Martin Mawyer, the head of the Christian Action Network, and a persistent critic of the NEA, greeted President Bill Clinton’s nomination of actress Jane Alexander to head the agency by saying, "We certainly don’t think someone who is beholden to the interests of Hollywood should be chairperson of the NEA." Alexander laid out her vision for the agency in remarks to the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. "I cannot promise that under my chairmanship the arts will be free of controversy. The very essence of art, after all, is to hold the mirror up to nature; the arts reflect the diversity and variety of human experience. We are, as Hamlet says, ‘the abstracts and brief chroniclers of the time,’ and as such, the artist often taps into the very issues of society that are most sensitive."

 
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.’" 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."

In the April 2001 issue of the AFA Journal, Wildmon commented on an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art involving photographer Renee Cox’s exhibit entitled "Yo Mama’s Last Supper," in which Cox portrayed Jesus Christ at the Last Supper as a naked woman. "Even if NEA funds are not specifically targeted for blasphemous art, the monies are fungible," Wildmon said. "That means, for example, they are placed in the Brooklyn Museum’s general fund, which then makes other dollars available to give to so-called artists like Cox. Taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for blasphemy."

"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, recently 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.’"

Acting NEA Chair Patrice Powell pointed out that, according to federal law, the money could only go for salary support for staff positions or fees for "previously engaged artists and/or contractual personnel that are critical to an organization’s artistic mission and in jeopardy of being eliminated as a result of the current economic climate."

Powell’s denial did not satisfy Stearns who responded by writing to incoming NEA Chair Rocco Landesman: "I still can find no justification for using tax dollars on these distasteful projects. Americans should not have their taxes go to organizations that produce or sponsor art projects that are hostile to their values." Landesman, a Broadway producer of Angels in America, Big River, and The Producers, was confirmed as the new NEA chair in early August. "It’s a daunting thing," Landesman said. "This historically has not been a great job…and the challenge will be to make it one and to really accomplish something."

The NEA currently receives about $190 million in annual funding. Arts groups around the country are due to receive some $50 million extra in stimulus money. However, with Congressperson Stearns clearly upset, and with Landesman at the helm, the battle over NEA funding could once again heat up.

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.