The Art of Politics
Category - Commentary
Written by Ruth Brister
Editor: Kellie A. Hanna

Does "art" in our society depend on the existence of the National Endowment of the Arts? Supporters of the NEA would have you believe so. In a recent commencement speech at Smith College in Massachusetts, Jane Alexander stated, "I spent four years trying to get a bunch of troglodytes in Congress to understand that cutting the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was like cutting out the best part of our brain." I consider myself to be a staunch patron of the arts, but Ms. Alexander has rashly overstated her case.

Most certainly the groups and individuals funded on a regular basis by the NEA felt a hard blow when their budget was cut 40% in 1996. Yet the House took one more step and voted to completely eliminate this small agency with a large budget.

The question of why arose to my mind. What business does the U.S. Government have in legislating "art?" Why have we convinced ourselves that every child born with a talent in the area of art will be deprived of their right to cultivate their skill if there is no longer an agency of the government to hand out money? Can you imagine Michelangelo applying for a grant to paint the Sistine Chapel? It probably would have been denied based on the law of Separation of Church and State.

Certainly the NEA has been supportive of work that would be considered offensive and labeled "art" on a questionable basis. The same bill that cut their budget, also included several guidelines. An example of such includes a restriction on awarding grants to individual artists that "depict or describe in a patently offensive way, sexual or excretory act or organs."

Without question these restrictions have and will be deemed unconstitutional. It is not beyond comprehension to call for a higher standard for the quality of projects that receive grants. That should be without question or need of legislation. The NEA is, in theory, set up to establish the standard of art in this country. Their goal should be to define and preserve our culture. Realistically these objectives could be achieved through private monies. This would certainly nullify any regulations that the federal government has set.

The NEA becoming a private entity may be the best occurrence that could take place. Especially when considering that in recent years they have gone from being an agency dedicated to upholding excellence, to one with political agendas and platforms. When art becomes a point of argument instead of a source of inspiration then it has ceased to be art.

You need only look back hundreds of years prior to the creation of the NEA to a day and time when art was always beautiful and least of all offensive. All of the NEA's budget to fund after school art programs could not create the skill of art by such masters as DiVinci, Degas, and Monet, just to name a few. What made these artists profound in their accomplishment was not under whom they studied, but what they felt as they created. It is a truth with strength beyond comprehension, and one cannot verbalize or even theologize it.

No doubt, there is a place for cultivating a skill that could only be acquired by birth. The very idea that children can not be taught appreciation of art without the NEA is ridiculous. We need only instruct them to see the bluest blue or the greenest green in a Monet, or draw their curiosity to the mirthful expression of the Mona Lisa.

When we look back at these and other masterpieces we should do so in an awe of silent respect. No dollar amount of federal funds can be placed upon them. The arts prospered long before the NEA. Likewise they will continue to prosper after it is gone.


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