Maybe If They Funded Willie Nelson?

U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft's attempted assassination of the National Endowment for the Arts was thwarted on the Senate floor last month. But the Missouri Republican's rhetorical imagery might have won an NEA grant itself, as an experiment in subjective logic.Ashcroft waved rural, blue-collar, good-enough-for-Mark-Twain flags at what he considers the elitist bull of federally subsidized art. He defined federal tax revenue as "the hard-earned resources of American citizens, people who get up early, work hard all day, go home late seeking to help their families." And he placed himself squarely among the fictive masses: "I tend not to be an individual who has invested a great deal of my life in the opera ... Those of us that drive our pickups to (Willie Nelson and Garth Brooks) concerts don't get a subsidy."Ashcroft said that 84 percent of art-museum audiences have attended college and only 7 percent are blue-collar workers, then said subsidies are for things the public won't pay for, and the public won't pay for things that are not as good. Are we to assume that, if Rembrandt had done a better job, more blue-collar workers would go to see his canvases? And whoever said college graduates automatically comprise the moneyed elite? Or that compulsive museumgoers are the NEA's only beneficiaries? Or that government should ignore those aspects of life made desirable by higher education?Next Ashcroft used the relatively tiny amount of the NEA endowment -- suggestively symbolized by a "small yellow wedge" in his pie-chart of government spending -- to argue for cutting it entirely. Later, however, he complained about the "hundreds of thousands -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted" on NEA projects. He did offer a welcome, if little-known fact: "Median household income for artists is up. It exceeds the income for the rest of the labor force." Then he turned to ideology, picturing the NEA as "a contaminant" sullying artists' freedom by favoring politically correct projects. (If Andres Serrano hadn't received that subversive NEA grant, he would have created a purer vision than "Piss Christ"?)By emphasizing diversity, NEA funding is "specifically designed to separate us from one another," Ashcroft complained. Shrugging into the ill-fitting garments of a liberal, he said "Government should not be favoring one kind of speech or one kind of expression over another." He even quoted John F. Kennedy on the artist standing "against the intrusive society and the officious State."But he also quoted playwright Tony Kushner's remark about using art "to punish Republicans." "I don't think anybody on any side of the aisle should want a government subsidy that goes to people who say one of the purposes of art is to punish any political party," Ashcroft snapped. "Incidentally, there is a list of things here of similar sorts of grants, the kinds of things that I don't think any of us would really want to support." Later, he said Government did not need to be subsidizing literature that would "pull the spiritual underpinnings of America from beneath us."So Much for Freedom of Expression.The Senator from Missouri offered two examples to his colleagues, the first an experimental one-word poem, "L-I-G-H-G-H-T," dredged from a 1968 anthology. "I was not extremely well educated," he bragged. "I went to the public schools, and, frankly, I have to confess I did not see that this was great art."Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-Iowa) rose and wearily reminded Ashcroft that Congressman Bill Scherle had gone after the NEA in 1974 for the same poem. Furthermore, the poem netted its writer $500, Harkin added, not the $1,500 Ashcroft was tossing about. But Ashcroft was already busy lauding the unfunded Mark Twain and the poet Robert Frost, "who, without subsidy from the Government, wrote eloquently:Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by.'" Ashcroft also laboriously quoted "an artistic statement that came before the onset of the NEA": "A rose is nothing but a rose no matter what you call it, and by any other name, it is still a rose." Nostalgic McCarthyism streaked through his rhetoric, which ominously linked "centralized" arts funding with Soviet Communism. When Harkin tried to tug Ashcroft into present tense by mentioning NEA-funded writers such as John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor, Jane Smiley, Ashcroft simply retorted that they would have been great artists anyway. Perhaps, Harkin agreed, but how many more could have been great writers and poets if their talents were nourished?As his current example of NEA waste, Ashcroft flourished a copy of Blood of Mugwump, a lurid novel printed last year by a small press that received NEA funds to promote minority writers. The book featured "a clan of Catholic, gender-shifting vampires who get infections, viruses, by reading prayer books," Ashcroft said. "The virus comes in through the eyes. I really cannot imagine this is the kind of thing we want to suggest to the American people." So much for his earlier assertion that when a government "promotes morality, it undermines the very foundation and underpinnings of a culture."The final roll call vote for Ashcroft's amendment to kill the NEA: 23 Yeas, including Ashcroft's buddy Sen. Jesse Helms, who raced over from what he described as a "long-winded" meeting on China -- and 77 resounding Nays.

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