Slashing the NEA

Score another victory for immoral pop culture. The Republicans recently moved to send a few more customers the way of sex-crazed Hollywood, gangsta rapland and commercial hell in general. They did it by leaving intact a spending bill that cuts about 40 percent from the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was no great news flash: Devotees of the "Contract on America" have made much political hay out of their intent to pull the rug from federal support of the uncommercial arts. Indeed, bill was regarded as something of a "victory" for the (NEA) since right-wing congressional terrorists failed to cut an extra $10 million from its budget. But the message was clear: Let the games of slashing cultural support begin. As with all spending matters at this stage, it's hard to predict whether the treachery of the House will stand. The Senate has to concur and the president has to capitulate before this and other fits of rage become law. The Senate is both Republican and conservative, but these days it looks like a commune full of flower children next to the House. For every Jesse Helms or Phil Gramm, there is probably at least one Republican senator with a sign of brain activity and -- more important -- the Senate's rules of engagement give far more protection and influence to the minority party. Democrats and reasonable Republicans (no, that's not an oxymoron yet, although Rep. Jim Talent's masters are working on it) will manage to soften some of the cruder blows struck by the House. That, coupled with the likelihood of at least some presidential vetoes, makes it a little premature to treat House actions as a done deal. Still, that must be of little comfort to the NEA and its beneficiaries, who have been maligned and misrepresented so that the true believers could have some real mean witches to burn at the stake. Using a tiny handful of "OH LORD THEY'RE SPENDING OUR TAX DOLLARS TO MAKE ALL CHILDREN HOMOSEXUAL" horror-story fictions, the NEA opponents have succeeded in bludgeoning an agency that supports good and decent work which in turn would be supported by the vast majority of Americans if they were paying attention. The NEA provides a wide range of matching grants and other support for state art organizations and art institutions, as well as the dreaded artists themselves (not all of whom, contrary to religious right mythology, have devoted all of their work to the twin causes of pornography and blasphemy). One could argue that the NEA has left itself open to political attack by providing support for some artists (such as the late Robert Mapplethorpe) who are so far out on the cultural edge as to provide ideal sound-bites for its critics. But it is that very willingness to walk the political high wire that makes the agency -- and others like it -- important to American in the long run. And by no means is this larger concern limited to the NEA. The same opportunistic politicians who bemoan the alleged immorality of commercial pop culture are now trying to eliminate any public effort to support less-commercial alternatives. The large majority of government funding for the arts is aimed at reaching people -- especially, children -- who won't experience exposure to a symphony or an art museum or a dance performance if it's all left to market forces. Though the NEA is the far right's most popular target -- House opponents want it eliminated by 1998 -- similar attacks have been launched against such evil empires as the National Endowment For the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Last year, the entire federal government subsidy for the NEA and these three other organizations combined was barely $1 billion. (The NEA received a federal subsidy last year of $168 million). That's spare parts for one of the extra B-2 bombers that the morons of the House are appropriating beyond the wishes of the Pentagon. As for public radio and television, they will survive with diminished (or even eliminated) taxpayer support, but the more they must rely upon commercial support, the more they must emulate the ratings-driven commercial media that the religious crusaders so despise. And every extra dime they must raise from private charitable sources is coming, indirectly, from one of those nameless non-profits upon which Newt Gingrich and friends wish to place the burden of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless in America. Oh well. At least slashing culture is good for business, and being good for business is what these Republicans do best. Just ask Hollywood.

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