Advocates of public support of the arts claim that the arts improve the overall quality of human life, stimulate economic growth, and confer on individuals and communities a host of other benefits and are, therefore, worthy of underwriting by government. Libertarians, in contrast, tend to oppose such support on the principle that the arts, like religion, are too much entwined with our deepest personal values. For most people, the subject is of little pressing concern. When contemporary work perceived as blasphemous, obscene, or otherwise politically charged is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), however, public outcry inevitably ensues. Often the question is also raised as to whether the work exhibited is, in fact, art. Most arts professionals today subscribe to the notion that anything can be considered art even if it makes no sense or is intended primarily as political or social protest. The importance of such matters is magnified when they relate to public support of the arts at the local level, through art education in our public schools.
In Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture, historian Michael Kammen notes that ambiguity of purpose and meaning in contemporary art is often deliberate, and that the ordinary person finds it troubling when not “utterly baffled” by it. He reports that, by the 1970s, new kinds of “art”—most notably conceptual art, installation art, and performance art—had attained such legitimacy that they became eligible for public funding. As a result, possibilities for “political provocation” dramatically increased, and artists began to create objects as art while clearly intending them as instruments of social criticism and political activism. Similarly, conservative cultural critic Lynne Munson has observed in Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance that, in the mid‐1960s, the idea that “anything could be art was on the rise” (although neither she nor Kammen cites or proposes a definition of the term art).
The NEA has contributed to that trend. The original legislation establishing it in 1965 eschewed a formal definition of art. Instead, it stipulated a list of diverse forms—including, but not limited to, the traditional fine arts, as well as industrial and fashion design, photography, and the “media arts” of film, radio, and TV. Further, to avoid the appearance of government control, the NEA has from its inception depended, in its decisions regarding grant awards, on the advice of peer panels consisting mainly of members of the arts community. Although the panel system was intended to ensure both artistic freedom and a maximum diversity of creative expression, it has resulted in a de facto entrenchment of avant‐gardism because the members of the arts community sought for the panels have tended to share the art world’s dominant assumptions. In the absence of a clear definition of art, much less of “artistic excellence” (a criterion stipulated in NEA legislation), NEA grants related to new work, particularly in the area of the visual and “media” arts, have often favored new forms scarcely recognizable as art to the ordinary person.
During the 1990s, the NEA was continually embroiled in controversy. At the start of the decade, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was placed on trial for pandering obscenity and child pornography in connection with The Perfect Moment—an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe for which the NEA had provided support. At issue were five photographs of men engaged in homoerotic acts (characterized as “sadomasochistic” by the exhibition’s curator) and two nude photographs of young children with their genitals exposed. All were certified as genuine works of art by experts who testified for the defense. Jurors were skeptical of such a claim, but were forced by the weight of testimony to conclude that the photographs met the legal requirement of possessing “serious artistic value.”
In succeeding years, public and congressional outcry over sexually and politically charged “performance art” by Karen Finley and others who had received NEA support further sullied the endowment’s reputation. Denial of additional grants to them led to litigation that eventually ended in a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the NEA. As a result of the protracted controversy, however, the NEA eventually abandoned its practice of making direct grants to individuals, instead channeling all its support through arts organizations, such as museums and theater companies.
Although the NEA’s slogan is “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art,” and its public face is largely defined by such high‐minded national initiatives as “Shakespeare in American Communities,” political and social activism barely disguised as art continues to receive support. Although not discernible from grant descriptions on the NEA’s Web site, such activism is evident from information on Web sites of the grant recipients. A 2007 grant in the category “Access to Artistic Excellence” in “Visual Arts,” for example, was awarded to an organization with the innocuous name “Art in General.” The grant was for a project in which two individuals critical of U.S. policy regarding the terrorist detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, traveled across the country in a van, conducting interviews and holding public discussions on security and terror, citizenship and statelessness, and human rights. A grant in “Media Arts” for that year was for a short film titled Twisted Truth, produced by 10 teenagers “confronting some of the deeper issues surrounding the root causes of migration” in light of the national debate on immigration reform. NEA grants have supported numerous documentary films and other projects dealing with a wide spectrum of controversial topics, ranging from the death penalty to ecology. Regardless of whether such undertakings have any artistic or even informational value, they highlight a major libertarian concern—namely, that taxpayers who do not subscribe to their messages are nonetheless forced to support them.
A neglected area in studies relating to public support of the arts is art education in the public schools, which has long been influenced by avant‐garde views. In 1990, for example, under the auspices of a program called Artists in the Schools, partly supported by the NEA, elementary classes in Portland, Oregon, were engaged in discussions about the meaning of art by a visiting professor. Regarding the lesson learned, one fifth grader wrote in a note to her mentor: “Art can be anything in the world. Anything is art. Thanks for coming to teach us about art.” More recently, a little‐known movement called “social justice art education,” led by prominent scholars in the National Art Education Association (an organization whose members generally promote federal support of the arts and art education), explicitly advocates “political engagement and dialogue” in K–12 art classrooms. The implications of such activism are doubly urgent for libertarians, who not only oppose public support of the arts, but also seek to replace the present educational system with independent private schools. If anything can be art, and if art can receive public funding, then anything—including political indoctrination—can receive public funding under the guise of art education. This notion is clearly unacceptable to libertarians. It is also doubtless unacceptable to parents of whatever political stripe who expect that in their children’s art classes they will be taught just that.
Benedict, Stephen, ed. Public Money and the Muse: Essays on Government Funding for the Arts. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.