eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as other essential programs.
Arts funding has long been the bane of many a conservative politician's existence, and with the new majority in the House, some Republicans sense an opportunity to eliminate the federal agency once and for all. By eliminating the NEA from the budget under the guise of budget restraint, they hope to end funding for an agency that doesn’t regularly promote a conservative religious world view.
The NEA has historically been ahead of the curve on LGBT issues. By backing Robert Mapplethorpe’s Project X in the 1980s, which was decried for its homoerotic undertones, the NEA took a stand for artistic expression and the value that a queer perspective can bring to art. And thus began a long crusade by the right wing to curb artistic expression, in the name of family values. Sen. Jesse Helms authored amendments meant to curb any HIV/AIDS awareness and prevent funding for art that he considered “homoerotic” and “religiously offensive.” In the 1990s Rep. Peter Hoekstra decried Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman as an offensive waste of taxpayer money. Even today, LGBT-themed art makes conservatives uncomfortable.
America’s investment in the arts has been under attack for the better part of a century. When the Federal Theatre Project was a part of FDR’s New Deal, his political opponents worked tirelessly until it was dismantled. Artists have been blacklisted, plays and books have been banned, hearings have been held even since Hallie Flannagan was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee where one Congressman went so far as to question whether or not 16th century playwright Christopher Marlow was a communist. In the 1990s, Congress had epic battles with President Clinton over the NEA. And even in the recent stimulus bill, Sen. Tom Coburn included a provision that prohibited any arts organization from receiving stimulus funding. Conservatives simply don’t like arts funding, because the arts tend to be socially progressive.
The current budget for the NEA is $167.5 million (coincidentally, the same approximate amount as under Reagan’s last budget). That’s approximately 53 cents per person in the United States. Though opponents claim scuttling the agency is a way to reduce the national debt, which stands at over $14 trillion, the NEA’s budget is a drop in the bucket. The elimination of the NEA has as much, if not more, to do with conservative religious distrust of the arts than it has to do with the debt or deficit spending.
Arts funding is vital to society. Arts centers and projects create a sense of community, keep kids off the streets, allow people outlets to express their thoughts and even create jobs. And investing in these things are important for the well-being of society. When we think about past eras and cultures, we define them using the art they created: when we think of Ancient Greece, we think or architecture and theater; when we think of the Renaissance, we think of Italian painting; when we think of cave men, we think of wall paintings. Today, if the NEA were funding Michelangelo’s David, you can bet a conservative would object to the public funding of a nude male sculpture.
The NEA has supported the queer community and given voice to some of the most important queer artists. For a vibrant society, we must continue supporting this often neglected agency. Congress needs to know that we fully support the National Endowment for the Arts. Be sure to tell them that they need to find their budget cuts somewhere else.