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Louis Untermeyer

Should the NEA be Abolished?

“I’m a loser! I’m a [expletive deleted] loser!” Karen Finley wailed from an off-Broadway theater stage in Manhattan. She continued: “Will having a career in the arts now mean that you have to come from money or create propaganda to support the state, or be a white straight man?”

After claiming to have been “sexually abused on the Senate floor” by North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms (“he eroticized my career, my work, my livelihood. I’m an abused woman on the job. As a federal employee, he harassed me”), Finley performed her now-infamous routine – she smeared chocolate all over her naked body and invited audience members, for a small $20 fee, to lick it off. In case you’re wondering, the chocolate represents excrement, which represents the oppression of women (Veith 1998).

Why is Ms. Finley so upset? Mere hours before, the Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that the National Endowment for the Arts could legally deny Ms. Finley and three other artists a grant because they failed to follow “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” (Veith 1998).

The NEA applauded the ruling. “Today’s decision,” said Chairman William Ivey, “is an endorsement of the Endowment’s mission to nurture the excellence, vitality and diversity of the arts and a reaffirmation of the agency’s discretion in funding the highest quality art in America. We anticipate that the Court’s ruling will not affect our day-to-day operations” (NEA 1998).

Others in the arts community weren’t so thrilled. James Levin, founder and artistic director of the Cleveland Public Theater, warned of “a dangerous move toward fundamentalism.” Ben Cameron, executive director of the New York-based Theater Communications Group, worried that the ruling “has the potential of having a chilling effect on art and sending a message that may influence artists.” Bonnie Brooks, former director of Dance/USA, frets of more government regulation in the arts. “The camel’s nose is under the tent” (Lawrence 1998).

These criticisms miss an obvious point. The camel’s nose is under the tent because the camel (the federal government) is subsidizing art. The American public expects its elected representatives to spend its tax money wisely and responsibly (whether this happens is open to debate). This results in congressional oversight over spending programs. In other words, whatever Congress subsidizes, it controls. If the government got out of the arts business, its nose would be safely out of the tent.

About the NEA

President Lyndon Johnson established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 when he signed the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act (Knight 1991). The NEA’s budget was $2.5 million and it had fewer than twelve employees (NEA 1998). Its purpose was to “foster the excellence, diversity, and vitality of the arts in the United States, and to broaden public access to the arts” (NEA 1998). Since then, the NEA has awarded over 111,00 grants and spent over $2.5 billion (NEA 1998). It supports a wide variety of institutions and activities, including but certainly not limited to:

  • Music, theater, and film festivals

  • Symphonies and orchestras

  • Museum exhibits

  • Dance companies

The NEA is comprised of a Chairman and the National Council on the Arts. The Council reviews grant applications and makes its recommendations to the Chairman, who makes the final decision. The Chairman and Council members are all presidential appointees subject to approval by the Senate, and by law must be knowledgeable and influential members of the arts community (NEA 1998).

Is the NEA constitutional?

Any debate over a government program should address its constitutionality, although, admittedly, this rarely happens anymore.

The Constitution describes the duties of Congress in what is called the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers. The duties include laying and collecting taxes, coining money, raising an army, and “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

This is the only place where art is mentioned in the Constitution. Strictly speaking, then, Congress’ role in the arts is restricted to issuing patents. Establishing an arts endowment is not a valid constitutional duty.

NEA supporters get around this by citing the General Welfare clause (Ivins 1995). Located just before the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers, it reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”

This implies that Congress may spend money on whatever it pleases so long as it is in the “general welfare.” Since art is regarded as beneficial to most, if not all, Americans, the NEA could be seen to provide for the general welfare.

What appears to be a contradiction between the General Welfare clause and the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers disappears upon examination of the historical record. In 1792, President Madison, in response to a proposed bill that would pay a bounty to fishermen at Cape Cod and provide subsidies to some farmers, declared that:

if Congress can apply money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the cause of religion into their own hands; they may establish teachers in every state, county and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children… In short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation, down to the most minute object of policy, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I have mentioned would admit the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare (Nilsson 1961).

In 1822, President James Monroe, in vetoing a bill maintaining the Cumberland Road, asked “Have Congress a right to raise and appropriate the money to any and to every purpose according to their will and pleasure? They certainly have not” (Carson 1983).

If the General Welfare clause doesn’t give Congress unlimited power, then why did the Founders write it into the Constitution? Thomas Jefferson answered this in a letter to Albert Gallatin in 1817:

Whereas our tenet ever was… that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but was restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it as never meant that they should provide for that welfare but the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have meant that they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action…” (Nilsson 1961).

In other words, the Doctrine of Enumerated Powers was the means by which Congress could provide for the general welfare.

Is the NEA democratic?

There would be very few government programs left if they all required explicit Constitutional justification for their existence, though, so a deeper question must be asked: Does the NEA abide by the principles and ideals of democratic, representative government?

Prior to 1996, the NEA accepted between 16,000 to 17,000 applications annually (NEA 1998). However, due to a limited budget, a common feature of all government programs, the endowment could afford to grant between 3,000 to 5,000 requests. As of 1991, on average, the NEA approved 4,400 requests annually (Knight 1991). After budget cuts in 1996, the NEA now accepts only 3,000 to 4,000 applications per year. This year (1998), the NEA has earmarked a little over $81 million for grants, out of a total budget of $98 million (NEA 1998).

It is clear that the NEA lacks sufficient resources to fulfill every need, or even most needs. This places the NEA in the position of deciding what is “worthy” or “legitimate” art and what is not.

The result is that the NEA functions as a “seal of approval” by awarding grants, which labels work produced by non-grant recipients as unworthy or illegitimate.

The NEA and its supporters cite this “seal of approval” to further justify the NEA’s existence. Former chairwoman Jane Alexander said that “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money” (Boaz 1995). NEA supporter Robert Brustein asks, “How could the NEA be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” (Boaz 1995) According to Karen Gilmore, Capital Campaign and Grants Officer for the Phoenix Arts Museum, “Having the NEA is sort of a stamp of approval. Other foundations, organizations, and some individuals view that this organization has a quality product to offer” (Interview). Josh Dare, publicist for the NEA, has said that “when a federally funded assembled panel of experts has met and declared your company or museum one of the best in the country (by awarding a grant), that means something” (LaFave 1995). Bonnie Ward Simon, administrator of the Washington Chamber Symphony, said that receiving a NEA grant is “like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” (Will 1995). A NEA grant also “helps establish a group’s credibility” and “unlocks doors to private dollars” (Editorial 1995).

This is, needless to say, an awesome responsibility, one that allows the NEA to wield massive influence in the arts community (forget the camel’s nose; the whole animal is in the tent now).

As David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, remarked, “Defenders of art funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups.”

It seems unwise in a democratic society, in which the power supposedly resides in the people, for a single, centralized government agency to make such powerful determinations. In a free society, the people would determine what is good art, not the government.

There are other problems with the NEA. Many times, funding decisions aren’t based on the merits (or needs) of the applicant. According to Gilmore, there is “nothing objective” about the grant application process (Interview). It’s all “very subjective,” she says, and depends “on the year that you apply, [or] the panel member” (Interview). Critics have also accused the NEA of conflicts of interest, since many Council members, nearly all of whom work actively in the arts, appear on the grantee list shortly after they’ve left the NEA (Knight 1991).

There is no question that these “stamps of approval” and “unlocked doors” are very beneficial to the organizations that receive grants. However, what one commentator called this “de facto system of government-approved culture” (Will 1995) is directly at odds with democratic principles. While it confers an unfair advantage to those select and few organizations which receive grants, it effectively discriminates against the vast majority of unfunded organizations by attaching a stigma of undeserving and inferior art.

Is the NEA necessary?

Some have claimed that funding for the NEA is justified because art “enhances the nation’s quality of life” (Weisberg 1995). To carry this argument to its logical extent, anything that “enhances” our quality of life deserves government funding. It also implies that the American people, if left to themselves to spend their money as they see fit, wouldn’t have the good sense to fund activities that enhance their own lives.

Other supporters simply claim that the NEA is justified because America “likes” or “loves” the arts (Pollitt 1997, Wolcott 1998). America also loves bubble gum, baseball, and Beanie Babies, but nobody suggests that the government fund them.

Jane Alexander, former chairwoman of the NEA, claimed that “When we neglect the life of the spirit, we tempt fate to give us spiritless children” (Staff 1995). She also pronounced that art helps us to “ignite our spiritual core” (Alexander 1996). While this may be true, it is highly questionable if spiritual ignition or the “life of the spirit” are proper concerns of government.

Virtually every major arts organization in the country receives NEA money (Knight 1991). Most of these, such as the Phoenix Art Museum, would get along fine without NEA grants. For organizations such as the Phoenix Symphony or Heard Museum NEA grants may help to keep the price of tickets affordable (Editorial 1995). But this hardly seems fair. As Boaz explains:

“Take a typical American taxpayer. She’s on her feet eight hours a day selling blue jeans at Wal-Mart. She serves spaghetti twice a week because meat is expensive, and when she can scrape together a little extra she likes to hear Randy Travis or take her daughter to see Mariah Carey. Now what gives us the right to tax her so that lawyers and lobbyists can save a few bucks on Kennedy Center tickets?”

Supporters quickly point out that the NEA costs each taxpayer only 36 cents per year (NEA 1998). They miss the fact that this is essentially a moral issue: no one should be forced to pay for something that should be voluntary, such as the consumption (or production) of art, regardless of the amount.

Several organizations that receive NEA money really don’t need it, and their survival doesn’t hinge on the survival of the NEA. For example, The Metropolitan Opera Association, with an annual budget of $133 million, received an NEA grant of $350,000 for “development and production” in 1997 (Jarvik and Carbone 1997). Donald Baechler, who has had twenty-seven solo exhibitions around the world and sells “several hundred thousand” dollars of art every year, received a NEA grant of $15,000 in 1989. Says Baechler: “I paid about a quarter of my taxes with my NEA grant” (Payne, 1994). Placed in a different context, this would be called corporate welfare.

There are other, smaller organizations, though, which are heavily dependant on NEA grants and use them as the before-mentioned “stamps of approval” to attract private dollars.

There is no reason why a private endowment could not provide the same service. Some in the arts community have already proposed plans by which a private institution could be funded (Wills 1995, Brustein 1995). One plan would extend the payment of royalties from fifty years past the death of the artist to seventy-five years, with the proceeds in the intervening years going not the artist’s estate but rather to the private foundation. For example, “instead of paying gross receipts, say, to the O’Neill estate for the rights to The Iceman Cometh, a theater would send its check to the [privatized] NEA after the play entered the public domain” (Brustein 1995). This system would raise much more money for the arts than the NEA ever could, while performing the same services.

NEA supporters also claim that, if the Endowment were to go away, America would be the only developed country without a government arts program. However, many countries with such programs are autocratic if not totalitarian and use state-sponsored “official” art to oppress independent, private art. It is true that the relatively benign social democracies of Western Europe subsidize art, but as Jonathan Yardley points out, these countries “are accustomed to state influences (in religion as in the arts) that our ancestors crossed the ocean to escape.” Furthermore, they are small and homogenous, and can “reach consensus on certain matters that we, precisely because we cannot agree on them, prefer to keep out of the hands of government” (cited in Boaz 1995).

If artists are upset that the government is intruding into the arts and telling them what they can and cannot do, then further government involvement in the arts hardly seems like a tenable solution. To preserve the autonomy and independence of the arts, and to prevent the government’s nose from snooping into tents in which it doesn’t belong, the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished.


  1. Alexander, Jane. “Our Investment In Culture,” Vital Speeches of the Day, January 15, 1996.

  2. Boaz, David. “The Separation Of Art And State,” Speech at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, May 3, 1995.

  3. Brustein, Robert. “Another Way To Privatize The NEA,” The Arizona Republic, February 6, 1995.

  4. Carson, Clarence. “The General Welfare,” The Freeman, August, 1983.

  5. Editorial. “Arts Funding: It Makes Sense,” The Arizona Republic, February 1, 1995.

  6. Gilmore, Karen. Interview with the Author.

  7. Ivins, Molly. “Right-Wingers Target NEA Grants,” The Arizona Republic, February 1, 1995.

  8. Jarvik, Laurence and Leslie Carbone. “There They Go Again: The NEA Grants For 1997,” Insight, June, 1997.

  9. Knight, Robert. “The National Endowment For The Arts: Misusing Taxpayers’ Money,” Backgrounder, January 18, 1991.

  10. LaFave, Kenneth. “Culture Wars’ Next Battlefield: Arts Agencies On Firing Line In Funding Fight,” The Arizona Republic, January 22, 1995.

  11. Lawrence, Lee. “Arts Community Responds To Decision On Decency,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1998.

  12. National Endowment for the Arts. Web Site.

  13. Nilsson, George. “Not In The Constitution,” ABA Journal, January, 1961.

  14. Payne, James. “Where Have All The Dollars Gone? How The Government Robs Peter To Pay Him Back,” Reason, February, 1994.

  15. Pollitt, Katha. “Honk If You Like Art,” The Nation, August 11, 1997.

  16. Staff. “Jane Alexander: NEA Fosters Life Of The Spirit,” Sacramento Bee, October 24, 1995.

  17. Veith, Gene Edward. “NEA’s Chilling Effect Support The Arts: Abolish Federal Funding,” World Magazine, July 18, 1998.

  18. Weisberg, Jacob. “Bullwhips, Yes; Barney, No,” New York, February 6, 1995.

  19. Will, George. “Hysteria Colors NEA Debate,” The Arizona Republic, February 3, 1995.

  20. Wills, Robert. “It’s Time To Consider New Ways To Handle Funding For The Arts,” The Arizona Republic, February 22, 1995.

  21. Wolcott, Jennifer. “America Loves Its Arts,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 25, 1998.

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