Nix National Endowment for Arts - Why Not?

Nix National Endowment for Arts - Why Not?
I am an advocate of freedom of expression in the arts - but to a degree. The age-old question of 'what is art?' comes to the forefront. Do we need the NEA? I’ll discuss its rocky past and possible demise.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was established in 1965 by then President Lyndon Johnson. Their mission: "dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education."

The first recipient of the NEA’s grant was the American Ballet Theatre. They were awarded $100,000.

Across the Atlantic, at the end of the 19thc, certain French artists raised eyebrows with their subject matter: Degas’ voyeurism of bathers and ballet dancers, Toulouse Lautrec’s dancers at the Moulin Rouge, to name a few.

Until 1881 the French government sponsored a juried salon of prominent artists. Many of the Impressionist artists were rejected or their work was poorly displayed.

To what end do we, as a society push the envelope without requiring censorship?

In 1981, incoming president Ronald Regan proposed cutting the NEA’s budget ($158.8 million), but his conservative allies recommended continuing the federal support of the arts program.

In the US, 128,000 grants were awarded by the NEA from 1965-2008 – totaling $5 billion.

In 1989, controversy would cloud the NEA due to two photographers: Robert Mapplethorpe and Andreas Serrano.

Let me say that I once viewed a Mapplethorpe exhibit (however briefly) at the Guggenheim in NYC. Perhaps it was the pure shock value of his male nudes, but oh my, look at what he’s done to the calla lily.
(In 1992, the Guggenheim Museum acquired 200 of Mapplethorpe’s best photographs.)

During 1989, the NEA granted $30,000 for a Mapplethorpe exhibit, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" which was to tour the US. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Philadelphia was one of the first venues. It went without a hitch.

There began a public outcry over the government program and its spending, and questioning the artistic value of Mapplethorpe’s photographs vs the content seen as obscene and offensive (to some).

Washington DC’s [then] Corcoran Gallery of Art (closed in 2014) had agreed to exhibit the artist’s works before his death. The show was cancelled due to vehement protest and the museum director eventually resigned.

As for the photographer Andreas Serrano, his photo "Piss Christ" was that of a plastic crucifix in a vial of (his) bodily fluids. Yes folks, the US public paid for this too.

It would appear one reason these works were given monetary awards is for political reasons.

I think the American public, as well as the current Trump administration, are simply tired of financing unnecessary departments of the government.

In that vein, I ask, "Should we nix the NEA?" I say, "Why not?"

You can own the book "Robert Mapplethorpe: Flowers," by author Patti Smith. Available here from


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