Here we go again with the plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting!
Republicans have been bent on demolishing these agencies since the first year of the Reagan administration. Because lots of this funding went to institutions and individuals across the country, the effort went nowhere.
But in the late ‘80s, the GOP tried again, spurred by pressure from the emergent religious right wing. It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when the GOP was not synonymous with the modern equivalent of the flat earth society. But in the culture wars of that time, the religious right — I think we can just call them the right — rose to power by attacking public funding for arts.
This time, though, the right didn’t try to attack the arts in general; they went after specific types of expression. Feeding on the anxiety unleashed by the AIDS epidemic, the critics focused on art work by and about marginalized peoples and their bodies. Targets included Andre Serrano’s aestheticized photos of religious icons and body fluids, Robert Mapplethrope’s portrayals of interracial homoeroticism, on artists and writers responding to the devastation of AIDS and the callous response of the government. I was one of the dozens of artists targeted as one of the four performance artists whose funding was revoked under political pressure.
Though this group came to be known as “The NEA Four,” we were originally labeled Karen Finley and the three homosexuals, a label that was more accurate. Three of us were gay, two openly so, and the poignant feminist rage of Karen Finley rendered her queer as well. At issue was never the work itself, though I doubt that the late Sen. Jesse Helms would have liked it, but our sexuality and gender expression. Before yanking my funding, the chair of the NEA described my work in one sentence: “Holly Hughes is a lesbian and her work is heavily of that genre.”
Twenty-seven years ago, I was very active in trying to defend the NEA; the media kept offering a platform, I felt it was my responsibility to step up. It didn’t go well; a broader debate about the value of arts funding, not to mention the entire domestic budget, kept turning into a referendum on the work of a few artists. I was asked to speak in terms of personal harm, to play such an appealing victim of censorship that I could melt the hearts of those who wanted to quarantine all LGBT people. I was never given enough time to put my story in a larger context — such as the destruction of the New Deal and Great Society safety net, or even other censorship battles around parental advisory stickers on hip hop albums or the suppression of life saving information about safer sex.
It didn’t go well! I failed. The NEA survived, but the budget was slashed and most of the funding for individual artists went away. Or I should say we all failed. There were some other voices speaking out as advocates for the arts but they tended to present culture as in this uncomplicated valentine of American exceptionalism; Mom, apple pie, the flag and modern art. It felt false, elitist and unconvincing.
So much has changed, but the defense of the NEA et al sounds so much the same.
The right is not carrying on about the works of late David Wojnarowicz or Marlon Riggs; but the champions of NEA funding are making many of the same arguments they made in 1990. Heartfelt statements about the transcendent power of the arts and humanities, of the centrality of expression to the human experience across time and cultures. Examples of the power of the arts are cited, usually canonical masterpieces or workshops for children.
I can’t argue with any of that. But the elimination of the NEA plays well in huge parts of the country. It taps into the anti-intellectual and anti-elitism sentiments that brought us Donald Trump. And stop it with the statistics about how we only pay 63 cents per person, or that we spend less on the arts than some small country in Europe. These folks want that 63 cents, and they are happy to be the anti-Europe.
I also don’t buy the voices that claim the fight is peripheral. The budget proposals, along with Trump’s policies on immigration and travel celebrate cruelty and elevate greed. The harm enshrined within can’t be overstated. People’s lives are going to be upended. People are going to die.
Do we mean it when we say that art is central to the human experience? Then we must connect our arguments for the NEA to our opposition to these other policies. It’s lovely to spend an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but if we can’t locate the value of that experience in some relationship our defense of public health care and public education; and our larger ideals such as our support for open borders, for our desire to foster social justice in a diverse society, our art habits seem like escapist luxuries.
These arguments are hard to make. I tried and failed. The case for the NEA is not only the case for the NEA, or if it is, we are going to fail. The case doesn’t lend itself to sound bites. It needs to be more than the list of abstractions I gave you above. The argument has to be artful, doing what art can, fueled by empathy, grounded in experience but charged with imagination, an argument for the arts must build these connections, raise the questions, and can possibly provide a larger blueprint for a broad opposition to the entire Trump agenda.