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COLUMN RIGHT : High Clerics of Art Have Had Enough : Federal subsidies haven't resulted in masterpieces, just a drain on the Treasury.

May 21, 1990|BRUCE FEIN and EDWIN MEESE III | Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer in Washington, served as associate attorney general from 1981-82. Former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III is a distinguished fellow of the Heritage Foundation.

The National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished. During its 25-year life, NEA's billions in expenditures to subsidize the arts community would have yielded a higher return on the taxpayers' investment if they had been dedicated to the purchase of defaulted junk bonds.

The arts community should be embarrassed by its fortissimo howling and arpeggio braying for more federal taxpayer dollars. Where are the great artistic masterpieces that promise to live for the ages because of NEA financial midwifery? Have there been any NEA-funded artists who would do honor to Van Gogh, Picasso, Mozart, Rubens, Monet, Beethoven, Voltaire or Shakespeare? Are there any NEA-supported gems that have proven themselves in the artistic marketplace by commanding acrophobic prices at Southeby or Christie auctions? These questions are studiously eschewed by the arts community because the answers would be unflattering.

The arts community tacitly contends that the American public is too Philistine to recognize artistic virtuosity and to offer voluntary monetary support. Thus, it is condescendingly implied, NEA funds are required to overcome the artistic backwardness of the typical federal taxpayer that warps the working of the arts marketplace.

That arrogance echoes every special interest lobby in America clamoring for government protection against free consumer choice and free-market appraisals of their goods or services. It epitomizes cultural elitism that refuses to contemplate that what is wanting in America's art life is not an enlightened citizenry but better art. Are taxpayers to be scolded for failing to perceive the terpsichorean vulgarities of Annie Sprinkle as a species of the Bolshoi Ballet, or the photograph of a crucifix immersed in a vat of urine as a sister of Van Gogh's "Irises"?

Many artists toil in austere ateliers because their lives acquire rich meaning through artistic expression. They deserve community respect for the sincerity of their artistic convictions, to which their frugal circumstances testify. But what should be thought of an artist whose devotion is contingent on feasting off taxpayer dollars? He is like the high clerics during the Middle Ages who, after pledging poverty, chastity and obedience, demanded the rights to sell indulgences and ecclesiastical offices to support mistresses and military conquests. Genuine artists are made of sterner stuff.

NEA might be justified if its mission were transformed into a first cousin of education. Suppose all of its funds were earmarked to promote the display and understanding of acknowledged artistic accomplishment. That mission would advance the government goal of public tutelage to strengthen community reason and reflection, twin pillars of enlightened democracies. But, at present, such NEA expenditures would be extravagant.

Every surplus dollar is urgently needed to underwrite earthbound basic education. More than 25% of contemporary Americans are unaware that the Earth orbits the sun. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are abysmal. Occupants of high office routinely mistake the Declaration of Independence for the United States Constitution in official debate. Most college graduates would display bewilderment if asked to elaborate the differences between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, or to recount the contributions to America of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson or Langston Hughes.

In sum, federal taxpayer funding of arts education when the basic sinews of education are atrophying is like giving chocolate cheesecake to a community starving for protein nourishment.

Further, the strength, boldness and resiliency of the arts community as a critic of government and society is endangered by NEA funding. Human nature inclines most NEA grantees to feel a loyalty obligation to their paymaster--and their laudable role as independent commentators, observers and appraisers of American life suffers.

NEA's mad drilling for more than two decades to discover artistic genius has produced nothing but dry holes. Nothing in the geology of the arts community offers hope for a more auspicious NEA future. Chairman John Frohnmayer shows no glitter as a talent scout for fledgling genius. Hasn't the time come to declare NEA bankrupt and mercifully end the spoliation of the American taxpayer?

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