Famous for his longtime support of conservative causes like the National Rifle Assn., Charlton Heston played against public perceptions Tuesday when he appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee to support a prime budgetary target of Congress' new Republican majority, the National Endowment for the Arts.
After first saluting the Republican representatives for winning last November, he proceeded to quote Shakespeare to them, and then made an ardent pitch for the survival of the agency, which House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in particular, has targeted for extinction.
"I have an attachment to the NEA that some people would say blurs my vision," Heston said in an interview Thursday at his Coldwater Canyon home. "But I have been active in a lot of stuff, the civil rights movement for instance, before it got popular out here. And I'm very proud of that. A lot of the stuff I do is a good way of contributing, and I know how to do it."
Being an arts advocate is a role the actor has grown comfortable with in the 29 years since he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the NEA's executive body, the National Council on the Arts, a position Heston credits with providing him with particular insight into the NEA's current struggles. With subsequent stints as chairman of the American Film Institute and president of the Center Theatre Group at the Music Center, Heston has long been an outspoken supporter of government funding for the arts, a role that many have credited with preserving the NEA's current structure when he co-chaired Ronald Reagan's Presidential Task Force on the Arts in 1981.
While proud of those past victories, Heston is quick to point out the recent shift in Washington's political climate and the impact it will have on the NEA's future.
"There's a Republican majority now, and they are determined to move their agenda," Heston said. "And as I said to the subcommittee and to the people at the NEA, if you're going to cut veterans' affairs, and agriculture, and welfare, you're sure enough going to cut the arts. But my position, which I think is the only position to have, is to leave the structure of the (the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities) in place with minimum funding."
Attacks on the NEA and the NEH have been ongoing by conservatives for years, but have become more heated in recent months since Gingrich, as well as former NEH chairwoman Lynne V. Cheney and William Bennett have called for its elimination, the latter claiming that the humanities endowment had become too corrupt to be salvaged. The fierceness of these attacks have led some to question whether conservatives are threatening the endowment and its relatively small budget for ideological, rather than budgetary, concerns.
"I don't think there is anything like a vendetta, and God knows if there was I would know it," said Heston, noting that both of the endowments have made some "terrible blunders," including the funding of the now-legendary Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition whose work some considered obscene. In addition, Heston agreed with critics' claims that some NEA grant panelists have put individual interests above the good of the endowment.
"There's something to be said (for Bennett's remarks), that it has gotten to be much more money than was envisioned at first. The whole thrust of government now is less. Less government, less money. Don't do so many things. There's a strong case to be made for that, and I agree with it myself."
Heston served as one of three chairs of the National Council on the Arts from 1966-72, a time when the NEA's budget was $14 million--it is currently $167 million, and the NEH budget is $177 million. Heston says a lot can still be accomplished with a reduction in the NEA budget, including a renewed emphasis on institutional, as opposed to individual, funding.
"If a painter asks for a grant so he can do a series of paintings above all the vistas along Mulholland Drive, he would have to borrow the money, or someone else might give it to him," Heston said. "But painters have asked people to give them money for centuries. That's what happened to Michelangelo. But if you're talking about a museum or an orchestra, they can't do it without money from somewhere. Those things have never been financially successful."
At the hearings, Heston quoted from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and toasted regional theater as one of the "spectacular successes" of the NEA. Whatever the endowment's future, the actor said that the chance to have his opinion heard was well worth the effort.
"Anybody has the right to shoot his mouth off in this country, but I can do it and (a reporter) will come out and ask me questions about it," he said. "But to get to speak in a chamber of Congress? It's quite a feeling to sit in those rooms and to think most of the things of significance that have happened in this country happened there. It's kind of neat."