Death Panel for the Arts: Final Part

What happened during this nine-year battle is the interesting.  The NEA from 1982 to 1995 was granting individual artists in six different fields, “Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking/Drawing/Artist Books, Photography, Crafts, and Conceptual/ Performance/ New Genres.” (Dowley, p128)  But Congress, in upheaval from Mapplethorpe and Serrano eliminated funding for all visual and performance artists in 1995.  Section 328(1) of Public Law 104-134 was ratified on April 26, 1996 and requires the Chairperson of the NEA to only award grants to individuals for a literature fellowship, National Heritage Fellowship, or American Jazz Maters Fellowship.

By the time the Supreme Court killed arts funding in the name of decency and respect, Congress had already gotten to it, gutting the NEA’s ability to even support individual artists like Rivera, Pollock, and Warhol.  These were the Culture Wars, and unfortunately the Conservative Right(eous) was victorious.  But there is light at the end of the tunnel for the NEA.  Rocco Landesman has publically entertained the idea of reinstating the individual artist grants for the areas that were eliminated.  This is incredibly important to the debate of whether or not the government has the right to fund individual artists or even the gumption to face a political firestorm.

Art is expression that by definition is speech.  Indecent and disrespectful art is still art.  Indecent and disrespectful expression is still expression.  Most importantly indecent and disrespectful speech is still speech – a protected right of the First Amendment.  The message may make a general public uncomfortable, but that is the goal of art, expression, and by extension the speech of art.  A cognitive message about the human condition displayed by movement, paint, clay, performance, sound, etc.  And if the Court believes that the symphony orchestra cannot produce something indecent and disrespectful – which they argued vehemently – they need only to look at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Penderecki’s to the Victims of Hiroshima.

Government does not have the right to decide on arts funding, but if government continues to support the artistic and creative endeavors of its citizens (as it should) then as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it should be within the most obvious limits.  These limits simply boil down to one deciding factor: good art versus bad art.  The merit of the art is the only thing that should be judged by the NEA in regards to funding.  The Courts do not have the right to infringe upon the artist undertakings of private citizens, even if the government is funding the project.

The government is not a patron, it does not purchase the works funded by the NEA, therefore; as a sovereign, it has no right to discriminate based on content.  The rebuttal to this is merit based judgment is a form of content discrimination.  Merit or artistic excellence is a qualifier expected and required by the analyzing eyes of the American public, and any person regardless of their background and beliefs can identify good art.  Decency and respect are far different, just as one person may find something offensive, another may find it to be part of their everyday lives.  There is standard for decency and respect in the United States but there is a standard for artistic excellence.

As it stands now, artists and arts organizations are tailoring their message and art to the NEA standards.  Their art is compromised thanks to the Supreme Court and Congress.  For two decades now, art the NEA is funding has become increasingly safe, with the NEA favoring organizations over the individual.  Coupling funding for organizations and fear of the decency and respect clause with the constant threat of reduced funding or even abolishment of the NEA has made the NEA wary of any art that could cause a political backlash.  The National Endowment for the Arts is censoring its citizens out of fear and political pressure, which is causing a breakdown in the progression of American artistic output.

The Supreme Court erred in judgment on July 25, 1998.  Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor, Scalia, Thomas, Beyer, Stevens, and Roberts were wrong.  Their order has caused an unprecedented time of stunted cultural growth and artistic freedom in the United States.  Without the funding of the NEA, artists like Findley and Serrano are considered fringe and without merit, even when their message is deeply important to the cultural fabric of the country.  Justice Souter understood this, and with a firm First Amendment argument reasoned in the favor of freedom of art and expression, something the other Justices could not bring themselves to do.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  By denying funding based on unfounded and prejudicial principles, the Supreme Court and Congress have denied Finley and all other artists like her from pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.  In extension, they have denied the audiences of these artists from pursuing their own life, liberty, and happiness.  The government decided on July 25, 1998 to end cultural debate in the United States by instituting death panels to kill the arts.

“I love people and I don’t like to see anyone hurting people. I don’t like that. I just don’t have any time for people who don’t work out of love. I mean I work out of love or joy for humankind, mankind, womankind, and when I see that stopping I don’t have a problem with telling people that they’re wrong. I do believe there’s like an element of a hate or an evil going on. And you know, NO, you can’t do that….” (CJ, Finley Interview)

            -Karen Finley, on her art.

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