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National Endowment for Smut

Guest Column Elaine Y. Wan

Naked on stage and covered with melted chocolate, artist Karen Finley performed a dramatization of the plight of women. Did you know that your tax money helped sponsor this performance? Aren't you proud? A bit of the hard-earned money that you made from working house desk, cleaning black boards, analyzing Western blots, or typing algorithms went to fund the confection coating of a woman.

In 1990, the National Endowment of the Arts denied funding to Ms. Finley and three other artists because NEA holds grants to a "general standard of decency." The four artists brought the case to two lower courts in California, arguing against the decency provision and the government's control over the freedom of speech. The Californian courts ruled in favor of the artists. This ruling paralleled another challenge to the decency provision after a huge public outcry over the NEA's subsidy of homoerotic images by Robert Mapplethorpe and an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix dipped in urine.

Can the government set standards to filter what art it will financially support? Should art that is considered indecent to many taxpayers be subsidized by federal grants through the NEA?

In July, the Supreme Court will rule on just this question. The justices claim they will not make any moral or artistic judgement but will decide if the artists rejected by the NEA were unfairly excluded from federal funding.

I support all artists in their crusade to express their views, opinions, feelings and impulses via any shape or form. But it is necessary for us, taxpayers, to take on the burden of funding art we do not find tasteful? I would be deeply dissatisfied if the government used our money to fund the production of what is deemed by society as lewd and indecent art. I am not an expert in art, but I do understand that there is a line between expressive art forms and revolting images.

The NEA was created to keep traditional art form alive. Its grants make possible amazing exhibits like the 1995 Vermeer exhibit in Washington. Every year, two billion dollars are allocated to the NEA to build and preserve vital national culture. Many conservatives on Capitol Hill have argued that major federal spending cutbacks mean the arts should be supported privately, not with tax money.

On the other hand, Hollywood stars like Alec Baldwin have led a campaign to preserve federal funding and advocate the goals of NEA. Supporters of his campaign argue that the government should take and continue the lead to ensure that we and our children will maintain "cultural intelligence, heightened sensitivity and our deepened collective sense of humanity." However, the internal decisions made by the NEA do not necessarily benefit diverse groups of artists. For instance, the Boston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, clearly not very diverse groups, are fairly well endowed compared to other art groups because they are well-connected with the NEA.

So why should we care about how artists do their art? Because it is our tax money being discussed here.

Those like Baldwin who protest against the decency provision expect Americans to support the NEA without having any say in its monetary distribution. They claim that federal funding "disseminates culture throughout the country." But the history of any government choices for the arts is not a very good one.

The research world is mostly funded today by the government. The National Institute of Health disburses billions of dollars in grants to research teams they feel are doing ground-breaking research. Special review groups read hundreds of proposals and decide how federal funding should be spent on various sciences. Why should art be an exception? Similar groups can be formed to review artwork. Although the history of government controlled operations is bleak, I feel that the trend can be altered. If any private organization or foundation can choose who to support for art funding, the NEA should be able to do so also.

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton reaffirmed his decision to fund art: "Our economy is measured in numbers and statistics, and it is very important. But the enduring worth of our nation lies in our shared values and our soaring spirit." The next time you visit the MFA, try to analyze whether you would want your tax money spent on the paintings you see.