With the departure of John Frohnmayer as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, a splendid opportunity is at hand to review this embattled agency and to make needed changes. The opportunity must not be lost.
Frohnmayer had two problems: He took on an impossible job and he performed it ineptly. He managed equally to outrage the "art community," whatever that is, and to insult the taxpaying public.In an ideal world, Congress would vote to abolish the NEA altogether. Absent the General Welfare Clause, there is not a scintilla of constitutional justification for the agency's existence.
Less drastic reforms are attainable. It is time to turn off the faucet for individual grants. These have created the greatest controversy; they serve the fewest people; they are constitutionally indefensible.
Suspend the constitutional objections for a moment. The NEA and its companion agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, operate under a system that is grossly unfair. No fixed, definable standards govern the awards. The system is entirely subjective.
This is not true of other federal programs. Commodity loans are based upon bushels of corn. Food stamps, Pell grants and student loans depend upon measurable income. Veterans get hospital benefits as a matter of right. The children of families under a certain income get subsidized school lunches. In each instance the criteria are objectively measurable. All eligible applicants are treated alike.
Not at the NEA. Consider the grants that are given annually in the form of "fellowships for museum professionals." A woman in Richmond, Va., got $7,000 to complete a manuscript on Tuscan painting. A woman in Hartford, Conn., got $15,000 to support travel in Italy for a book on Domenico Ghirlandaio. A woman in St. Paul got $8,000 to travel to Stockholm to study textile conservation. Only 11 such grants were given. We may fairly assume that a hundred museum professionals applied, and we may further assume that every one of them would have dearly loved to spend a year in Italy.
The so-called "performance artists" have caused the greatest trouble. In a courteous letter accepting Frohnmayer's resignation, even President Bush was prompted to say that "some of the art funded by the NEA does not have my enthusiastic approval." Bush abhors unpleasantness. If he had wanted to score points, he could have cited specific grants for "art" that patently merits not one cent of the taxpayers' money.
Those of us in the media never have been able adequately to describe some of this stuff. No TV station will put "homoerotic art" on the screen; no family newspaper will quote some of the scripts and stories.
In addition to abolishing the individual grants, Congress should revive the standard of "patent indecency" that both House and Senate separately have approved. Some artists, but not all artists, will howl at the idea, but let them howl. If they ask, What is indecent? the answer is to ask, What is art? Let the complainants spurn the taxpayers' aid and compete for support in the private sector.
As a third step, the whole process of "peer review" must be revised. In theory the system operates without cronyism or special interest. In the real world, it is a different matter.
I wish devoutly that the government would get entirely out of the business of approving art and artists. This has been the Soviet way. Anyone who has attended an exhibition of Soviet painting must groan at the weight of the state's heavy hand. Bush was right to get rid of Frohn-mayer, but the dismissal scarcely matters. It is the program itself that is wrong.