letter to Michael Hammond, new chairman of the National
Endowment for the Arts:
you want to persuade Congress that the Endowment needs
more funding, dont say that art is good for the
soul. Lawmakers eyes may stir to anger, remembering
Andre Serranos photograph of a crucifix immersed
in urine. As you must know, the artwork led to Congress
decision to ban Endowment grants to artists who denigrate
religious beliefs. It also played a part in cutting the
agencys funding and freedom to choose who gets what.
Youre an educator, Mr. Hammond. Why not give the
lawmakers a lesson in art history? You can begin by telling
them that while laws enacted in times past dont
necessarily transcend time, art of the past doeseven
ancient and prehistoric art. Certainly the Shah Ismail
of Persia knew this in 1514 when he hid his favorite painter
in a cave before doing battle with the invading Turks.
He knew what every pope and king knew: that if their own
deeds wouldnt win them everlasting fame, they could
live on in the monuments they funded.
You can give as an example the story of Pope Sixtus IV.
Its not commonly known that this pope welcomed Jews
expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisitioneven
though he consented to the Inquisition. But most everyone
knows that he commissioned Michelangelos Sistine
Chapel ceiling paintings of the story of Creation. Hollywood
even made a movie about the popes art funding.
their egos, you might appeal to congressmens sense
of reason. Remind them that when Alfonse DAmato,
R-NY, became a self-professed arbiter of irreverence,
tagging the Serrano photograph blasphemous, a "bride
of Christ," British nun Sister Wendy, had no problem
with the photo. She said it was the artists way
of conveying sadness over the disregard of Christ. Ask
Congress who ought to be defining irreverence, a politician
or a nun who devotes her life to Christ.
Whatever you do, Mr. Hammond, dont do what former
NEA chair Jane Alexander did. Or rather didnt do.
As head of the Endowment, she should have raised the roof
over the 40 percent cut of the agencys budget and
worse, Congress threat to shut down the agency.
But she refused. In 1997, she said she didn't want to
raise hell and cause the agency to go down in flames.
But it was going down, anyway. Its been going down
since the religious right complained to Sen. Jess Helms,
R-N.C. that the country was spending tax money on projects
that were more pornography than art. Their favorite example
was Robert Mapplethorpes homoerotic photographs.
should have reminded Helms that the gallery director who
was tried for pandering obscenity by showing the Mapplethorpe
photos in Cincinatti was acquittedand by a jury
with little interest in art and big objections to homosexual
practices. Alexander also should have added that Cincinatti
is known as a porn-busting town where you cant buy
a copy of Playboy, you cant view an X-rated
movie and you cant patronize a topless bar or massage
parlor. Nonetheless, eight church-going men and women
from that city took only two hours to acquit the gallery
director after looking at the photographs for 10 days.
But Alexander only raised her hands in a dont-shoot
gesture, and delivered the same old message, which can
make even art enthusiasts bleary-eyed: every major country
in the world funds the arts; only a few NEA grants have
been controversial; many young artists have nowhere else
to turn. Blah, blah, blah.
You have to walk the knife-edge of danger, Mr. Hammond,
You have to talk about Mapplethorpes pictures and
those of Serrano. You have to pound Congress fears
into the ground. You have to talk about artistic freedom.
Otherwise Hitlers argument that governments should
decide what art deserves to be seen will prevail.