Don't Say That Art Is Good for the Soul:
By Joan Altabe

Open letter to Michael Hammond, new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts:

If you want to persuade Congress that the Endowment needs more funding, don’t say that art is good for the soul. Lawmakers’ eyes may stir to anger, remembering Andre Serrano’s 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 agency’s funding and freedom to choose who gets what.

You’re 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 don’t necessarily transcend time, art of the past does—even 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 wouldn‘t 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. It’s not commonly known that this pope welcomed Jews expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition—even though he consented to the Inquisition. But most everyone knows that he commissioned Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings of the story of Creation. Hollywood even made a movie about the pope’s art funding.

Besides their egos, you might appeal to congressmen’s sense of reason. Remind them that when Alfonse D’Amato, 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 artist’s 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, don’t do what former NEA chair Jane Alexander did. Or rather didn’t do. As head of the Endowment, she should have raised the roof over the 40 percent cut of the agency’s 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. It’s 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 Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs.

Alexander should have reminded Helms that the gallery director who was tried for pandering obscenity by showing the Mapplethorpe photos in Cincinatti was acquitted—and 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 can’t buy a copy of Playboy, you can’t view an X-rated movie and you can’t 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 don’t-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 Mapplethorpe’s pictures and those of Serrano. You have to pound Congress’ fears into the ground. You have to talk about artistic freedom. Otherwise Hitler’s argument that governments should decide what art deserves to be seen will prevail.