By David C. Mendoza

The skirmishes over specific artists, projects, and grants that we have experienced since 1990 were only the prelude to the music that we must face now--military bands, not New Music. Those attacks were aimed at destabilizing the cultural establishment and laying a minefield in its midst. Whether you capitalize "culture war" or not, and whether you like their military metaphor or not, the forces that launched it are now in power and can advance from random sniper shots to full-fledged battle.

Their objective is clear. The right--call it religious, Christian, radical, far, whatever--derides contemporary culture because it cannot abide its liberal underpinnings. Despite the marginalized status of artists and intellectuals in our society, the right correctly realizes that art and ideas are powerful symbols of a society and now they desperately want their artists and intellectuals to have center stage in academia, public radio and television, museums, theaters, media and popular culture, et al. Their solution: "privatize" the government agencies that support culture.

What exactly does "privatize" mean? The term, used by William Bennett and Newt Gingrich when asked about the future of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), can mean only one thing: end government support and eliminate the agencies that contribute to cultural programs. Without government support, the remainder of funding is private; private foundation and corporate grants, private individual donations, and members of the public buying memberships, tickets, and trinkets at museum gift shops.

The growth of public support for culture at the federal, state, and local level since 1960 has promoted an even greater growth in corporate and private support. Although it can be debated whether public funding was the sole impetus for increased private funding, there is no debate that the cultural landscape of the nation today is more diverse and dynamic--i.e., looks much more like America--than before there was public funding. This is the real achievement of public agencies like the NEA, and this is precisely why the right wants to reprivatize culture.

Those of us who recognize this achievement as progress rather than what the right characterizes as a slide into "multicultural mediocrity," celebrate the diversity of cultural expressions now available in every corner of America. The evolution of public arts funding coincided with the civil rights movements, and the right of cultural expression was a part of the prize. Before there was public funding, there was no El Teatro Campesino (San Francisco), Northwest Asian-American Theater (Seattle), Guadeloupe Cultural Arts Center (San Antonio), Dance Theater of Harlem, or Ballet Hispanico (New York City). There was no Next Wave or Off-Off Broadway, no modern dance boom, gay and lesbian film festivals, new music, or folk art revival. And there was no Corpus Christi Arts Council, Bronx Council on the Arts, Orange County Arts Alliance, Kentucky Arts Council, or Virgin Islands Council on the Arts. And Bill T. Jones, an African-American, openly gay, HIV-positive male dancer/choreographer was not on the cover of Newsweek and giving dance workshops in Wisconsin. Through one of their many successful language coups, the right has successfully trivialized and undermined the basic concept of multiculturalism, but there, my friends and taxpayers, is what it really is. This array of unabashedly multicultural arts programs was nurtured by your tax dollars, which, through government arts agencies and their systems of citizen peer panels, were awarded on the basis of artistic excellence and a respect for the diversity of the donors: the taxpayers.

By and large, almost everyone is a taxpayer, including non-citizens, and even some illegal immigrants. Contrary to current sound bites, taxpayers are not just the vocal minority who oppose how the NEA makes a few of its grants. The 86 people who buy tickets to see a performance artist in a small non-profit space in Minneapolis or Austin pay taxes, too, and can rightfully expect that if that artist or organization meets the standards of artistic merit as determined by the peer panels, then some of their tax pennies might be thrown back their way in the form of a grant to support the culture they choose to experience. Likewise, it is surely possible for each and every taxpayer (and their families) to find 68 cents worth (the amount of their tax bill that goes to the NEA) of art funded by the NEA they appreciate. This might include "Great Performances" or "American Playhouse" on PBS, books written by writers and published by non-profit presses, or recordings made by non-profit music groups, all funded in part by the NEA and available in virtually every congressional district of all 50 states and territories.

The right further proposes that eliminating public support is really only an end to "welfare for the rich." It is the thesis of George Will and others that "those who want culture can afford to pay for it themselves." Now the rich are also taxpayers, so they might rightfully expect to have some of their nickels and dimes support the art they enjoy, and Will is probably correct in suggesting that the wealthy will not do without the arts if the NEA is axed. However, from his privileged perch among the socio-economic elite, his arrogant classism is astounding. He implies that any folk who want to make or experience art can ante up their own dollars, find a Fortune 500 company and a foundation to give them grants, and if they can't raise enough to cover the costs, then set the tariff accordingly, and expect those who want to attend to pay the price. Right.

No matter what they name it or how they spin it, what they really want is to force many of us back into our respective closets and reestablish the cultural landscape of the 1950s. Such a culture coup is a prize trophy in their "battle for the soul of America." This would be accomplished with a return to private sector support, which they cynically know will not afford the diversity of expression we have begun to experience since 1960. This prize will not be won without resistance, and it is forming as you read this. Even the major arts institutions (and hopefully their corporate board members) are finally taking these guys seriously. Despite this analysis, my own view is they will not ultimately win at all. This battle represents the last desperate gasp of an old world order at the fin de siécle. Late 20th-century demographics, the civil rights achievements, and the impact of decades of cultural diversity, will not be erased and pushed back into any closet. However, things may certainly get worse before they get better, while they try to divert our tax dollars from supporting cultural pluralism toward building orphanages for the children of unwed teen mothers or reviving Star Wars.

In 1996, you may have an extra 68 cents in your pocket--maybe it will even be a whopping $3 if they manage to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as well as the NEA. You might send it to your local National Public Radio station during their fund drive or apply it toward a ticket to a performance or film festival, or a book of poetry. Or you could set it aside for postage stamps, phone calls, and faxes to members of Congress to tell them over and over and over that three dollars doesn't buy much culture, especially for low-income and middle-class families, and that saving every taxpayer three dollars will have an infinitesimal effect on the deficit.

A defense for the preservation of public support for culture does not preclude our efforts to hold agencies such as the NEA accountable to the Constitution and the First Amendment. These two efforts can and will be waged in tandem. Indeed, this accountability itself is a hallmark of public support, one that cannot be enforced on private foundations or corporations.

As we don our battle fatigues, let's at least be clear about what we are fighting for. The battles over culture with the 104th Congress will not be about reducing the deficit, not about ending welfare for the rich, and not about the largesse or responsibility of private philanthropy. These battles will be about the very first contracts with all Americans in all their hyphenated diversity: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. And, yes, these battles are indeed about values. The value of respect for individual and cultural diversity in a nation of native peoples and descendants of immigrants that is part of a world with a global economy and instantaneous communication. The value of intellectual freedom, critical thinking, and dissent in a world where fundamentalist militants and totalitarian regimes imprison and/or issue death threats against artists and assassinate journalists. The value of accepting the moral responsibility of caring for children, even if they aren't your own and even if you don't have any. The value of our environment apart from the profit to be made from its natural resources. These values may not be "traditional" for all individuals, families, or politicians. But these are socially redeeming values, and our society is, now more than ever, desperately in need of redemption.

David C. Mendoza is executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, based in Seattle, WA, and Washington, DC. This article first appeared in their newsletter, NCFE Bulletin. © 1995, David C. Mendoza.

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This article is adapted from:
Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash
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