Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
It’s Their Money
Summer 1999

National Endowment for the Arts boosters regard Jesse Helms as the godfather of anti-intellectualism. How dare he object to tax dollars for Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs or Richard Serrano's urine-dipped crucifix? By its nature, art is controversial, they argue. After all, didn't Les demoiselles d'Avignon create a violent stir when first displayed? And what of Ulysses, banned in the U.S. until a court ruled that no book ever seduced a woman?

Helms and other NEA opponents reply that Picasso and Joyce never got a dime of government money; their funds came, if at all, from private sources. Why shouldn't private benefactors underwrite today's crop of in-your-face artists? Fighting words to the NEA crowd.

The last place NEA detractors expected to receive support, then, was from the avant-garde. But surprise! Creative Capital, bursting with a multi-million-dollar budget, is a new consortium of a dozen private funding organizations that plans to underwrite works that "challenge convention." As CC organizer Archibald L. Gillies, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, expressed the group's philosophy: "This is a boisterous, diverse country, and we have always had art that upsets people. Controversy won't bother us at all."

Creative Capital also will dispense hard sales advice with the bounty it hands out. Are artists uncomfortable with this blatant concession to free enterprise? Not if Young Soon Min, whom the New York Times describes as a "Korean-born artist known for politically charged, feminist work," is typical: "A marketing plan can be very helpful," she observes without irony. And, it seems, she is typical. Ruby Lerner, CC's executive director, has met with artists around the country and notes that not one raised an objection. As the emperor Vespasian put it at the beginning of the last millennium, "Pecunia non olet"—"Money has no smell."

Wittingly or not, though, the philanthropists prove the NEA pointless. Private funds are there for the asking—enough to subsidize even outrageous stuff. The CC-sponsored art probably will be worthless, and no doubt it will bruise sensibilities, just like many NEA-funded projects. But if Congress scraps the NEA, taxpayers will no longer hurt in that most vulnerable of places: the wallet. Nor will government force them to bankroll "art" they despise. A happy ending for all—except, of course, for those who need to nurse a grievance. Two cheers for Creative Capital.

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