The Arts Parasite

At CPAC last week, conservatives grumbled loudly about President Bush’s free-spending ways, with even the mainstream press picking up their drumbeat. Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) gave his keynote speech at the conference on the dangerous drift by Republicans (read: Bush) away from their commitment to limited government.

At the same time, members of the conservative House Republican Study Committee were meeting in Cambridge to “plot against” their own president in order to hold down the growth of government.

The Bush administration’s response to all this? A huge spending hike for what is to conservatives the most hated off all government agencies-the National Endowment for the Arts. First Lady Laura Bush announced it yesterday as the largest increase in funding for the NEA in 20 years.

A mere increase of $18 million is a drop in the bucket in days of a $500 billion deficit, but numbers are irrelevant here. To some degree, even principled opposition to public funding for the arts is irrelevant. The important thing is the symbolism of this arrogant proposal, which comes as a big, gooey, drippy wad of spittle right in the face of the conservative movement.

To the Right, the NEA is the symbol par excellence of everything that is wrong with federal spending. Conservatives remember the 1989 controversy over “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano’s so-called work of “art” whose sole purpose was to insult Christians at their own expense. The exhibit displayed a crucifix in a jar filled with urine and blood. It was funded by the NEA, and thus by the taxpayers, as was an exhibit of the obscene, homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Ask a few conservative congressmen where they would cut the budget, and “abolish the NEA” is the first thing out of their mouths, the throwaway answer. This is what makes Bush’s move so baffling.

NEA grantees’ offerings today are at best unmemorable. A cursory look at 2004 grants reveals that your generosity will fund the “Festival of Mixology” and the “Bang on a Can Marathon.” Many other projects represent silly left-wing propaganda-art for every politically correct multicultural faction on the planet. “[T]wo generations of women use art to express changing ideas of gender, race, and ethnicity.” Yeah, whatever, that’s $75,000 down the drain. And with it goes $55,000 “to support the development and production of Sex Parasite, a new play by Jessica Goldberg.” (Note to self: Good play for a first date?)

Then there’s a $10,000 grant to Outright Radio, to spread the homosexual political agenda (believe it or not, not everyone has embraced it–yet). A group called “Frameline” gets $20,000 this year for a lecture series on “the works of film professionals whose work has influenced lesbian and gay media over the years.” The Los Angeles museum exhibit Art and the Feminist Revolution gets $75,000.

Bush’s new vision for the NEA supposedly includes more wholesome fare than “Piss Christ,” but conservatives have heard this one too many times. It is only a matter of time before a new administration lets the NEA run amok once again, and then we’re back from Shakespeare to Sex Parasite. Perhaps as soon as next January.

Despite Bush’s wild spending, his education, prescription drug and immigration policies, and his signing of campaign finance reform legislation in 2002, the Right has remained surprisingly loyal, almost universally refusing to countenance a third-party protest vote or a sit-out from the 2004 election. But that may well change. Even Bush’s most loyal defenders are suddenly dismayed and disheartened.

This new proposal is much worse than a few billion dollars in government freebies. Few would have noticed even a quiet increase in NEA funding by a few million, like the one we got last year. But this public announcement of a new initiative to fund the National Evil Agency appears to be a clumsy, stiff-armed response by the administration to conservatives’ earlier complaints. “You don’t like my immigration plan? Well, I’ll give you a real reason to cry!”

Karl Rove, Bush’s trusted political advisor, said in 2001 that he believes four million conservative Christian voters stayed home in November 2000. If his goal is to double that number, he’s definitely on the right track.