The Constitution vs. the NEA
The debate surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts is balanced
on a knife's edge. The House of Representatives voted to abolish
the agency, the Senate has prepared a floor vote for increased funding.
The debate that has been heating up for nearly three years is not
about the paltry sums ostensibly pitting lawmakers, artists, activist
groups and the president against one another. Nor is the matter
of support for a few pseudo-artists with offensive pathologies worthy
of the expenditure of national time and energy on such a scale.
In reality, the battle is about two priceless dividends offered
by the world of art. One is the ratio of bang for the buck: In delivering
visibility and amplification of message for every dollar spent,
art has not even a close second. The other is the acquisition of
this most spiritual chamber of man's soul for purposes of political
manipulation. From Goebbels to Zhdanov, every cultural Commissar
understood the unique capacity of the arts to alter minds without
the whip - and they used it to great advantage.
The question is whether or not Americans wish to countenance a
proliferation of 'commissars.' As opposed to positions with a legitimate
purpose - such as secretary of state, of the interior, or of defense
- government officials whose role is to dispense money or to mete
out punishment according to a political agenda are described more
properly as "commissars."
Our Department of State has to implement foreign policy. The Department
of Defense must look after security. Interior is responsible for
services people need and use. By contrast, "commissariats"
have been given the power to influence, alter and control the thinking
and behavior of the population. Our National Endowments, by definition,
are commissariats. As well as dispensing money, these agencies effectively
certify projects on behalf of the U.S. Government or - worse still
- deny certification. Positions of that nature were first instituted
by totalitarian regimes and have neither constitutional legitimacy
nor a place in the United States of America.
Some suggest that the NEA would be acceptable if only its politics
were more balanced, if only the head would not lean so obviously
to the left, if only its panels were less biased. None of the foregoing
addresses what really matters. A person might disagree with Jane
Alexander - current head of the NEA - on what constitutes time-tested
American principles, but find a great deal of congruity with Lynne
Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the
Bush administration. Yet, the same argument should apply in both
instances. It is defined by the nature of the position.
During her watch, Lynne Cheney funded the project known as the
"National Standards for History." Whatever the original
intent, the label has come to stand for a replacement of knowledge
with propaganda, and it will be decades before we can assess the
extent and range of the damage. Truth has been displaced by untruth,
and a restoration may not be possible. Mrs. Cheney has been doing
her best to inform the nation about the mishap, but neither she
nor the 99-0 vote in the United States Senate denouncing the "Standards"
could stem the tide of anti-American and anti-Western history books
in our schools.
It ought not to be possible for one person's or one panel's erroneous
judgment to act as catalyst for a nationwide crisis in the teaching
of history, but that is what 'commissariats' can and will do. Once
the power exists, it will be exercised.
America's Constitution, the envy of the world, makes it so simple.
Article (I) talks about the arts - the useful arts, that is. The
Founders wished to protect authors and inventors of scientific discoveries.
As for the fine arts, the Constitution is silent. It is unthinkable
that, while drafting an article about the useful arts, the Founders
would have simply "overlooked" the existence of the fine
arts. For anyone blessed with the powers of reasoning, it is plain
as daylight that the fine arts were not considered a realm in which
the federal government ought to intervene. If the President and
the Senators - who have taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend
the Constitution - really feel a commitment to the arts, they might
consider going with greater frequency to concerts, opera, plays,
exhibitions. Why not lend support by example instead of a handout?
In the meantime, let the communities of America, for more than
two centuries models for the world, be self-governing, self-sustaining,
"engaged" once again. The NEA debate has become the arena
in which this nation is asked to decide whether to resume that path,
or to become - perhaps irrevocably - the kind of people who spend
their lives standing in line outside the offices of commissars.
That being the real subject of the debate, the current expenditure
of national time and energy is justified.