The Importance of the NEA in creating American Culture (1980’s-1990’s)

The NEA, or National Endowment for the Arts, is an agency within the United States federal government whose goal is to offer support and funding for art projects that display artistic excellence. The NEA was created in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and U.S. congress as a means to promote artistic creativity and prosperity throughout the entire United States. President John F. Kennedy was very supportive of the creation of NEA, recognizing that artists in the United States played a very big role in creating an American culture and influencing society. Funding from the NEA is highly important to the U.S. as a country because it provides opportunities for artistic expression among many different American subcultures that ultimately create a well-rounded and versatile national culture. It is wildly important that censorship does not occur in artistic expression, as a form of preserving the true artistic history of the United States of America.

In 1989, photographer Andres Serrano outraged the religious right by including a photograph in his exhibit called “Piss Christ,” which was a picture of the crucifix submerged in a vial of Serrano’s urine. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association held a press conference where he called the photo “anti-Christian bigotry” and attacked Serrano, who had made $15,000 from his piece and received $5,000 from the NEA as a means for funding. “Piss Christ,” quickly became a national controversy. Republican senators Jesse Helms (North Carolina) and Al D’Amato (New York), used the scandal as an opportunity to rally against the NEA, in an attempt to defund the agency. Serrano was quickly the center of a national scandal and received death threats, hate mail, and was eventually defunded by the NEA. Many supporters however argued against defunding Serrano, stating that “Piss Christ” was artistic expression and should be seen as such, citing separation of church and state. Supporters of Serrano include an art critic and Catholic nun, Sister Wendy Beckett. She regarded the artwork as a statement on the way contemporary society has come to regard Christ rather than blasphemy. She as an art critic also understood the great importance of artistic expression contributing to the rich American culture, as well as the damage that could be inflicted to a societies history by restricting expression based on people being uncomfortable with the content material. Serrano’s work confronted very real problems facing the U.S. It is crucial to our national history that artists are not censored because of the ideals of society. Society will change. What will not change however, are the many generations that were affected by Serranos art.

In 1990 the “NEA Four”, a group of performance artists, which included Karen Finley, Tim Miler, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes were denied grants through the NEA based on performance content material. The artists had been approved for funding through a peer review process, but were vetoed from receiving funding by NEA chairman John Frohnmayer. The four would go on to challenge the decision and make a case in the United States Supreme Court in 1993 in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. After winning the court case, the “NEA Four” were awarded grants for their controversial performances. This case gave reason to congress to pressure the NEA to stop funding individual artists. These attacks on the NEA continued throughout the mid-90s by the U.S. Congress. Between 1993-1995 congress had cut the NEA’s budget from $174 to $170 million, and then again from $170 to $162 million.  These cuts were made possible by the aggressive strategy put into play by a group of republican legislators under the leadership of Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was spearheading a movement to defund the NEA completely and had the support of a majority republican congress and senate. Gingrich pushed his agenda and by 1996 the NEA budget was down from $162 million to $99 million, becoming the largest cut the NEA had ever faced. It was a very discouraging time for artist in America. In 1995 NEA chairman, Jane Alexander, testified in Congress. She stressed the importance of the Art’s Endowment, stating that a great nation “supports and encourages the education of all it’s people.” She understood the value in providing funding to a variety of artists, recognizing that the artistic movement involve many different voices in America.

Since the mid 90’s the NEA has partially restored it’s budget. As of 2013 the budget rested at $138 Million. The NEA has faced much scrutiny from the American people and members of Congress over the years and continues to face opposition, but may have a positive future as bipartisanship support for the arts continues to grow in the United States. Providing Funding from the NEA to a variety of artists is essential to the growth of artistic culture in America. Culture, that will eventually make up the rich history that is being cultivated by many American artists in Dance, Literature, Media Arts, Museum and Visual arts, Music and Opera, and Theater. It is important that all Americans recognize how important diversity and acceptance in art is, seeing as it contributes to our great and unique melting pot that is the United States. And in the words of George Washington, “The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”

Television program on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Hosts of The 700 Club, were some of the most vocally opposed to Andre Serrano's piece "Piss Christ." Host Pat Robertson, led crusade against Serrano.

Television program on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Hosts of The 700 Club, were some of the most vocally opposed to Andre Serrano’s piece “Piss Christ.” Host Pat Robertson, led crusade against Serrano.


1. National Endowment for the Arts, A History 1965-2008

Edited by Mark Bauerlin with Ellen Grantham




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