- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

In a recent article concerning candidates to lead the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Christian Josi of the American Conservative Union urges the new appointee to "be reform-minded." But what reform?
I have done a lot of thinking about NEA reform. Although I am now a partner at a large Washington law firm, a Bush supporter and a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, in a prior career I managed nonprofit theater companies in San Francisco. I obtained a dozen NEA grants over nine years. Artists I managed served on NEA advisory "peer panels."
NEA grants are not merely funding of private artistic expression. Because the award decision reflects a value judgment that particular work has special "merit," an NEA grant is a kind of medal or decoration by which the government states its own opinion. Thus, an NEA grant is government speech, not merely a value-neutral subsidy of the artists' speech. The government has the right to decide which art receives this U.S. recognition of merit and which does not just as it has the right to decide whether soldiers receive a decoration for merit.
Traditionally, the NEA defers to artists, arts administrators, critics and art teachers ("peer panelists") to determine who deserves a federal decoration for merit. But over the years, the left has advanced the idea that political and social activism is a necessary component of all meritorious art. Thus, peer panelists claim America must defer to them on matters of political and social policy as well as on aesthetics, even though they are not chosen on the basis of education, experience or credentials that qualify them for deference in these fields.
The reform the NEA needs is a new policy that, regardless of the deference that may be appropriate on matters of aesthetics, acknowledges that no deference is appropriate on matters of politics, religion and social policy.
To the extent that a work of art or performance criticizes American political, religious or social life, the NEA chair should seek out the advice of qualified and respected experts in those fields, and may properly determine that the point of view expressed is so contrary to the evidence of history, economics and sociology that the United States may properly refuse to say that the work has special merit.
There are many, many scholars with excellent credentials whose work establishes that the history of the last 15 years or so proves that democratic capitalism is the best system for organizing human societies that has ever been invented. The American people deserve great credit for our invention of this system. Indeed, the very events of the past 15 years caused me to change my opinions from the left-wing views of the art world to become a believer in most of the principles praised today by the conservative movement. I think that a fair and well-documented presentation of those events compels any fair-minded person to travel the same path that I did.
The new NEA chairman should promptly select a blue ribbon panel of experts in the fields of international democracy, economics, religion, family structures, child-rearing and other fields to prepare a series of statements that announces, in light of the events of the past 15 years, opinions to guide the NEA concerning which aspects of American life today deserve praise and which deserve criticism, and which aspects of communism and socialism deserve praise and which deserve criticism. With such statements, subscribed by qualified scholars and experts, the burden will be on the arts community to establish why its contrary views are entitled to deference.
The peer panels for many years have imposed a political and social screening policy of their own, hidden from public scrutiny imposing policy filters to reject as unmeritorious works that contradict the accepted majority view within the art world on political and social issues. The new policy will make public the manner in which political and social judgments affect the decision to recognize art as having special merit, and will ensure that those who are qualified to advise the government on matters of political, economic, religious and social matters have a systematic opportunity to provide their views.
The new policy of non-deference to artists on political and social issues must be fully supported by a sound presentation of the facts of the past 15 years. Unfortunately, the arts community has performed miserably in advocating political and social policies that actually help people around the world improve their material and spiritual lives. In the 1960s, the art world signed itself up as the left's propaganda arm, praising socialism and communism, denouncing the American form of democracy and business, condemning the traditional family and sneering at traditional religion and moral beliefs. The art world placed its bet and mostly it bet wrong. Communism fell. Socialism is bankrupt. Strong, intact families are better for children. The traditional religions provide a necessary moral foundation for a sound society.
The program presented here will reform the NEA in a manner that will make the NEA a force for reform of the art world itself. It will begin to move the art world back into a constructive, up-to-date relationship with the rest of our society and free it from the mud of discredited leftism in which it is spinning its wheels. Reform of the art world itself is the really important goal, because that will help reform our society as a whole.

Edward Sisson is a Washington lawyer and former arts administrator.

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