- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

In the same week that the Congressional Budget Office reported that the budget deficit for the current fiscal year will exceed $475 billion, the Bush administration said it would seek the largest increase in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in more than 20 years. What’s going on?

The fiscal 2005 budget, which will be released on Monday, will seek an $18 million increase in NEA spending, raising it from $121 million this year to $139 million next year. This surely is a sufficiently outrageous spending splurge that can be easily resisted by an ostensibly small-government-oriented, Republican-dominated Congress. Indeed, it’s worth recalling the current Congress’ famous predecessor — the historic, tight-fisted 104th of 1995-96 — achieved its well-earned reputation by stifling the NEA’s notorious profligacy. It is also worth recalling that the NEA earned a reputation for immoral and reckless extravagance by financing the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit showcasing homoerotic and sadomasochistic photographic “art.” The NEA bestowed a grant on Andres Serrano, who had exhibited a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine, blasphemously titled “Piss Christ.”

While the NEA has avoided such scandals in recent years (and now, to its credit, is promoting the works of William Shakespeare), it nonetheless has failed to demonstrate that it is the indispensable cog of cultural finance. Moreover, with the nation in the midst of an open-ended, increasingly costly overseas war against terrorism, and with unmet homeland-security needs sufficiently large that they will require a 10 percent increase in funding in 2005, now is hardly the time to replicate Lyndon Johnson’s guns-and-butter disaster. Tellingly, Mr. Johnson’s Great Society created the NEA in 1965, the very year that the Vietnam War escalated both militarily and financially.

The additional $18 million in NEA funding next year will finance a major new initiative, “American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius.” Three hundred years of artistic genius? By our calculations, more than 250 years of that artistic genius was achieved before the NEA was established. Can you imagine that?

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