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By Scott Hoezee


Art Attack

"Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding." By Alice Goldfarb Marquis, BasicBooks, 304 pp.; $25

In recent years, conservative critics have been asking questions such as, "How can the same government that prohibits displays of the cross on public property pay an artist to submerge a cross in his own urine, photograph it, and then display the portrait in government-subsidized art galleries?" Indeed, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, and the National Endowment for the Arts' indirect subsidy of it, has become something of a metaphor fomenting a public backlash against the arts, spearheaded by Christian leaders such as Jerry Falwell and conservative senators such as Jesse Helms. Responding to a "Time" magazine article that endorsed the NEA, House Speaker Newt Gingrich singled out Serrano's "blasphemy" as one reason why Congress has slashed funding for the NEA-after threatening to abolish the agency altogether.

In "Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding," Alice Goldfarb Marquis helps readers frame recent debates by presenting a thorough history and penetrating critique of the NEA. Though Marquis advocates continued arts funding, her work reveals an agency that, while trying to serve noble ends, has often been driven by politics and marred by confusion.

Political influence over the NEA began early. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were both proponents of government arts funding, not because of any love of the arts per se but because of the political capital to be gained. In fact, both Presidents claimed that government support of the arts was a necessary weapon in the Cold War: the United States could not allow the communist empire to seize the cultural high ground. In later years, both Lyndon Johnson--whose administration established the nea in 1965--and Richard Nixon would be hearty supporters of the NEA, despite the fact that neither man had anything other than an electoral interest in wooing the arts community. ...

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