Artists are upset over recent cuts to the National Art Trust, saying artistic expression will be stifled if more money is not made available for the federal grant program. The outcry comes after Republican lawmakers attached an amendment to a spending bill which reduces the NAT budget by 30%.
Citing a series of obscene NAT-sponsored art exhibits, Rep. James Farmdale, R-Colo., sponsored the amendment. However, he said he would have preferred eliminating the taxpayer-funded program altogether.
“I would like to completely get rid of it because government should not be in the business of subsidizing art and the Constitution doesn’t give Congress the power anyway,” Farmdale said.
However, both Democratic and Republican opposition forced him to settle on less extensive cuts to the program. Farmdale said the cuts will effectively prevent the NAT from funding new exhibits, guaranteeing that controversial art projects will not receive taxpayer dollars.
Christian and conservative groups were pleased with the cuts.
“We’re glad that Farmdale and others are standing up against the kind of debauchery that the NAT is notorious for sponsoring,” said Keri Ryan of the American Family Defense Council. Ryan cited a recent NAT exhibit displaying an upside down crucifix submerged in a jar of feces as an example of artwork which should not be funded.
“It is morally wrong to force taxpayers – especially Christians who would be insulted by this – to finance this kind of trash,” she says.
But artist Lance Zell disagrees.
“This is nothing more than rightwing censorship of a minority view,” he says. Zell’s group, the Endowment for Talented Students in the Art World, is famous for sponsoring a variety of controversial art exhibits across the country.
Last year, ETSAW awarded a grant to Ella Backlaw, a gay rights activist whose controversial painting, “Sexual Liberty,” displayed the Statue of Liberty dressed as a prostitute. The painting changed the famous “Give me your poor” motto to “Give me your whores, your queers, your sexually oppressed longing for polygamy.”
“Cutting taxpayer money from art is the exact same thing as the government banning it outright,” Zell says. “These cuts are a way for intolerant conservatives to express their hatred of the art community.”
Zell argued that funding for the arts is an essential government function and said that groups like the American Family Defense Council are trying to force their morality on the rest of society. He stressed that it is crucial for all taxpayers to pay for artistic endeavors.
Chris Gill of the Christian Alliance of America disagrees. “Art advocates attack conservatives for supposedly forcing their morals on everyone, but then they turn around and say the government should force taxpayers to fund art they find offensive,” he said. “How is that any different?”
“Without government money, we might be forced to give up our practice and find other jobs,” says Marianna Cook, an artist in Washington. Cook says conservatives simply want to do away with their livelihood.
“This controversy is an issue of artistic expression versus moral crusaders who hate all art and want to stifle our First Amendment rights,” she said.
Farmdale argues it isn’t the job of government to guarantee anyone a career. “If artists can’t survive on their own, if they can’t get enough private support, then why force the taxpayers to support them?” Farmdale said.
The congressman added that he will work to eliminate the NAT altogether, and that the best way to achieve this goal is to start by preventing any new money from going into the program.
“The real debate is over who should fund it,” he said. “I don’t think any art should be publicly funded.”