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Tuesday, 10 January 2017 08:28

What Does Trump Have in Store for the National Endowment for the Arts?

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2017.10.1 BF Berkowitz(Photo: Gage Skidmore)BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

If Trump pulls the appointment to head the National Endowment for the Arts from the same barrel of deplorables he has used for many of his administration’s other nominees, we may see Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, Scott Baio, or one of the other "celebrities" that supported Trump, heading up the agency. Regardless of who Trump picks, there’s a good chance that there will be another battle over funding the agency.

During Republican administrations, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) tends to be on the chopping block. With Trump in the White House, and Congress in the firm control of the GOP, it may once again be facing significant opposition to its mission and its funding. Even before the highly-respected Meryl Streep delivered a blistering, heartfelt and thoughtful take down of Donald Trump, while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the annual Golden Globe Awards ceremony last weekend, it was a pretty safe bet that she would not be on Team Trump’s short list to head up the NEA, although she would make a great candidate for the job.

"There was one performance this year that stunned me -- it sank its hooks in my heart," Streep said. "Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth.

"It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter," referring to Trump’s speech in 2015 in which he mocked a disabled New York Times reporter. "It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life."

Streep went on to say: "This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing," she noted. "Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose."

As is his wont, Trump responded with several tweets. Calling Streep "one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood," Trump added she " doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a.....

"Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him....... ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!"

Streep’s speech, as well as pointed remarks from others during the Golden Globes ceremony, combined with the refusal of A-list entertainers to participate in Donald Trump's upcoming inauguration, got me to thinking about whom Trump may be considering to head up the NEA. In mid-December, numerous media sources reported that Trump was considering actor Sylvester Stallone for the role. Stallone has since indicated that he wasn’t interested in the position.

NEA: A History of Right-Wing Attacks

I listened recently to Alec Baldwin’s interview with Patti Smith on his "Here's the Thing" podcast. At one point in their conversation, they discussed Smith's long-term relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Their relationship underwent many changes over the years, from two kids finding themselves broke and hanging out in Greenwich Village to romantic partners. After Mapplethorpe came out, he and Smith remained great friends until his death in 1989.

According to "The Contest for American Culture: A Leadership Case Study on The NEA and NEH Funding Crisis" by Cynthia Koch, "The National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 provided for the establishment of a National Council on the Arts and a National Council for the Humanities, the two endowments, and ultimately arts and humanities councils in every state." 

Koch traced the roots of the 1965 Act to "the Depression-era WPA programs: the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Writers Project, and Federal Theater Project. Besides providing needed employment for artists, they also gave many Americans their first experience with ‘public art’ as communities dealt with artists on civic boards determining standards for highly visible public commissions in schools, post offices, and city halls. Art and artists were no longer the province of the ‘high’ society of art museums and symphony orchestras, but rather of society as a whole."

Practically since its inception, the agency has come under attack by conservative lawmakers and Religious Right organizations. During the Reagan administration, efforts to defund the NEA were launched, and then withdrawn, after a Reagan-appointed commission concluded that federal support was important.

In 1989, Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ," a photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of an amber fluid described by the artist as his own urine, scheduled for in an NEA-funded exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, came to the attention of Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association. Around the same time, a planned exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography at the Corcoran Museum of Art came under attack, and the Corcoran withdrew the exhibit.

Mapplethorpe’s extraordinarily powerful photography became grist for the mill of several Republican Party lawmakers, most notably North Carolina's Republican Senator Jesse Helms. In his effort to zero out funding for the NEA, conservatives sent glossy photos of Mapplethorpe's work to his constituents in order to raise money for their defunding project and the ire of their constituents.

Later that year, the Director of the Corcoran gallery, Christina Orr-Cahill, issued a formal apology saying, "The Corcoran Gallery of Art in attempting to defuse the NEA funding controversy by removing itself from the political spotlight, has instead found itself in the center of controversy. By withdrawing from the Mapplethorpe exhibition, we, the board of trustees and the director, have inadvertently offended many members of the arts community which we deeply regret. Our course in the future will be to support art, artists and freedom of expression."

Subsequently, there was the NEA Four -- Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes -- performance artists whose grant was turned down by NEA head John Frohnmayer in June 1990. In 1994, an attack on the agency was led by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who called for its elimination.

There is no question that the more than fifty-year struggle over funding for the NEA has had many flash points. This time around, the inauguration snub by A-and-B list artists, and Streep’s speech may provide The Donald with enough motivation to join conservative colleagues in Congress and finally bring the hammer down on the NEA. What has been a unifying motivation amongst some of Trump’s cabinet picks is the disdain for the agencies they will be heading. With Trump in the White House, this could be the year the Right finally gets to zero-out the agency.