NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman told the Denver Post that he is considering reinstating endowment grants to individual artists. If he succeeds, the move would be a landmark political moment.
It was individual grants to artists such as Andres Serrano (and his infamous photograph of a plastic crucifix in a jar of urine) that helped trigger some of the louder volleys in the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s — when conservatives charged artists with being anti-Christian pornographers and artists (and art supporters) crying, ‘Censorship!’ The heated controversies eventually led an angry Congress to strip the NEA of such authority and replace individual grants with only blanket grants to organizations (though writers and musicians remain eligible for individual fellowships).
So are the artist fellowships just another excuse to reignite the culture wars? Or are they, as some would argue, an idea whose time has come?
“It’s an idea whose time should never have left,” said Robert Lynch, president of the Washington-based Americans for the Arts, also in the audience during the Landesman speech in January that brought up the funding shift. “Is the idea a good one and an important one? Absolutely yes. But is it time? That’s more of a political question.”
For an overview of the history of the NEA’s battles over what art gets federally funded, there’s my review of David Smith’s Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy.