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FEATURE: Trump’s Proposed NEA Cuts and the Legacy of Piss Christ

Nikolay Petrovich Lomtev’s Girolamo Savonarola preaching in Florence. Father Savonarola’s incendiary critique of luxury led to the infamous Bonfires of the Vanities, the largest of which on Feb. 7, 1492 including the burning of several paintings by Renaissance masters. Among other achievements, Savonarola successfully advocated for laws banning sodomy and declared that overweight people were sinners.

On Wednesday, President Trump proposed a set of sweeping cuts to the federal budget for the arts, humanities, libraries, and public broadcasting. The proposed federal budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year, if approved by Congress, would eliminate all federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Institute for Museum and Library Services – among many other program cuts.

The budget for the NEA has long been controversial and has, indeed, varied significantly under both Republican and Democratic presidencies and Congresses. In this multi-part feature, the Twin Cities Arts Reader examines some of the history behind the politics of NEA funding and related scandals.


The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

–Lyndon B. Johnson

The Federal Agencies With Zero Funding in
President Trump’s
2018 Budget Proposal

  • African Development Foundation
  • Appalachian Regional Commission
  • Chemical Safety Board
  • Corporation for National and Community Service
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Delta Regional Authority
  • Denali Commission
  • Institute of Museum and Library Services
  • Inter-American Foundation
  • U.S. Trade and Development Agency
  • Legal Services Corporation
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation
  • Northern Border Regional Commission
  • Overseas Private Investment Corporation
  • U.S. Institute of Peace
  • U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness
  • Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The National Endowment for the Arts is a relatively young institution still, having created by an Act of Congress in 1965, in the spirit of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. At the time, arts funding had bipartisan support: Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, not only supported the program but oversaw a seven-fold increase in NEA funding between his first and last years in office. The NEA budget continued to grow through the following Ford and Carter administrations until the 1981-1982 recession. Ronald Reagan, a skeptic of public arts funding, proposed abolishing the 15-year-old agency during his first year in office, suggesting that Congress approve a three-year phase-out process. The immediate result was an NEA budget approximately 10% lower in FY1982.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Reagan ultimately became a supporter of the National Endowment from the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the former change often attributed to the personal lobbying of the actor Charles Heston. (Heston was not yet the president of the National Rifle Association, as gun control had yet to become a partisan issue.) By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the NEA budget had rebounded and was, in dollar terms, approximately 8% higher than when he took office. The NEA’s funding levels more or less continued to rise incrementally under his successor, George H.W. Bush – although not for want of controversy.

Charges of Offense

The so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 1980s and 1990s had many causes, but are often lined to several art world scandals: photographer Andres Serrano’s photo Piss Christ (1987), photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective exhibition The Perfect Moment (1988), and British painter Chris Ofili’s collage The Holy Virgin Mary (1996). To many, these became inextricably associated with all that seemed wrong with public arts funding.

Andres Serrano. Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987.

To understand why these works became so controversial, it’s helpful to first examine the materials and imagery of each artwork. Immersion (Piss Christ) is a photograph of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a jar of urine, a Cibachrome printed on glossy paper, with deeply saturated colors. Serrano first received a $5,000 individual grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986 to support artistic work including the photo, then received a $15,000 fellowship from the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art after winning SCCA’s Awards in the Visual Arts competition with the photo – which happened to also be funded in part by the NEA.

Strangely enough, Piss Christ did not set provoke significant controversy when it was first exhibited at the Stux Gallery in New York City in 1987 – perhaps because the NYC Stux Gallery (as opposed to its Boston office) had just been set up the year before. SCCA organized a touring exhibition of contemporary art that included Piss Christ, which fatefully arrived at the Virginia Museum of Art in January 1989. At this final exhibition, the photograph drew the attention of the American Family Alliance, which embarked on an extensive letter-writing campaign in protest of the work – setting off a detailed Congressional investigation of NEA-funded projects, including scathing criticisms and formal protests to the NEA.

Almost overnight, the issue of NEA funding – and arguments about how the agency determined which projects and artists should be supported – became a national controversy, discussed in news print, television, and other mass media. A 1989 letter to the acting NEA Chairman, signed by 23 U.S. Senators, took a critical line, saying,

This work [Piss Christ] is shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever. Millions of taxpayers are rightfully incensed that their hard-earned dollars were used to honor and support Serrano’s work. There is a clear flaw in the procedures used to select art and artists deserving of taxpayers’ support.

Some of the common criticisms to emerge included attacks on the artistic merit of Serrano’s work, statements that it was inherently offensive to Christians, and it being lacking in good taste.

Charges of Pornography

Federal law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (persons less than 18 years old).

U.S. Department of Justice

The Congressional investigations soon found more to critique than just Serrano’s work, prominently including photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment (1988). Mapplethorpe, a black-and-white photographer who died of HIV/AIDS complications in 1989, made preparations for his legacy by establishing a foundation designed to exhibit his work and fund HIV-related research. In the last year of his life, this foundation prepared an expansive, retrospective portfolio of two decades of photography – including an extensive collection of male and female nudes, sexually explicit photographs documenting New York City’s BSDM subculture in the 1970s, and a photograph of a young girl with exposed genitalia.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Self-Portrait (1980).

Mapplethorpe passed away on March 9, 1989, while plans for the retrospective exhibition of his work were still in the planning. The exhibition was managed by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, which had an exchange agreement with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. After reviewing the exhibition, the Corcoran declined to participate three weeks before the exhibition was set to open, citing an expected political firestorm. The Corcoran’s director, Dr. Christina Orr-Cahall, noted that the museum had received $298,000 in federal funding the previous year, and that controversy from hosting the exhibition could endanger the museum’s federal funding and its capital campaign.

Indeed, The Perfect Moment was already generating significant controversy, both because of its content and it being funded in part by a $30,000 NEA grant. Like Serrano’s Piss Christ, it also attracted the attention of the American Family Association. The exhibition itself was picked up by the DC-based Washington Project for the Arts, which showed it to large crowds whose interest was piqued by the controversy. Some protesters decided to demonstrate against the Corcoran, projecting images of the exhibition on its walls at night.

A notable discovery in the controversy was that Mapplethorpe had attempted, before his death, to publicly browbeat (or blackmail, depending on one’s perspective) the Corcoran into exhibiting his work. The Corcoran refused, passing up a $1.5 million donation in the process. Livingston Biddle, the NEA chairman under President Carter, described the decision as wise.

As members of Congress debated revisions to the NEA’s funding guidelines, Tom Wicker of the New York Times critiqued efforts to regulate arts funding on grounds of morality, obscenity, or offense, citing the problems of subjectivity. Still, Wicker acknowledged, the fact of the hearings themselves would have an effect:

The N.E.A. will get the message. The likely result, as Jesse Helms intended, will be greater caution in the awarding of N.E.A. grants, with safer, non-controversial works being favored over the daring and the possibly offensive. Since taxpayers’ money is involved, there may be some political validity to that approach; it’s hard to justify disbursement of Federal funds for works that offend or baffle most of those who provide the money.

Congress succeeded in revising the NEA guidelines in 1990, directing the NEA Chairperson to ensure that “artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applications are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” Soon after, a group of four performance artists who were denied grants under the new criteria sued the National Endowment for the Arts, claiming that their First Amendment rights had been infringed – a case that ultimately went before the Supreme Court, which upheld the new criteria in 1998.

The Contract With America

Despite the controversies involving federal funding of the arts in the late 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding continued to rise under George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In the 1992 Fiscal Year, on the eve of Bill Clinton taking office, NEA funding was at an all-time high of $175,954,680 – a number that, in absolute dollar terms, has yet to be equaled.

A new feature of the 1992 Presidential Election was the prominence in which federal arts funding factored into the debates. During the contentious Republican primary process, Pat Buchanan repeatedly lambasted George H.W. Bush’s record on federal arts funding as supporting obscenity in art – a series of critiques that many credit in President Bush’s dismissing NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer in May 1992. Although Buchanan ultimately lost the nomination fight and gave a speech supporting Bush at the Republican National Convention, his RNC speech – now known as The Culture War Speech – expounded a polarized view of U.S. society in conflict, with a battle for moral supremacy.

With the Cold War over, domestic battles were looming. Despite the Clinton administration announcing a number of high-profile arts and arts-education initiatives, the NEA budget began shrinking almost from the beginning. Nor was the public convinced of the president’s support, as Clinton put off appointing a new NEA chairperson, provoking an outcry from artists. In the face of ongoing Congressional skepticism, the NEA budget began to slowly erode. In FY1993, it stood at $174,459,382; in FY1994, 170,228,000. In FY1995, 162,311,000. Then, in FY1996, with a Republican majority in Congress, the NEA budget plunged to $99,470,000. This number was not only less than its 1977 appropriation in absolute dollar terms, but also about 40% of the 1977 funding level after adjusting for inflation.

 Next: Patrick’s Cabaret, the Walker Art Museum, and the Wrath of Capitol Hill.

Basil Considine