We commented back in December that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) might be emerging from the political woods - that a bipartisan majority in Congress might be ready to make it clear that this relatively tiny, if high- profile, agency does good for the nation far in excess of the $90 million or so it receives in the federal budget.
That still may happen, but House Speaker Newt Gingrich made something else clear last week. He's not about to let up on a useful political punching bag like the NEA. Feeling a need to bolster his sagging ratings among GOP conservatives, Mr. Gingrich roughed up the arts agency for a few applause lines, saying he was as determined as ever to zero out its budget - and that the millionaire entertainers who lobby for the NEA ought to fund such an agency out of their own pockets.
The latter suggestion makes a great sound bite. Indeed, it would be hypocritical if successful actors, musicians, and artists didn't actively support - with dollars as well as with words - the fields that nurtured them. There may well be room for greater private backing for the arts. But that's no argument for the instant elimination - in the 1998 budget - of a "national" endowment, supported by the nation as a whole.
We agree with critics that the NEA grants have to be spread around, to rural as well as urban artists and arts companies. And standards of public good taste have to figure prominently in the selection of grantees.
But those points have already been driven home to the NEA. It distributes funds under a political microscope. That's not such a bad thing, since it helps assure there'll be no repeat of publicly funded lewd or tasteless "art" - which, rare though the instances were, gave NEA bashers abundant material.
But those bashers, Speaker Gingrich included, ought to remember that if they whack the National Endowment for the Arts off the map they'll likely do the same to many small theaters, local arts councils, music festivals, and other arts programs that enrich the lives of their communities and constituents.