Arts and Letters, Redeemed

Few federal agencies have drawn more criticism over the past decade than the twin endowments for the arts and for the humanities. In giving public money to creative endeavors, they walk a delicate line between culture and politics.

It takes only one or two grants to irk some members of Congress into asking if taxpayers should pay for such private ventures. The National Endowment for the Arts took the hardest hits during the 1990s for funding homoerotic photography and various types of "performance art."

But the mood has shifted back to allowing Uncle Sam to be a monied Muse. Two prominent Republican politicians - notably Sens. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi - are lobbying President Bush to retain the Clinton-appointed head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), William Ferris.

That's largely because Mr. Ferris is a fellow Mississippian. But it's also because he knows how to please Congress by dispersing grants to various parts of the country, often for projects with strong regional appeal.

There's no clamor to get rid of NEA chair William Ivey, either. He, too, has political deftness and a common touch. He also applauded a 1998 Supreme Court decision that established the prerogative of the NEA to turn down grant applications on the basis of decency. That put Mr. Ivey on the other side of the fence from many who champion total artistic freedom. But he's on the right side for anyone parceling out the public's money.

Decency, as a matter of public taste, can't be ignored - though individual artists, of course, are free as ever to ignore it. They're just less likely to have their work subsidized by the federal government.

Both the NEA and NEH have received budget increases of late. The money remains a drop in the federal bucket. But it germinates innovative efforts important to American society and culture. Some say Ferris and Ivey have lowered standards in order to curry political favor. But they're to be thanked for knowing how to keep the once-threatened agencies afloat.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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