HOUSTON VOICE/ MARCH 3, 1995 3
My PBS, My NEA: another take on the funding debate
By RICHARD D. MOHR
A voice comes over my local NPR station
urging me to write my congressman and
beg him not to zero out federal funding for
the Corporal ion for Public Broad-
casling. The reason: "NPR is important to families, especially families
with children," The station's self-promotion continues: "So in this era of
family values, what deserves your support more," Say what?
It's Saturday afternoon at the Met, I'm
excited. I've scribbled a bit on opera, but
I've never been to its premier American
house. A generous friend has offered to
lake me when I visit New York. I realize
jusi how generous when he hands me the
ticket. It reads: "Walkure Balcony
$150." I gape. Later 1 read that the largest single grant from their National
Endowment for the Arts in 1995 is to the
Met—a half million bucks, I gape. Kids
flipping burgers at McDonald's have
subsidized my pairon's tickets.
Do gays need the CPB and the NEA? Are
gays getting value for money from them?
Do ihey act justly? Are they helping gays
win the war for the hearts and minds of
When Clinton was elected President
and Jane Alexander became head of the
NEA. artists, museum direciors, and
liberal pundits breathed a sigh if relief.
They thought that they had seen the end of
political intervention into the NEA'5
peer-review system for the evaluation
of artistic merit. Early on, Alexander
gave a heartening interview to The
Advocate in which she claimed that the
sort of politically-targeted interventions made by Reagan and Bush appointees would not occur under her leadership. But Clinton's NEA proved no more
principled than Clinton himself.
Immediately prior to last Fall's elections, the politically-appointed NEA
oversight board reversed peer-review
decisions to fund three sexually the-
med projects. One was that of Andres
Serrano, the world-class photographer whose works include card-table size
images of male ejaculates in flight. To
work for gays, the NEA would have to be
principled. Bui it's not. And it won't be
in any foreseeable future.
The same is true for PBS. In 1994, the six-
hour gay celebraiion "Tales of the
City" was PBS' most successful program, even when success is measured at
its crudest—total number of couch potatoes glued to the screen. But under conservative political pressure, PBS
failed to build on its success and fund the
filming of the second volume of the
"Tales" series. In consequence, the
The general rationale for public support of the arts is the same as the rationale
for government support to the sci
ences. Public funds provide forums for
potentially important ideas thai would
noi make it on their own in the market place
because they are new or abstract. Federal
funds are not needed, and should not be
used, 10 support and reinforce old ideas,
customary practices, and money-making enterprises.
Now. when it comes to gay issues, does
public funding do things that the private sector does not? Again, no. For
example. NPR's news and commentary
programming —notably "All Things
Considered"—is way behind the New
York Times in its coverage of gay issues.
And we have FOX and ABC. not PBS and the
NEA, to thank for gradually demolishing the taboo against depictions of samesex affection and for portraying gays as
expected fixtures on the landscape of
everyday American life.
The chief problem with public funding, though, is not that under political
sway the federal government will fail to
fund gay performance art, photographs, and screen plays in favor of funding Wagnerian operas and macrame.
Rather, the chief problem is lhat federal
funds have sinuous tendrils extending
deep into the private realm. And these
intrusions are a positive detriment to
gay progress. For. you see. museums and
other nodal points for representation
and meaning, notably universities,
are hooked on federal funds. The result is
that museums and other non-federal
institutions must be good boys and girls
by federal standards to get the goodies
that will keep them from going into withdrawal convulsions. So as Rush Lim-
baugh's followers set these standards,
gay images and ideas will vanish from
museums and other federally-enticed
institutions. More than ever, museums
will censor themselves and play it safe in
order to stay hooked up to federal sugar.
Over the next couple months as Congress takes up issue of funding the arts and
airwaves, a worst case scenario is likely
to come true. Funding for the NEA and CPS
will be reduced to a level where nothing
interesting will be produced by them.
Certainly gay art and gay programs will
not be funded. But funding will not be
reduced to the point where institutions
are free of government oversight. If
conservatives are clever, they will not
cut funding entirely. Rather they will
maintain a trickle of federal money to
museums, iclevision stations, universities and the like in order to extend
farther into the private sphere their surveillance and control, their manipulation and suppression of gay images
and ideas. In these circumstances, it
will be better for gays if the NEA and CPB
(Richard D. Mohr is a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois—
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