The Constitution vs. the NEA

Washington Times  8.12.97
Balint Vazsonyi

The debate surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts is balanced on a knife's edge. The House of Representatives voted to abolish the agency, the Senate has prepared a floor vote for increased funding. The debate that has been heating up for nearly three years is not about the paltry sums ostensibly pitting lawmakers, artists, activist groups and the president against one another. Nor is the matter of support for a few pseudo-artists with offensive pathologies worthy of the expenditure of national time and energy on such a scale.

In reality, the battle is about two priceless dividends offered by the world of art. One is the ratio of bang for the buck: In delivering visibility and amplification of message for every dollar spent, art has not even a close second. The other is the acquisition of this most spiritual chamber of man's soul for purposes of political manipulation. From Goebbels to Zhdanov, every cultural Commissar understood the unique capacity of the arts to alter minds without the whip - and they used it to great advantage.

The question is whether or not Americans wish to countenance a proliferation of 'commissars.' As opposed to positions with a legitimate purpose - such as secretary of state, of the interior, or of defense - government officials whose role is to dispense money or to mete out punishment according to a political agenda are described more properly as "commissars."

Our Department of State has to implement foreign policy. The Department of Defense must look after security. Interior is responsible for services people need and use. By contrast, "commissariats" have been given the power to influence, alter and control the thinking and behavior of the population. Our National Endowments, by definition, are commissariats. As well as dispensing money, these agencies effectively certify projects on behalf of the U.S. Government or - worse still - deny certification. Positions of that nature were first instituted by totalitarian regimes and have neither constitutional legitimacy nor a place in the United States of America.

Some suggest that the NEA would be acceptable if only its politics were more balanced, if only the head would not lean so obviously to the left, if only its panels were less biased. None of the foregoing addresses what really matters. A person might disagree with Jane Alexander - current head of the NEA - on what constitutes time-tested American principles, but find a great deal of congruity with Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Bush administration. Yet, the same argument should apply in both instances. It is defined by the nature of the position.

During her watch, Lynne Cheney funded the project known as the "National Standards for History." Whatever the original intent, the label has come to stand for a replacement of knowledge with propaganda, and it will be decades before we can assess the extent and range of the damage. Truth has been displaced by untruth, and a restoration may not be possible. Mrs. Cheney has been doing her best to inform the nation about the mishap, but neither she nor the 99-0 vote in the United States Senate denouncing the "Standards" could stem the tide of anti-American and anti-Western history books in our schools.

It ought not to be possible for one person's or one panel's erroneous judgment to act as catalyst for a nationwide crisis in the teaching of history, but that is what 'commissariats' can and will do. Once the power exists, it will be exercised.

America's Constitution, the envy of the world, makes it so simple. Article (I) talks about the arts - the useful arts, that is. The Founders wished to protect authors and inventors of scientific discoveries. As for the fine arts, the Constitution is silent. It is unthinkable that, while drafting an article about the useful arts, the Founders would have simply "overlooked" the existence of the fine arts. For anyone blessed with the powers of reasoning, it is plain as daylight that the fine arts were not considered a realm in which the federal government ought to intervene. If the President and the Senators - who have taken an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution - really feel a commitment to the arts, they might consider going with greater frequency to concerts, opera, plays, exhibitions. Why not lend support by example instead of a handout?

In the meantime, let the communities of America, for more than two centuries models for the world, be self-governing, self-sustaining, "engaged" once again. The NEA debate has become the arena in which this nation is asked to decide whether to resume that path, or to become - perhaps irrevocably - the kind of people who spend their lives standing in line outside the offices of commissars.

That being the real subject of the debate, the current expenditure of national time and energy is justified.