OPERATIONS AND ACTIVITIES OF THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS -- HON. BARBARA BOXER (Extension of Remarks - October 31, 1991)
HON. BARBARA BOXER
in the House of Representatives
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 30, 1991
Mrs. BOXER. Mr. Speaker, on Monday, October 28, 1991, the Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation, which I chair, conducted a field hearing in our continuing review of the operations and activities of the National Endowment for the Arts, primarily an examination of the effect of last year's decency standards on grant applications. The subcommittee was fortunate to have received testimony from distinguished writer E.L. Doctorow, which was presented by actor Christopher Reeve, representing the Creative Coalition. I strongly urge each and every one of my colleagues to read this remarkable statement. The text of Mr. Doctorow's statement follows:
To the Honorable members of the Subcommittee: I'm a working writer. I pay attention to words, to what they mean, and to the meanings beneath their meaning. Underneath this question before you today as to what conditions if any to attach to NEA's grant giving charter, is a very simple principle, simple but apparently elusive or beyond the tolerance of those who are so quickly and sweetly outraged, those who would punish all voices not in harmony with their own--the crucial idea that we must protect the speech of those we are least comfortable with. There is no First Amendment principle involved in protecting the speech of those we agree with, those whose hands we want to shake because they represent our own beliefs and convictions. The principle emerges in the conflict and contention with ideas that offend us and with expression perceived to be in monumentally bad taste. At that juncture we define ourselves as a civilization that is free and proud and democratic, with trust in the national community's powers of judgement and analysis, and in its ability to discourse against and finally discard ideas that are foul, destructive, malevolent or even simply foolish--or we are fearful and constrictive and craven and without pride in the natural self-cleansing powers of a free society through which all ideas flow. Those who would limit artists in any way, in any medium, I call craven. Those who have not the courage of their country's constitutional convictions I call cowardly.
Now you may say, and it has been said, this is not a question of defending speech by refusing him or her a grant; the artist can say anything he damn pleases--but if its obscene, overtly sexual, pornographic or generally indecent by the usual standards, the artist cannot reasonably expect us to pay for his art. This is solely a question of whether the government should pay for works of art that violate community standards of taste and decorum. This is a question of using hard earned tax dollars to support the artist who mocks, sickens, or otherwise offends the people who provide those tax dollars. That's all.
Of course that isn't all. In the first place as citizens we regularly see our tax dollars funding programs and policies and forms of speech we abhor--as for example when our taxes pay for police and sanitation services for rallies or parades of groups we oppose. We even see our tax dollars going to subsidize criminal enterprise such as the S and L scandals. Why do we get so righteous about our tax dollars where artists are concerned? The U.S. government taxes its citizens on behalf of multitudes of services and functions it performs, some of them noble, some of them stupid, some of them destructive and shortsighted, some of them quite murderous--but in any event a hefty percentage of them in the face of the disapproval at any given time of a large segment of the tax paying public.
But this question always arises where artists are involved. Why? I suspect it is because those who would censor, those who would preen in umbrage, have no belief in the value to society of any kind of art, obscene or otherwise, unless it is from another age, with the artists themselves conveniently dead and gone. I suspect that behind this whole question of tax dollars is that practical man's vision of the painter the writer the dancer the composer as a marginal member of society--that politician's gut sense of the artist as a luxury the society sometimes cannot and should not afford, who may in this or that instance do something worthwhile in an impractical sort of way, but who in most instances is something of a fraud--a sort of self indulgent, self-aggrandizing deadbeat who performs no labor of any consequence, who produces nothing that provides light or heat or calories or that does not get anyone fast from one place to another, but is nevertheless always making big claims for himself. I speak of the latent underlying jealousy we have for elevated expression that is personal, uninvited, powerful, that almost automatic anger we have for a kind of witness and truth-telling that does not proceed from and is not endorsed or accredited by church, or corporation, or family, or other governing institution of our society.
This prejudice is profoundly in the American grain, and like all our prejudices it resists rational argument. Not all artists are good artists, very few are in fact great, but the work of independent witness, that often self-destructive power of curiosity, the willingness to articulate that which many may feel but no one dares to say, the blundering, struggling effort to connect the visible to the invisible, to find the secret meanings of places and things, to release the spirit from the clay--that rude, stubborn squawking self-appointed voice singing the unsingable--who we are, what we are becoming--is through all our regions, and states, and cities and schools and workshops and studios a natural resource as critical to us and our identity and our survival as our oil, our coal, our timber.
To put restrictions on speech funded with tax dollars is itself to speak a certain way, the way of pre-emptive state speech, it is to begin to create a realm of approved speech, an orthodoxy of discourse. To limit, rule, draw bounds around speech is to legislate, de facto, more speech to some than to others. And it is automatically to privilege the speech of those who would deny it to others. That is the truth that is lost in the current debate in Congress. The righteous desire to tell artists what they may and may not say is the instinct to monopolize a natural resource.
This is not an isolated issue you have before you about the workings of a minor government agency. It arises in a widening context in which, for example, this administration has gotten a judicial ruling that does not permit doctors in public funded birth control clinics to mention the word abortion, a context in which the President has supported a constitutional amendment to limit free speech where the flag is concerned--the first President in our history to advocate a retrenchment in the Bill of Rights--a context that includes an exponential rise in the number of books banned from school libraries around the country, a context in which a self-declared Neo-Nazi and former Ku Klux Klan leader has wide public support in his campaign for a governorship--a context, in short, and I say this knowing the courtesies of bi-partisan inquiry may make you wince here, of racial and gender and ethnic divisiveness that proceeds directly from the ideas and values of the extreme right element of our two political parties. I ask you to consider this context--I ask you to consider these items I've mentioned as creeping increments of an official culture. I ask you to acknowledge as you think about our sinful artists that the agenda of the extreme right, just one element of our political spectrum, is what governs current political discourse--the questions we ask, the issues we raise, the problems we define--as it has for the past dozen years or so. This issue we discuss here is created by an extreme conservativism as it wishes to organize our lives illiberally, on one mold, as a uniculture--a conservatism that has from its genuine but quite paranoid soul decided that there is no hope for this country except as all other political constituencies conform to its righteous ways. And so we have odd patterns of thought. College professors who object to racist inflammatory speech on their campuses are derided for being politically correct; at the same time artists applying to the NEA are subject to the criteria of political correctness. It is irrelevant that community standards are violated by racist speech; but it is by upholding community standards that artists are denied grants. All this is quite odd. On the other hand the conservative movement has never let the true meaning of words interfere with its political intentions. Our President speaks for civil rights, but has repeatedly vetoed legislation that would relieve the inequities of racism. He reveres the environment but prevents laws from being enacted that would save it from despoliation. It's all very odd--and if you think I am wandering too far afield here, I remind you that we need every artist we have, every witness, just because things have become so odd, just because people in power don't mean what they say, because our public debate is so degraded, our political discourse so subject to intimidation and flim flam, do we need these strange people who go their own way, these artists. We need them. First we need to stake them to a few months work, if they're good. And then we need to leave them alone.
I point out to you if you haven't already heard, the disbelief of the American people upon learning that in a week in which a man with a gun committed another one of our indigenous mass murders in a public place--twenty-three people dead, a new record--the Congress refused in its grimjawed patriotic righteousness to pass a bill banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons. I want to point out to you the perception on the part of some of us of the ludicrousness of worrying at length about an artist's nudity or naughty words while granting murderous free expression to any maniac who happens to have the price of a gun and decides to walk into a restaurant and kill everyone he sees.
I'm a working writer and I dare call myself an artist. I do not feel marginal to this society but rather deeply involved in its practical working life. My work provides employment to others--editors, typesetters, publishers, binders, newspaper critics, booksellers, teachers, movie actors and directors, and set designers and videotape store managers. Painters provide employment for printmakers, publishers, gallery owners and workers, art critics, TV documentarians, museum curators and museum guards. The work of artists in every medium provides jobs and stimulates the economy. The NEA has generally funded younger writers at the beginning of their careers--so that they too, presumably will be in a position one day to generate jobs for others. All artists are, economically speaking, small businessmen. Perhaps we should be testifying before the Small Business Bureau.
But in any event I ask you not to accept the strange alarmed right wing vision of things--it's bad not only for artists, it's bad for us all. Any legislative condition put on artists' speech, no matter how intemperate or moderate, no matter how vague or how specific, means you publish a dictionary with certain words deleted from the language, it means you lay out a palette with certain colors struck from the spectrum. Do you really want to do this? Does the Congress in its wisdom really believe that bleeping out words, blacking out images, and erasing portions of the tape is what is needed to save this republic?
I would venture to remind you by way of conclusion that if you give to Comstockery a little piece of your democratic or republican soul, it will next year demand a bigger piece. As politicians who know history you know that to appease this demon is to make it only more powerful and more voracious. It won't ever stop unless you stand up to it. For that reason I urge you not to choose between more or less onerous grant-conditioning language. It is all censorship and I say to hell with it--it's nothing any decent American should stand for. Give the NEA back its original charter in which there is no language requiring of artists political conformity in any guise. And you'll be able to go home to your families, and especially to your children, knowing you've done them, and your country, a great service.