Government funding of the arts has been a controversial political issue for both conservatives and progressives since the 1980s.
Reports last week that President Donald Trump’s team wants to cut $10.5 trillion over 10 years gives the movement to abolish government art spending new hope. (RELATED: Trump Targets Three Liberal Favorites With Ambitious Budget Cuts)
Every few years, Republicans float a plan to defund or drastically reduce funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), to the consternation of progressives. President Ronald Reagan reportedly tried to abolish the NEA during his first year in office, but ultimately failed when a council of his his friends deemed government funding of the arts was important and beneficial.
The NEA, created in 1965, makes up a tiny part of the annual budget, with $148 million in funding last year. Still, the inauguration of Trump has given the GOP new hope that the government can get out of the art business.
Here are five art projects funded by the NEA:
Piss Christ – $5,000
The most famous and widely criticized federally-funded artwork is Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Immersion (Piss Christ).” The artist took a picture of a crucifix submerged in a jar of what he says is his own urine. The NEA partially sponsored the work with a $5,000 grant in 1986, setting off a firestorm of criticism and raising questions about the importance of government-funded arts.
Puppetry conference in Mexico – $25,000
Puppet relations between the U.S. and Mexico got a big boost in 2003 in the form of taxpayer grants. The NEA sent several east coast puppeteers to a three-day conference in Mexico City in 2003 as part of a project called “Art Across Borders.” The conference was not without results. It spawned several “joint articles in Puppetry Journal and Inside Arts” and identified “touring opportunities for Mexican puppetry companies.”
Funding the undead – $80,000
While the NEA routinely funds performances of Shakespeare plays, the agency has a reason for sponsoring theater about the undead. Most recently, the agency gave $10,000 to a Los Angeles, Calif. theater for a 2017 performance of Macbeth “staged with a zombie theme” and “contextualized by pop-cultural elements and references to the popular AMC television series ‘The Walking Dead.'”
NEA gave $60,000 in 2015 to a Washington, D.C., theater to produce “Zombie: An American,” a futuristic play set in the mid 21st century, when brain-eating zombies in the basement of the White House (which had been moved to Mount Rushmore because global warming caused the ocean to rise and flood the eastern sea board). The program warned audiences of “strong adult content, sexual situations, nudity, and fog,” and the Washington Post said the play quickly “decomposed into a hot mess.”
Another zombie-themed play, this one aimed at children, received $10,000 for a 2014 production in Oregon. The musical “Zombie in Love,” based on a children’s book of the same name, follows the undead high school student Mortimer on his unlucky search for a date to the school dance.
Typing cow puppets – $30,000
Ignoring whether children in 2015 know what a typewriter is, the NEA gave $30,000 to a Georgia theater to create “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type,” a musical adaptation of a children’s book that addressed themes like “farm life, life cycles of plants and animals, and healthy eating habits.” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake noted in his 2015 Wastebook that despite the taxpayer funding, he “was still required to purchase tickets for $16.50 each to attend the show and see the puppet cows use a typewriter.”
Play about real people transitioning from male to female – $50,000
The American Repertory Theatre got $50,000 to help bring “Trans Scripts,” a play about real people in the U.S., U.K. and Australia who transitioned from male to female, to the U.S. in 2017. British newspaper The Guardian hailed the play as “a show that matters, not just to those already aware of the trans communities, but for those who have no knowledge of them.”
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