Anne-Imelda Radice, the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, has been on the job only a few weeks and already she is a focus of controversy. Not that controversy is anything new to the NEA: Ms. Radice became acting head of the agency after her predecessor, John Frohnmayer, was fired by President Bush to appease right-wingers who threatened to make federal funding of "dirty art" an issue in the presidential primaries.
Ms. Radice seems determined not to repeat Mr. Frohnmayer's sins. She has already turned down two exhibits that had won the support of the NEA's review panels and advisory council. One of them, "Corporal Politics," was proposed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Visual Arts Center. The other, "Anonymity and Identity," was planned by Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery. Though Ms. Radice didn't mention it as a reason for rejecting the grants, both exhibits contained sexually explicit material.
In an ideal world, public arts funding agencies would be insulated from the hurly-burly of politics by just the sort of peer review panels and advisory council checks-and-balances that now operate at NEA. In the real world, however, it is the relative independence of these panels that has landed the agency in hot water.
To be fair, government isn't the only villain here. The arts have been in crisis for nearly half a century for reasons that have little to do with public funding, but much to do with the collapse of long-dominant craft and performance traditions that once defined standards and shaped public expectations about art and its role in society. One result has been an arts community that increasingly feels alienated from the political and social mainstream, and an uncomprehending public that suspects its sensibilities are being toyed with.
The new regime at NEA is determined to protect the agency against any new charges of government-funded prurience. Thus, Ms. Radice has adopted the heavy-handed strategy of rejecting anything that might remotely fit that description: Her decisions have little to do with art, and everything to do with politics. This is, after all, an election year. The irony is that in trying to salvage the president's political credibility by making NEA conform to the New Puritanism, she risks undermining the artistic credibility of the agency she is charged with saving.