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From Kristopher Couch's, "Nothing But the Truth," Fall '96 From Kristopher Couch's, "Nothing But the Truth," Fall '96The National Endowment forFrom Kristopher Couch's, "Nothing But the Truth," Fall '96The National Endowment forthe Arts is not necessary toFrom Kristopher Couch's, "Nothing But the Truth," Fall '96The National Endowment forthe Arts is not necessary topreserve culture in America. From Kristopher Couch's, "Nothing But the Truth," Fall '96The National Endowment forthe Arts is not necessary topreserve culture in America. I like Sesame Street, too. We all remember watching Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, the Count and some guy crawling through the desert repeating, "Agua. Agua." Well, we need water, all right -- a good dose of it in the face. But slipped into the emotional appeal to save Sesame Street is a demand to save the federal funding for the arts. That includes not only the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but the National Endowment for the Arts. What's the difference between an educational show like Sesame Street and the NEA? Allow me to explain. Let's start with the numbers. The CPB started in 1969 with a total appropriation of $5 million. In 1992, Congress re-authorized the CPB with a three-year, $1.1 billion appropriation. The NEA was established in 1965, and its budget would grow from $2.5 million to $162.5 million for fiscal 1995. Are you Statistics students noticing a pattern here? While the e-mail petition stated that "government officials believe that the funding currently going to these programs is too large a portion of funding for something which is seen as 'unworthwhile'," it's not really about the money. It's estimated that more than $9 billion of private gifts go to the arts each year. Even in the case of the bloated federal budget, the NEA's $162.5 million is important more for its symbolism than for the dollars involved. So what's the big deal? I'm sure every American is willing to give a little bit of money for federally funded art if it means Big Bird can stay. Before you go digging into your pockets, read on. The NEA's charter legislation set "encouragement of excellence" as its number one criterion for doling out money, followed by "access to the arts for all Americans." Keep this in mind. You may be familiar with the NEA-funded showing of "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, at the University's Institute of Contemporary Art two years ago. If Serrano wants to drop a crucifix into a tank of urine and call it art, he certainly can; this is a free country. The catch is, we are paying him to do it. Other NEA-funded artwork includes Joel-Peter Witkin's "Maquette for Crucifix," a naked Jesus Christ surrounded by obscene sado-masochistic imagery and portrayals of corpses and body parts. A Suzie Silver film titled "A Spy" depicts Jesus Christ as a naked woman with exposed breasts. The NEA authorized $20,000 for a project in a Lewiston, N.Y. park "to create large, sexually explicit props covered with a generous layer of requisitioned Bibles." Karen Finley is a performance artist known not only for smearing her nude body with chocolate, but for burning an American flag on stage while chanting "God is dead." A dangerous double standard exists here. Any art that includes a positive portrayal of religion violates the separation of church and state, while federal funding of attacks on religion is "artistic expression." Maybe you're thinking, "No big deal, I'm not that religious anyway." But who will back you up when the government funds anti-Semitic art? Who will defend you when the government gives money to an artist who burns a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. while chanting racist slogans? This has nothing to do with censorship. It's about sponsorship. Take a look at what else our tax dollars are paying for; it gets worse. Beyond the anti-religious art, the NEA has repeatedly funded artists whose favorite subjects are sex, urine and blood. Annie Sprinkle performs at NEA-funded venues, where she masturbates on stage with various sex toys and then invites members of the audience to explore her private parts with a flashlight. Performance artist John Fleck's act includes publicly urinating on a picture of Jesus Christ. Shawn Eichman's "Alchemy Cabinet," shown at an NEA-funded exhibition, displays a jar with the bloody fetal remains from her own abortion. The performance by Ron Athey at the NEA-funded Walker Art Center caused Congress to sit up and take notice. Athey sliced into another man's back with a knife, mopped up the blood with towels and sent them on clotheslines over a horrified audience. Athey then had two female assistants weave acupuncture needles through his scalp, after which he pierced the women's cheeks with steel spikes. NEA Chairperson Jane Alexander, Penn's 1995 Commencement speaker, defended the Athey performance -- and Congress responded by cutting her budget $4 million. You may be thinking: "Who is this guy to say what is art and what is not?" Exactly. Forgetting for a moment federal budget shortfalls and the NEA's crazy funding decisions, the American government shouldn't have the right to dictate what is art any more than I do. The irony behind this whole argument is that worthwhile art sponsored by the NEA and shows that register high ratings on PBS, Sesame Street included, generate more than sufficient revenue from donors, grants and product marketing. Sesame Street doesn't need your money; only art that could never generate private donations needs the government to step in. Don't let anyone use Big Bird as justification for keeping the NEA. Let's give Oscar the Grouch the option to move into a new studio. I know what we can put in his empty trash can.

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