It's the Wrong Time for Great Artists
The woman at the National Endowment for the Arts studied the young man who entered her office,
"Now this one really looks like a struggling artist," she thought.
He was short and wiry, with rough hands and a dark, stringy beard. He wore workman's clothes.
The woman asked, "How may I help you, Mr. ... ?"
"Michelangelo" he said in an Italian accent,
"Very well, Mr. Angela. Now what can the NEA do for you?"
"I'd like to apply for a grant," he said. "You see, I am a sculptor, and the price of marble has gotten so high."
"Marble! You work in marble?"
"Of course. Is that unusual?"
"Well, yes," the NEA woman said. I mean, most of the sculptors we find use tin cans, old commodes, even junked cars."
"Uh, very creative," said Michelangelo, "But I prefer marble. It is so pure and beautiful."
"Yes," said the woman. "Well, tell me, what kind of works do you plan to produce if you receive a grant from the NEA."
"Ah, there are many," the artist replied, "I want to do a Pieta, depicting the ultimate grief of mankind for the death of Christ, And also a David, a figure reflecting the inner strength of those favored by God. And a Moses, in anger at the wickedness of his people who have turned from the Lord. And then ... "
"Just a moment, Mr. Angelo," the woman interrupted. " I detect that all your works have some religious theme."
"No, not all," Michelangelo answered. "But most do, yes, It's very important to me. Besides, where I come from, most great art-- painting, music, architecture, and so on--has been created for the glory of God."
"That may be," the NEA woman said. "But when it comes to federal funds, we have to follow certain guidelines. For example, if your work were intended to convey religious messages, then it might violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and we couldn't provide any money for it."
"You mean you don't award grants for anything with any religious theme at all?"
"Sometimes we do, if it's appropriate," she explained. "For example, we gave $15,000 for an exhibition that included a picture of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. It was called 'Piss Christ.' But that wasn't really religious. You see, by degrading Christianity, the artist offered a symbolic protest of the degradation of Christianity."
"Brilliant, But didn't that offend Christians?"
"Of course," she said. "But that doesn't matter. You see, we can't deny funding to artists just because their works might offend somebody. That would be censorship, which is against the First Amendment."
"But you can't fund my sculptures because they glorify God?"
"I told you, that would violate the First Amendment," the NEA woman said. "Honestly, Mr. Angela, I don't know why you can't see the distinction. Now, don't you do anything else?"
"Yes," the artist said. "I also paint."
"Good," she said. "Are you a cubist, surrealist or abstractionist?"
"No," he said, looking puzzled. "I like to paint the classical human form."
The NEA woman perked up. "You mean nudes?"
"Yes, some nudes," Michelangelo said.
"Anything homoerotic? We think that's very artistic," she allowed, "In fact, we gave $25,000 for an exhibit by a photographer who produced some very daring work."
"No," Michelangelo flushed. "Not homoerotic. Biblical. I have been asked to paint scenes from the Bible on the ceiling of a chapel."
The woman seemed disappointed. "I'm sorry, Mr. Angelo," she said. "I don't think you'll have a very good chance of winning a grant from us. And if you don't mind some advice, I think you should pull yourself out of this thematic rut you're in. If you want to be an artist nowadays, you have to use your imagination. Be creative. Challenge people. Make them angry. You can't just copy ideas out of the Bible and expect to get anywhere."
"I guess not," Michelangelo said sadly. "Maybe this is just the wrong era for artists like me."
Editor's Note: Reprinted from the AFA Journal, June 1990. Originally published in the High Point, SC Enterprise, April 17, 1990.