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Political Play of the Week

Play of the Week: Is it politics or art?

Play of the Week: Is it politics or art?

By Bill Schneider
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sometimes what's not an issue is important.

This week, when the House of Representatives voted on spending measures, funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was not an issue.

That's important. It's also the political Play of the Week.

Remember back in 1989 and 1990, when huge controversies broke out over NEA funding for Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs, Andres Serrano's work "Piss Christ" and Karen Finley's chocolate-covered body art? Conservatives went nuts.

In 1989, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, said, "Now if artists want to go in a men's room and write dirty words on the wall, let them furnish their own crayons. Let them furnish their own walls. But don't ask the taxpayers to support it."

When Republicans took over Congress in 1995, they tried to do away with the NEA and ended up slashing organization's funding. Now there's a budget crunch and pressure from the White House to cut spending, so what did the House of Representatives do this week?

It voted to increase the endowment's budget for 2003 by $10 million more than President Bush requested.

Amazingly, 42 Republicans voted for the increase -- including some conservatives like Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-North Carolina, who had once voted to kill the NEA.

"I'm supposed to be a right-wing nut myself, and my right-wing nut friends thought I'd lost my mind," Ballenger said.

How did the NEA make itself disappear as an issue? It goes back to the adage that "All politics is local."

Take Michigan GOP Rep. Michael Rogers. Last year, his district got $40,000 in matching grant money to support the Great Lakes Folk Festival. He voted yes.

Rep. Anne Northup, R-Kentucky, got $15,000 last year for a children's theater in her district. She voted yes this week. And Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, secured $12,500 to support a symphony tour of rural communities -- another yes vote.

It's not exactly pork-barrel spending: Those are tiny amounts of money, it's more like pork chops. But arts spending has a larger economic impact.

"It was surprising the effect it had on attracting new, better-class industries," Ballenger said. "I go back to Greek and Roman times. Governments did support the arts back in those days," he added.

"Ars longa, vita brevis,'' Hippocrates said. Art is long. Life is short.

The arts have wooed and won Congress. It is the noblest of causes -- and the political Play of the Week.




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