8 Public Administration Review •January/February 2005, Vol. 65, No. 1
Gregory B. Lewis
Georgia State University
Arthur C. Brooks
A Question of Morality: Artists’ Values and
Public Funding for the Arts
In 1989, the combination of art, religion, homosexuality, and public dollars set off an explosive
two-year battle and a decade of skirmishes over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
To promote artistic freedom and to avoid political controversy, federal arts policy delegates spe-
cific funding decisions to private donors and arts professionals. In an era of morality politics—hot-
button issues driven by deeply held beliefs rather than by expertise—that strategy no longer works.
Artists, donors, and arts audiences diverge widely from the rest of the American public in their
attitudes toward religion, sexual morality, and civil liberties, as General Social Survey data show.
Delegating funding decisions to them has naturally led to some subsidies of art offensive to impor-
tant segments of the population.
“Americans for the most part are moral, decent people and
they have a right not to be denigrated, offended, or mocked
with their own tax dollars.”
—Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms
In 1989, two grants totaling $45,000 turned a small fed-
eral arts agency into a battlefield in the “culture wars.” The
photography exhibits receiving the grants included a pic-
ture of a crucifix immersed in urine and several explicitly
homoerotic and sadomasochistic images. Cultural conser-
vatives charged the National Endowment for the Arts
(NEA) with funding blasphemy and indecency. Artists and
cultural liberals charged NEA critics with censoring free
expression. The combination of art, religion, sex, homo-
sexuality, and public dollars set off an explosive two-year
political battle and a decade of skirmishes.
How did public funding for the arts briefly generate the
kind of controversy typical of issues such as abortion, gay
rights, and capital punishment? Like these other “morality
politics” issues, NEA funding became a fight over “first
principles,” over “legal sanctions of right and wrong”
(Mooney 2001, 3). Opposing sides framed the battle as a
fight between decency and immorality, or between free
expression and censorship, making the issue easy—people
could confidently take sides without studying the issue
(Carmines and Stimson 1980; Haider-Markel and Meier
1996)—and politically salient—people cared enough that
public opinion mattered more than usual to elected offi-
cials (Mooney 2001).
Why was the NEA susceptible to having its existence
framed as a legal sanction of right and wrong? We argue
that a weak normative justification for public funding of
the arts, a divergence in values between the arts commu-
nity and others, and the political mobilization of Christian
conservatives made public money for the arts a hot-button
issue. Congress has traditionally tried to shelter federal
subsidies to the arts from political controversy by delegat-
ing specific funding decisions to private donors or experts.
Because the arts community differs from the rest of the
country in its attitudes toward religion, sex, and sex roles,
however, this divergence of values left public funding for
the arts susceptible to political controversy when Chris-
Gregory B. Lewis is a professor of public administration and urban studies
at Georgia State University and director of the joint PhD program in public
policy of Georgia State and the Georgia Institute of Technology. His re-
search focuses on the effects of race, sex, sexual orientation, and other
personal and organizational characteristics on the careers of public em-
ployees. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur C. Brooks is an associate professor of public administration at Syra-
cuse University’s Maxwell School and director of the nonprofit studies pro-
gram at the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute. His research focuses on
philanthropy, cultural policy, and the economics of nonprofit organizations.