With arts and public broadcast issues percolating on the edge of the race for the 2012 presidential race, I thought it made sense to look at where the declared and prospective candidates for president have stood on arts issues throughout their careers. Their views on everything from arts education to intellectual property rights to support for local artistic traditions say a lot about how they value culture — but also about how they think about the role of government.
Of all the Republican candidates in the 2012 field, Newt Gingrich is the one who’s invested most of his career in crusading against so-called obscene art and public funding for the arts. But he’s also the rare politician who is also an artist, having published a spate of historical novels throughout his career:
1991: As controversy raged about the National Endowment of the Arts’ support of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work Gingrich, then a Republican whip, encouraged his colleagues to vote for a bill that would have prohibited the NEA from funding projects that in any way “promote, disseminate or produce materials that depict or describe in a patently offensive way sexual or excretory activities or organs.” The furor was to provide a major theme for Gingrich’s tenure as speaker of the House after the Republican victories in the 1994 midterm elections.
1993: Cobb County, Georgia, a major bastion of Gingrich support, cut arts funding, saying that it helped promote a “gay agenda.”
1994: When Gingrich unveiled the Contract With America, it proposed cutting National Endowment for the Arts funding by 50 percent. Gingrich said he hoped to go even further, privatizing the NEA and public broadcasting.
1995: As the battle over the NEA’s continued existence kicked off, Gingrich said on C-SPAN: “I am for the Atlanta Ballet. I’m for the Metropolitan — maybe the greatest art museum in America — in New York City. But I’m against self-selected elites using your tax money and my tax money to pay off their friends.” After a fierce battle, the NEA budget was slashed by 40 percent, but it wasn’t killed immediately.
He did find common ground with Democrats, though, when the Clinton administration slapped Chinese exports with a 100 percent tariff over persistent failure to enforce laws on piracy of software, music and movies, Gingrich supported the administration’s move. He also held some of the first major meetings between top Republicans and Hollywood studio chiefs, at which piracy was a major point of discussion, aimed at trying to recruit a traditionally Democratic industry as a Republican constituency.
This same year, Gingrich also publishes the first of many historical novels, 1945, an alternate history of World War II in which America is left isolated against Nazi Germany. He would follow with series on the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and continue his World War II novels with the same co-author.
1997: After a bruising battle, Gingrich moderated his stance on the arts somewhat, inviting Alec Baldwin and other to Washington to discuss funding mechanisms for the arts. Republicans still attempted to close NEA and replace the agency with a block grant program to the states, but that effort eventually failed and efforts to defund the agency puttered out.
1998: Consistent with his long-running interest in technology and the development of the internet Gingrich founds Congress’s High Technology Working Group.
Today’s debate over public funding for the arts is essentially a retread of Gingrich’s efforts to shutter the NEA, minus the rhetoric about support for gay art. The narrower focus on deficit reduction might make more sense politically, but it’s also failed to galvanize outsized passions, which may be one reason it’s sunk so swiftly below the political waves. Similarly, Gingrich’s support for copyright enforcement prefigures the positions of most of his colleagues in the race, who see piracy as a key trade issue.