Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE)

Reader 1

Michael Fortner

Reader 2

Paul Hurley

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© 2022 Olivia Fish


In 1989, artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). A short few months after the two artists became grant recipients, the funding for each of them was pulled as a result of escalating controversy and anger over the art created by both artists being funded by a federal organization. Those angered by the art and their respective grants tied the messaging of the art to the beliefs and values of the state—Serrano’s photograph being tied to a commentary on the overcommercialization of religion and Mapplethorpe’s exhibition being unabashedly queer and, at times, overtly sexual in nature. This thesis seeks to understand why the NEA funding was taken away from Mapplethorpe and Serrano, and more broadly intends to analyze what art as free speech means and what is required of the state in this context. The two case studies specifically look at Serrano’s photograph, Immersion (Piss Christ), and Mapplethorpe’s full-scale retrospective, The Perfect Moment. The thesis reviews existing arguments for state funding of the arts as well as arguments against such funding. Moreover, it introduces a concept of free speech that embraces the two-tier theory framework not when it comes to speech that should be protected, but rather in how the state should engage with protected free speech. After understanding the arguments for state funding of the arts, how art is conceptualized as free speech, and what the implications for the state are when funding art, it concludes that the pulling of the funds for Serrano and Mapplethorpe reflect a failure of the state. This thesis purports a robust framework that can be applied to future cases of state funding for the arts, underscoring that in many cases, art is entitled to funding to access its fullest free speech protections when it is strengthened by arguments in support of state funding of the arts and the art does not constitute as hateful or illiberal speech.