The day after Christmas, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that included $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The amount was about $20 million more than NEA funding for 2007: $124.5 million.

According to this report by the Akron Beacon Journal, this is the largest increase the once-belabored federal agency has seen in 24 years.

The highest level of NEA’s funding was $175.9 million in 1992. But after the fall-out from the taxpayer-sponsored Piss Christ, it seemed the NEA would forever be aligned by social conservatives with urine and the bullwhip lodged firmly in Robert Mapplethorpe’s ass.

It’s taken nearly two decades, and mountains of change led by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a poet and former corporate executive, but it’s finally happened — the conversation about the arts has grown up.

In other words, we’re no longer stuck on poopy jokes.

Perhaps the testimonials by leading artists and administrators like Wynton Marsalis had some impact on the minds of Congress and the President. But it’s also possible, perhaps more likely, that the United States has just gotten savvier when it comes to the arts.

Some writers, like Artsjournal‘s Doug McLennan, have talked about the rise of an arts culture. But there’s also the enormous amount of research that has gone into studying the arts as they relate to medicine, psychology, education, urban renewal, and quality of life.

Perhaps I’m being a bit of a Pollyanna in thinking that we’ve turned a corner of some kind. Maybe we can set aside the deleterious notion that the arts have to justify themselves somehow — lately, with reams of paper devoted to economic impact studies. Maybe we can embrace the assumption that the arts are a good thing unto themselves.