The day after Christmas, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that included $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, about $20 million more than the NEA received last year. It’s 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 more than 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 is showing signs of having grown up.

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

Testimonials by leading artists and administrators like Wynton Marsalis no doubt had impact on the minds of Congress and the president. But it’s also likely that the United States has simply gotten savvier when it comes to the arts.

Some writers, like Artsjournal‘s Doug McLennan, have commented on what they see as the rise of an arts culture.

But there’s also the enormous amount of research being done in the study of the arts as they relate to medicine, psychology, education, urban renewal, and fundamental 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, like college sports and a free marketplace, are inherently good. Full stop. —John Stoehr

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