The Long View: Art Lessons

I love this essay. Once I read it, I never saw the National Endowment for the Arts the same way. John had a way of framing things that was simultaneously novel and familiar, and this is one of the best examples of that for me. There are probably a dozen quips in this article that resonate with me, even now.

By way of example:

However, since there was no one agency at the federal level responsible for subsidizing "art," the 1950s began to hear complaints that it was absurd for the United States to have no mechanism to promote high culture. European countries, famous artists complained, routinely spent large fractions of their budgets to patronize artists and showcase the national artistic heritage. (This is yet more true today. The French even have a Deputy Minister for Culture in charge of promoting French rock- and-roll. That is why you whistle French pop music on the way to work.]

There actually is French pop music I like. You can thank Slumdog Millionaire for that.

I also listen to NPR, because I am in fact a SWPL.

Art Lessons:
Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding
by Alice Goldfarb Marquis
Basic Books, 1995
$22.00
ISBN: 0-465-00437-7

 

Funding the Artistic Deficit

The best way to learn about a large subject is to become thoroughly familiar with some small part of it. The part you learn about will provide a point of reference for the study of the whole, which otherwise would appear to be a mass of unrelated detail. That is just what this book, by an independent scholar at the University of California at San Diego, does for the collapse of the fine arts in the late twentieth century. The focus of the book is the history (and prehistory) of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the agency founded in 1965 to help raise the populace to a level of artistic sophistication worthy of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.

It really should be emphasized just how small the NEA is in the scheme of things. At the height of its funding in the 1980s, it disposed of only about $170 million dollars per year. More than half of this went to salaries and supporting expenses, and the whole was less than New York City alone spent on artistic endeavors. It should also be emphasized how little of what money the NEA does manage to distribute goes to produce such works as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or the homoerotic-sadomasochistic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The NEA is in many ways simply a pretentious patronage organization: Congress has been funding it because it pays for cultural festivals and museum exhibitions in the members' home districts. It is not even an "endowment" in any serious sense of the word, since it has no assets but what Congress appropriates. Its very existence is up for review every two years. However, the NEA is significant as the point where several tales meet. In it we see the power of local campaign contributors, the influence of the foundations and the long story of the exhaustion of the arts in the modern era. The Endowment has always been a largely symbolic institution. Its history provides a symbolic guide to trends far more important than the agency itself.

While America has never been terribly enthusiastic about the principle of "art for art's sake," it has always been enthusiastic about the "art religion." This nineteenth century cult rests on the slightly incoherent conviction that certain pictures, buildings and public performances are in themselves good for the soul and good for society. It is a cheerful cult. As Alice Goldfarb Marquis suggests, its spirit is that of the 1957 musical, "The Music Man," in which a town is persuaded to save itself from moral degeneration by a mellifluous con-man, who sells them equipment for a marching band. In the nineteenth century, of course, this national project of moral uplift was carried out on the Chautauqua circuit, in vaudeville halls and in granges. Scenes from Shakespearean plays might be followed by a dog act, followed in turn by a reading of treacly poetry. People gladly heard new compositions by serious contemporary composers, which might appear on the same bill as Sousa marches (Sousa, after all, was contemporary, too). Even then, of course, there was some distinction between vulgar spectacle and serious art, but in the United States this did not really become institutionalized until around the turn of the century. The instrument that separated high culture from mere popular entertainment was the nonprofit corporation.

At least in its artistic incarnation, this novel class of institution first appeared in the neighborhood of Boston. At that time, the city was largely overrun by an Irish rabble, so the better people of the city sought to create institutions in which civilization could be in some measure preserved. The museums and orchestras which the new foundations funded were, of course, "public" institutions. Certainly there were open to anyone who could pay admission, or even for free. Their chief claim to tax exemption lay in the assertion that they were providing public services. This was perfectly true. However, from that day to this the foundations, and the purely public agencies that followed them, have always dissimulated about the size of the audience they served. The Boston orchestras and museums served a relatively small public drawn from the class of well-educated professionals. It was true then, and it is true today. National Public Radio, for instance, provides some excellent programming, but for all their protestations of populism and diversity, their denim-clad audience consists of the spiritual descendents of those Bostonians in evening dress and furs. The "public" of the not-for-profit cultural organizations, like the "people" of who embody Rousseau's "General Will," somehow always seems to be limited to about 10% of the actual population.

In the decades that followed, government at various levels spent quite a lot on "art" of various sorts. The General Services Administration of the federal government, for instance, has long required that the construction budgets for federal buildings contain a certain amount for art. Funding bills for education routinely provided for money to bring art into the schools. Neither were localities neglectful of their duties to the art religion, particularly with regard to serious music. The City of New York, for instance, organized New York City Center in record time during the Second World War and lodged it in a conveniently derelict Masonic Hall. However, since there was no one agency at the federal level responsible for subsidizing "art," the 1950s began to hear complaints that it was absurd for the United States to have no mechanism to promote high culture. European countries, famous artists complained, routinely spent large fractions of their budgets to patronize artists and showcase the national artistic heritage. (This is yet more true today. The French even have a Deputy Minister for Culture in charge of promoting French rock- and-roll. That is why you whistle French pop music on the way to work.]

The charge of American stinginess was nonsense, of course. In addition to the nonprofit cultural corporations, which by 1965 were donating more than half-a-billion dollars to cultural activities annually, America had produced another invention, the "charitable" tax deduction. This essentially lets individuals and corporations subsidize cultural activity using public money. (Much of this money, of course, does not go to support secular cultural activities, but then one might take this fact as an instance of people voting with their wallets.) Be this as it may, enlightened opinion in the Kennedy Administration had it that the United States would not be an intellectually mature nation until it had a national arts agency. Indeed, an arts agency was held to be a necessity in the Cold War, since the Russians ran a cultural propaganda industry as lavish as their Olympic sports program. The NEA, in other words, was created by much the same people, and for some of the same reasons, as those that brought us the war in Vietnam.

Lyndon Johnson actually got Congress to buy these arguments. He did this partly as yet another homage to his supposedly more civilized predecessor, though in fact John Kennedy did not have much interest in the arts, either. As is so often the case, it was his wife who was the priestess of the art religion in their household. The chief problem in designing the arts agency was to find some mechanism to keep both the scholars and the artists happy. The original idea of creating a single "culture" department was abandoned when it became clear these two groups had different interests. The solution was to create two agencies, the NEA and the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities), both components, for reasons known only to God, of the Department of the Interior. The NEH, which tends to fund things like bookwriting fellowships, has arguably become more politically correct in recent years than ever the NEA did, but its efforts, being usually less visible, attract less criticism. The structure of the NEA is supposed to be simple. The chair ultimately decides which applicants are given grants. He is assisted in this by a council, whose members, presumably artists themselves, serve for a term of years. (Later legislation forbade the chair to grant any applications rejected by the council.) The council, turn, is advised by a variable number of panels of artists and experts, each panel dedicated to a special area, such as "jazz" or "dance" or "ceramics."

This rather hierarchical structure originally provoked fears that the chair would become a culture Czar, and that the National Council on the Arts would become a Star Chamber of national taste. Nothing of the kind happened, of course. The original NEA council consisted of strong personalities prominent in the arts. The amount of money they had to distribute in the early years was derisory, $2.5 million in the first year, maybe a thirtieth of what the Ford Foundation was spending on symphony orchestras alone. The council members all quickly set a pattern of grabbing for their own areas whatever funds there were. Richard Nixon, the architect of the late liberal state, increased these appropriations ten and twenty-fold in the delusory hope that then artists would hate him less. As money became available on a regular basis, arts organizations formed to receive it. Museums of this and that, dance troupes and university theater companies proliferated to a degree that can only be called dismaying. The process of institution-building was considerably facilitated by the new cadres of professional philanthropists created by the foundations, particularly Ford, to administer the distribution of their money.

The growth of state arts councils was a large part of the story. Populated by local notables who also happened to be the chief campaign contributors to most members of Congress, they developed a matching-grant arrangement with the NEA, whereby a little federal money provided the seal of approval for a lot of state and local money. Since the organizations in question often depended on public money (though rarely federal money alone), grants tended to become entitlements. The number of applications ballooned, but the bulk of NEA money inevitably gravitated to a few large, gray arts institutions, suitable venues for the public-spirited activities of the NEA's upper middle class grassroots.

By the 1970s, the NEA council was populated by foundation trustees, museum directors, and similar busy art bureaucrats who often failed to attend meetings. When their attention could be spared, they were no less greedy and parochial than their colorful predecessors had been. Almost all of the NEA chairs have been canny administrators with a subtle understanding of the ways of Washington. However, with the exception of Livingston Biddle, appointed during the Carter Administration, they have not been cultured people possessing a sophisticated understanding either of cultural history or of the contemporary arts. Neither they nor the council had any cultural policies, nor any real standards by which to judge the 17,000 applications that came before them every year. Their press releases emphasized the search for excellence, but in fact their chief goal was the satisfaction or one or another artistic community. The injection of multiculturalism into the process, initiated largely through the intervention of Joan Mondale, wife of Carter's Vice President, did nothing to clarify the situation. Since the heads of the agency had no criteria, neither did the immense staff that the agency soon had to create to handle the paperflow. The end result was that the arts panels, flown to Washington and housed at great expense for their periodic meetings, became in most cases the final voices, indeed the only voices, on which artistic projects should be funded. The applications for which the panelists voiced support were often those of friends, who just as often returned the favor when they themselves were appointed to be panelists.

It is at this point in our tale of bureaucratic inertia that we encounter one of the great, silent realities of contemporary history. Even before NEA began to be put on a shorter leash during the Republican administrations of the 1980s, its leaders understood that they were not funding a new Renaissance. This realization was something of a surprise, since hopes of this order had in fact been entertained during the heady days of the Kennedy Administration. After all, hadn't the 50s seen the birth of the International Style in architecture? Didn't Jackson Pollack's painting make a thousand years of representational art obsolete? Wasn't music being transformed by the experimentation of people like John Cage? One cringes to hear such assessments today, but sophisticated people really did believe such things thirty years ago. The applications for new artistic work the NEA received were mostly unobjectionable exercises in various forms of modernism. There was no reason not to fund them, but not even the NEA could pretend that the world would be a much worse place if they were never executed. The bureaucratic locution for the fact that most new art is not very good is "the artistic deficit." The artists had run out of new things to say.

The actual sterility of the past forty years has in no way discouraged the NEA (or other arts funders) from relentlessly promoting the ideology of modern art, which holds that there is always an avant garde pushing the arts in new, exciting directions. However, ideology is not everything, and even a passionate conviction in the eternal value of the shock of the new has not prevented most arts money from going to enterprises that are essentially curatorial. For instance, it is true that a vast number of new operas have been written and produced in the last two decades. Much of this work has been sponsored by universities. (A doctoral project of this sort provides the framework for Robertson Davies' novel, The Lyre of Orpheus (1988). Unlike the situation in the book, operas today are frequently driven by the libretto rather than the music. There are so many of them because they have become a form of literature.) Despite all this original work, however, opera companies continue to produce the old war-horses, their Don Giovannis and Zauberfloeten, to the unending satisfaction of their audiences. The state of orchestral music is even more revealing. Thanks in no small part to the NEA and the foundations, there are now about 2000 symphony orchestras in the United States from sea to shining sea, maybe a 170 of them professional companies. They will, from time to time, perform a contemporary piece, provided it's short and scheduled so that the audience cannot easily flee the theatre. However, the reality is that the repertoire of classical must is becoming as fixed as the list of the Chinese Five Classics. It follows an arc from Mozart to Mahler, and no amount of avant garde boosterism has made much progress toward expanding the canon. For most purposes, Western classical music is as "finished" as Euclidean geometry.

Nine-tenths of what the NEA does, therefore, has been consistently conservative. It was the other tenth that got it into trouble. In most people's lives in the 1970s and 80s, the NEA was likely to intrude as one of the sponsors of a new, appalling piece of sculpture in some local public place. It probably is not true that the NEA itself has a prejudice against representational art; that would require a level of aesthetic coherence that has always been beyond its ability. However, the NEA panelists who actually chose among the proposed sculptures certainly had (and have) such a prejudice. Thus, public spaces tended to fill up with stuff like the hard-to-describe "Batcolumn" in Chicago or "Tilted Arc" in New York. The latter, a long steel wall cutting across the courtyard of the federal building in lower Manhattan, actually made the front doors of the building almost unusable in high winds. While the artists' contracts and state laws often made it nearly impossible to remove such objects once they had been installed, some, such as the construction of yellow aluminum parallelograms set up to great fanfare in Flint, Michigan, displayed a gratifying tendency to collapse on their own. Though rarely causing moral outrage, these sculptures did create the impression in much of the general public that the people running the NEA must be very odd people indeed.

It took the politically radical and sexually aggressive art of the 1980s to persuade much of the public that the NEA was positively evil. Art Lessons does not dwell on the horror- story projects that made the agency the apple of the demagogue's eye, though it does mention some that had escaped my attention, such as the animal-rights film that consisted of a repeating sequence of a dog being shot, and of the performance art that involved suspending the artist from the ceiling of the gallery with fishhooks. Called to account for these goings-on, the council and the chair (for most of the period, the stolid and sensible Reagan-appointee Frank Hodsoll) could justly point to two layers of insulation from the dead dogs and suspended artists.

There were, of course, the panels themselves. The artist panel-members really were not doing much work that even they found very interesting. However, we should remember that the 1980s were a period of "asset" inflation, when the market value of everything from real estate to classic cars rose to absurd heights. New art was no different. The panelists thought that, since you could sell bones in a bag for hundreds of thousands of dollars, art was pretty much anything they said it was. The Endowment's money had to be spent somehow. They also recalled the slogan of the nineteenth century avant garde, "Shock the bourgeoisie!" Indeed, this was almost the last artistic criterion they were willing to entertain. For a project to be repellant was in itself something of a plus for it. The second layer of insulation was provided by the arts organizations to which most grants actually went. The Mapplethorpe photo exhibition, for instance, was actually staged by museums. The NEA trusted the good sense of the curators, and in fact most of the exhibition consisted of perfectly respectable still-lifes. NEA applications are the size of a book, but they do not always give the agency a clear idea of just what the artists who eventually received the money would do with it. However, plausible deniability did not protect the NEA from the wrath of Congress, an institution inhabited by perhaps the last section of the bourgeoisie still capable of being shocked.

Government funding for the arts is now in decline, and not just at the federal level. It appears that we are in for a transformation of art institutions (and art markets) as great as that which occurred in the 1960s. There is no great mystery about why: they have been overbuilt, and many have lost touch with any real audience. Ms. Marquis hopes for something of a return to the 19th century, with impresarios providing a variety of arts, high and low, in response to the actual demand to be found in each local area. These people would merit some public funding. Unlike the back-slapping art panels of the current system, they would be accountable for the projects they promoted. At the very least, recommercializing the high arts would loose them from the deadening grip of the universities. To me at least, the idea of a federally supported P. T. Barnum in every state, or even every congressional district, does have some appeal. It would surely be less wasteful and less productive of embarrassment than the current system. However, it would not produce any more art of lasting value.

The crisis in the art business goes far beyond budget constraints. The fact is that we created this ecology of tax-supported, nonprofit art enterprises because we were confident that we could create work the equal of anything from the past. The NEA reflected the optimism of the 1960s, when it seemed that the world was going to be made new, and better, from the ground up. This is not a premonition widely shared today. Maybe the old Bostonians were right after all. The long-term goal, both of public and non-for-profit funding, may have to be limited to preservation. If ever another golden age does dawn on the arts in America, it will be because our familiarity with the golden ages of the past prepared us to receive it.

 



This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly