Commentary Magazine

After the Art Wars

For a brief and amusing interval in 2002 I was a candidate for the position of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Amusing, for there was never the slightest chance of my being chosen. This was inadvertently made clear by the first question during my interview in the East Wing of the White House. After the preliminary niceties, I was asked to sketch my life and accomplishments. “Of course,” my interviewer prompted helpfully, “we all know about your music.”

Ah yes, my music. Either she was referring to a certain defunct college band, suggesting background checks of shocking omniscience, or more likely she had taken me for the distinguished Welsh composer of film music. At that instant I knew that we were only going through the motions, and that a presumptive nominee was already waiting in the wings. And so he was. That September, Dana Gioia, a translator and poet of considerable distinction, was appointed chairman of the NEA.

To some, the choice may have seemed surprising; poetry is hardly the main channel of contemporary art. Yet it was understandable politically. Literacy had been a favorite theme of the Bush administration, and something of a personal crusade for the First Lady. One could glimpse her hand in the choice of Gioia. But one could also glimpse something else: the lingering aftershocks of the case of the “NEA Four.”

These were the four performance artists whose grants had been withdrawn in 1990 on the grounds of obscenity—an incident that triggered a harsh and protracted cultural battle that nearly destroyed the agency. The battle had been politically bruising to the first President Bush, and the second wished no reprise of it. Steering well clear of the visual arts—the grounds on which the “art wars” of the 1970’s and 80’s had been fought—he chose as non-controversial a chairman as could be imagined. And indeed Gioia’s chairmanship has been notable for its calm, as well as for such undeniably praiseworthy achievements as bringing Shakespeare and jazz performances to high-school students.

It is not only Republicans who have nervously shied away from the visual arts in recent decades. President Clinton, although elected with the rapturous and near unanimous support of the American art world, did much the same. His first NEA chairman was Jane Alexander, the well-known theater and television actress, and his second Bill Ivey, the head of the Country Music Association—each a safe populist choice.

It seems, then, that both Republicans and Democrats had learned the same lesson from the art wars: entanglement with the visual arts could do them no political good, and quite possibly much harm. Whichever party claims the presidency a year from now, this political calculus is unlikely to change. Can anyone believe that a President Hillary Clinton would be any more eager than a President Rudolph Giuliani to be linked publicly to a performance artist like Karen Finley, whose chocolate-dipped nudity made her the most memorable of the NEA Four?

What this means, however, is that the NEA has become a very different entity from what was once envisioned. At its founding in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared: “There is a quality in art which speaks across the gulf dividing man from man and nation from nation, and century from century. . . . The stakes may well be the survival of civilization.” Today the stakes are lower: last year, Gioia informed Congress that the NEA had “set itself the goal of delivering a direct grant to every congressional district in the United States.”
In brief, the NEA has withered in a matter of decades from a self-styled instrument of world peace to a cautious dispenser of largesse whose one inflexible principle is that no grant must ever redound to the administration’s embarrassment. Whether it can regain its early ambition—or whether it should try to—is an open question. But nobody contemplating a reform of this institution should begin without a clear and unsentimental understanding of America’s peculiarly fitful relationship to the arts, particularly the visual arts.



The NEA is a many-splendored thing. To be precise, six things: music, theater, dance, literature, education, and the visual arts. Of these six separate programs, only the last has aroused serious controversy. This is only partly because the visual arts are, literally, visible. After all, the performing arts—music, theater, and dance—can similarly succeed in provoking their audiences to paroxysms of indignation. But the events they create are ephemeral, and their audiences usually comprise increments numbering only in the hundreds. Moreover, insofar as they draw from an existing canon of works, the performing arts exist usually at some remove from the contentious issues of the day. As for literature, it is largely experienced on an individual basis and is perhaps the least public of the arts.

By contrast, visual art has an extraordinary capacity to stir emotions at a collective level, and with a single provocative image. The image can be Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima in World War II, or Andres Serrano’s photo of a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. Whatever the message, the medium can command public attention with an immediacy and urgency granted to no other art.

It is true that, throughout much of American history, the visual arts lived a stunted and somewhat faltering existence. Often pointed to in this connection are the absence of aristocratic patronage, of great collections, or of opportunities for artistic training. And there was also, from the very beginning, a deep and abiding suspicion of the visual arts, a suspicion deriving ultimately from the Second Commandment and its injunction against graven images. This attitude created the visually parched space of the Puritan meeting house, where congregants—guarded against any taint of papist idolatry—might listen without distraction to the sermon preached by the minister. Such sermons, running in their 17th-century form to several hours, and closing with a moral charge to the congregation, comprised early America’s primal aesthetic experience, an experience that was in fact not visual but verbal.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the same impulse still conditions the way we understand art—the impulse, that is, to think of art as justified by the lesson it imparts rather than the pleasure it gives. This essentially utilitarian or instrumental view has served over the centuries to validate all kinds of artistic production, from Hudson River School naturalism to New Deal realism. One can see its force today when, for example, an NEA spokesman claims there is “plenty of proof that arts funding affects quality-of-life issues, including helping to prevent youth crime.”

The only period when the utilitarian view of art was consciously suppressed was from the late 1930’s to the mid-1960’s. This was the era of formalism, according to whose tenets any superadded political or didactic content in art was proscribed as a form of “kitsch” (in the judgment of the influential Clement Greenberg). But the heyday of formalism was brief, and in the long arc of American art something of an aberration. Fatefully, it was in this same fleeting and aberrant moment that the NEA was founded, with consequences we shall return to.



Not that the idea of a federal role in the arts was itself an aberration, or as great an aberration as is often claimed. Despite the lack of a deeply rooted culture of patronage, the federal government was inevitably compelled to make art—in the form of coins, monuments, and buildings. Especially buildings: post offices and customs houses, prisons and courthouses, arsenals, hospitals, and mints, many of them embellished with monumental statuary, allegorical paintings, and other works of decorative art. These government buildings, however, were regularly paid for through appropriations bills. This meant that their artistic patronage, for better or worse, came under the bailiwick of the Treasury, whose supervising architect (a position created in 1852) handled the commissions. The result is the solidly but predictably conventional work that is the mark of federal architecture.

How different this was from the case of France, where, from the time of Louis XIV, the arts were consciously employed as a matter of state policy and, successively, of royal and then national identity. In this capacity, the academies and collections established by Louis have survived under democracy and dictatorship, monarchy and empire, into our day. When an American sighs for enlightened government patronage of the arts, it is this model, whether he knows it or not, he is imagining.

To pine, however, for an American version of France’s enlightened cultural politics—and to think that it might be summoned forth simply by creating a grant-giving agency and furnishing it with a princely budget—is to misunderstand the complex organic relationship between the state and the art world that developed historically in France. The French government was never in the business of issuing blank checks to artists. The aspiring painters and architects who trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts followed a rigorous system that groomed them for state employment. In the 19th century, the academicians evaluating student work and awarding the all-important Rome Prize formed a kind of supreme court of aesthetics and, fittingly, were appointed for life.

This helps explain the high standards of French academic art—a result of fierce competition within a very limited stylistic range—but also its essential conservatism. In the meantime, many of what we regard as the fundamental achievements of French art took place outside this elaborate edifice and in deliberate opposition to it. The price of state-supported art, after all, is state art.

A model much closer to the experience of the United States was that of 17th-century Holland, a mercantile republic that sustained an extraordinarily buoyant and vigorous artistic culture entirely through private collectors. America’s most important patrons, similarly, emerged out of the mercantile tradition, and specifically from the ranks of the great industrial magnates of the Gilded Age. Enjoying the unprecedented wealth that steel, railroad, and oil monopolies provided, these men entered into the acquisition of art with the same determined single-mindedness that brought them business success. America’s major public collections are in significant measure due to the purchases and bequests of the Frick, Vanderbilt, Getty, Rockefeller, and other industrialist families. Even the National Gallery was essentially a private bequest, created by Andrew Mellon and filled with the Rembrandts collected by traction magnate Peter A.B. Widener.

In this one respect, America’s artistic culture does resemble that of France: it, too, is the complex product of a lengthy historical process, with its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses and its own characteristic pattern of triumphs and debacles.



The Great Depression acted to discredit the industrial tycoons who formed America’s great public collections. As artistic patronage by plutocracy no longer seemed quite so desirable, attempts were mounted to make the federal government a player. A congressional bill was introduced in 1937 to establish a “Bureau of Fine Arts,” an initiative that faltered and was revived in various incarnations over the ensuing decades. Not until 1965, with LBJ’s Great Society program, did the idea finally bear fruit. In that year the National Endowment for the Arts was established (along with a parallel National Endowment for the Humanities), giving America its long-deferred opportunity to shape a national cultural policy.

And this the NEA tried to do. Although its budget was fairly modest, just over $7.5 million, it moved with remarkable dispatch. Within a year, it had awarded grants to 22 institutions and 135 individual artists, and helped to establish the American Film Institute. The operation was also quite lean, awarding $16.00 in grants for every dollar spent on administration.

In these early years, the grant recipients were eminently deserving. They included the Martha Graham dance company; Tony Smith, a minimalist sculptor; Edward Ruscha, a Pop artist and maker of artists’ books; and Daniel Flavin, a pioneer of the use of light as a sculptural material. While the work of the recipients would not be to everyone’s taste, they represented an irreproachable selection of promising young artists at a critical moment in their careers.

The organization would not stay lean for long. In the Nixon administration, it expanded by a factor of eight, a calculated diversion (so cynics claimed) from the woes of Vietnam. But more serious was a change in the art world itself that in turn transformed the relationship between art and the public.

Within a few years of the founding of the NEA, the doctrine of formalism, which had insulated art from any sort of didactic program and instituted a kind of cordon sanitaire between art and politics, collapsed utterly. The Vietnam war, the international upheavals of 1968, the rise of the New Left and the counterculture—all these suggested to many artists that a detached apolitical stance was no longer tenable, and was in fact immoral. In 1939, when it was first formulated, Clement Greenberg’s proscription of kitsch may have been heady stuff to young artists, liberating them from the pieties of social realism, but their successors three decades later were more likely to be enchanted by the bracing mini-manifesto painted on a Paris wall: “The most beautiful sculpture is a paving stone thrown at a cop’s head.”

By the mid-1980’s, the American art world had turned fiercely hostile to formalism. The extreme and rapid politicization of art that took its place was the consequence of a number of developments, including the decline in the importance of painting, the corresponding rise of performance art, the emergence of identity politics and of a highly political feminism, and, perhaps most important of all, the AIDS epidemic, whose victims included a disproportionate number of artists. It was against this background that Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was created, a photograph showing a plastic crucifix suspended in a jar of the artist’s urine.

The 1989 revelation that NEA funds had been used to pay for an exhibition of Serrano’s work can be regarded as a pivotal moment in the art wars. At about the same time, much attention also focused on Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of a man urinating into the mouth of another man and on Ron Athey’s “Four Scenes in a Harsh Life,” a performance in which the artist sliced into the back of a man suffering from AIDS, blotted the cuts with towels, and appeared to hoist them over the audience. In both instances NEA support was similarly at play, and although the subsidies were trifling in terms of dollars, they were tax dollars nevertheless. The American public, generally indifferent to the arts, now began to take a hard look, and did not like what it saw.



In a May 1990 article in COMMENTARY, “Backward & Downward with the Arts,” Samuel Lipman, the magazine’s music critic and a long-time member of the NEA’s advisory council, described the peculiar plight of the agency. On the one hand, there was the absolute lack of any coherent national policy: “though we spend public money, the purposes for which it is spent are random, aimless as to desired outcome, and subject to no accountability as to either expenditure or result.” On the other hand, there was policy by default—that of promoting cutting-edge art, which was inevitably distinguished not by the “artistic achievement it has displayed but by its extra-artistic, social content.” This last feature may have been compatible with a longstanding American attitude toward art, as I have noted, but the difference was that now American taxpayers were being required to subsidize both the art and its extra-artistic content.

Under congressional pressure led by Senator Jesse Helms—who regarded the outright abolition of the NEA as something of a sacred duty—the agency reluctantly instituted a series of reforms, at first requiring grant applicants to sign a document that they would not produce obscene works and then eliminating entirely the program of grants to individual artists. These acts predictably enraged the art community, but at the same time they considerably defused the political pressure to do something more drastic about the NEA. Thus, during the early 1990’s, the controversy relaxed, so much so that the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America” did not even mention the NEA (or culture in general).

Indeed, although the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 had delighted supporters of the arts who assumed that he would be a staunch defender of the agency, their confidence was somewhat misplaced. His naming of Jane Alexander as chairman was a shrewd political move; herself an artist, she was also a charming and personable woman who could elicit greater public sympathy than would a combative champion of free speech. But her job was to strip the NEA of any radical taint, and for this, as her inadvertently revealing memoir shows (Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics), her earnest ineptitude made her the right person. Apart from the occasional slip—a lesbian artist in Santa Monica used NEA funding to perform “Sex with Newt Gingrich’s Mother”—Alexander charmed enough congressmen to take the wind out of the sails of the agency’s more extreme opponents. Nevertheless, the Republican majority in both houses managed to put through a punitive cut of the $162-million budget by 40 percent and a reduction of its staff from 279 to 148. (In recent years, the budget has slowly crept up, but it still remains well below its 1992 peak.)

If, moreover, Alexander’s foxhole strategy ultimately saved the agency, her victory was achieved at the cost of dumbing it down, or perhaps I should say dumbing it down further. In Partisan Review, Edith Kurzweil lamented that Alexander had turned the NEA into “the National Endowment for the Arts and Crafts.” But in fact the NEA had long since ceased being an instrument for discerning artistic excellence, if it ever had been. As Joseph Epstein, like Lipman a veteran of the NEA’s advisory council, would report in COMMENTARY (“What to Do About the Arts,” April 1995), aesthetic concerns seemed no more welcome at the NEA than in a 17th-century Puritan meeting house:

Mediocrity, the question of what may be called quality control, was rarely discussed during my time at the NEA. It could not be. Most NEA panelists believed in encouraging the putatively disadvantaged more than they believed in art itself, and this made them prey to the grim logic of affirmative action. . . . Add to this the assumption that artists themselves were members of a downtrodden minority group, as “entitled” to their grants as other supposed victims. And then toss in plain old-fashioned politics in the form of congressmen and members of the council who wanted to make sure that, say, Florida and Colorado got their share of grants. What we had was a fine recipe for spreading artistic mediocrity across the country.



Tellingly, neither the arts community itself nor its liberal constituency has ever defended the NEA on grounds of aesthetic merit. The arguments made on its behalf invariably boil down to a simple proposition: what is good for the arts community—that is, those who make art, exhibit it, and write about it—is perforce good for art. But is it? Operating on a similar principle, the Dutch government in the 1950’s began vigorously buying up works of art as a form of social welfare, making its purchases on the basis of an artist’s financial status rather than the quality of his work. In theory there should have been no limit to so enlightened a policy; but there was. In 1991, its warehouses filled to capacity, the government ran out of space, and had to undertake the embarrassing task of selling or giving away 215,000 unwanted sculptures, paintings, and prints.

The lesson should be obvious enough: superior works of art cannot be summoned on command, and certainly not by committees. Some years ago the cultural critic Camille Paglia proposed the establishment of a national endowment for rock and roll—an indigenous form of American art that was, she argued, as influential on the international scene as jazz music and whose contemporary creators were therefore by definition worthy of government support and encouragement. But Paglia’s piece, which appeared in the New York Times, showed precisely why such national endowments will always flounder when it comes to the production of new art.

Whatever one thinks of American rock and roll as an art form, its emergence in the 1950’s benefited from a concatenation of large social forces: the prosperity of the period, the northward migration of rural Southern blacks in previous decades, the social liberation made possible by the automobile, the relaxed mores of a postwar culture. The alignment of these forces with artistic ideas gave a peculiar urgency to the new popular music, but when the forces petered out over the next two decades, the music ceased to be so resonant (which may be why my students still listen to the rock and roll of the 1960’s). At no step in this process could government intervention have helped; can one imagine Elvis Presley applying for a grant, or getting one?

One might object that rock and roll is hardly great art; but the story of American jazz is much the same, a story of large social and cultural forces converging at a single point. As with rock and roll, it is difficult to imagine how government guidance might have accelerated the process that resulted in jazz music, but quite easy to see how it might have hindered it, if only by bestowing upon jazz the unwarranted status of officially sanctioned art. In the end, energetic government support of new art will tend only to magnify already existing tendencies and ignore the truly innovative ones (much as the official French art apparatus ignored Impressionism in its day).

This is not to say that government support does harm across the board. The question always is: support for what? In the case of the performing arts, which depend on an unbroken living tradition that is passed on collectively, it can do much good. The audiences for music and dance have long been graying (perhaps whitening is now the better term), and there is much concern that they will vanish within a generation’s time. Here, the role of the NEA would not be to create but rather to preserve or, if it comes to that, to “cocoon” art by means of a holding action: for instance, subsidizing classical orchestras and ballet companies so as to maintain a cadre of professionals who will keep alive what would otherwise become a dead language. As it happens, this is precisely the area where the NEA record has historically been brightest.

Another proper area of public action is the precipitous decline in recreational reading on the part of young Americans, a decline with not only cultural ramifications but ominous practical ones—including the future ability of the American labor force to read and write reports, interpret instructions, and analyze problems verbally. Even at the risk of falling prey to an instrumental view of the arts, one would do well to support the NEA’s recent focus on studying the condition of American literacy and instituting programs for advancing it.

For obvious political reasons, the NEA is not about to be abolished in the near future. That being the case, why should it not devote itself to those things that it can do—and remove itself from those activities, like choosing which trends to embrace in contemporary art, in which it is unfit to judge?

To be sure, the NEA no longer provides direct grants to contemporary artists, and now supports them only indirectly, insulated by several layers of bureaucracy. But this further increases administrative costs and diminishes the percentage of the NEA budget that actually reaches performers and artists. A better solution would be a blanket decision to support no contemporary work whatsoever. Something like that was behind William F. Buckley, Jr.’s proposal in 1989 that no NEA funds go toward subsidizing “any putative work of art under 50 years old.” This, Buckley explained, “would distinguish the Rodins from the Mapplethorpes.”

Perhaps in 50 years we will come to recognize Mapplethorpe as a Rodin; perhaps not. In either case, the 50-year rule would permit the dust and clutter of current events to settle, and in the meantime enable the NEA better to steward America’s artistic patrimony by supporting museums, exhibitions, and performances of works validated by the cumulative consensus of time. This alone could help mend the breach between the American public and its arts community, not to mention the tragic and unnecessary division of Right and Left over what should properly be the legacy of us all.

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