Art for All?
To the Editor:
I read Michael J. Lewis’s “After the Art Wars” [January] with interest, and would like to offer some clarification on his speculations about the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Mr. Lewis writes that that the NEA has “six separate programs”; in fact, there are fourteen disciplines and seven active National Initiatives in which grants are given. While it is true that congressional reforms stipulate that the NEA must provide funding by way of arts organizations, there still are direct grants to individuals in the categories of literary prose, poetry, and translation, as well as lifetime achievement awards in jazz, folk and traditional arts, and opera. The NEA also manages the nominations for the National Medal of Arts.
In addition, an initiative like Shakespeare in American Communities gives direct support to individual artists through employment. Since its inauguration in 2003, the Shakespeare program has reached more than 1,700 cities and towns across all 50 states, and employed thousands of actors, designers, costumers, and stagehands. More important, it has brought more than a million students into a professional production of live theater.
As for Mr. Lewis’s notion that the NEA has been distancing itself from the visual arts, nothing could be farther from the truth. Besides the many direct grants the NEA gives to museums, its American Masterpieces program celebrates the extraordinary evolution of the visual arts in America by way of exhibitions, commissions, and residencies for artists. Beyond that, the agency also administers the Arts and Artifacts Indemnity program of the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, which by subsidizing insurance costs has made it possible for museum visitors across the country to see important works of art from around the globe.
Finally, Mr. Lewis points with dismay to the fact that the NEA has “set itself the goal of delivering a direct grant to every congressional district.” But this is not a matter of politics or of lower standards. It is a matter of democratic fairness—of honoring the mandate to bring the transformative power of art to all Americans.
Felicia K. Knight
National Endowment for the Arts
To the Editor:
Although there were many forces that merged to create the perfect storm of the NEA’s culture wars in the 1990’s, I agree with Michael Lewis’s general line of argument. The notion, common in the 80’s, that the NEA had the responsibility and the ability to advance a curatorial vision of “cutting-edge” art was politically naive. (I develop this point in some detail in a forthcoming book, Arts, Inc.) Moreover, the NEA was inattentive to where its money went—in 1992, nearly a third of grant funds were directed to New York state.
For decades the agency had been criticized by Congress on these and other matters, and had avoided budgetary punishment only because it was protected by a handful of powerful leaders on the Democratic side. Once that inch-wide, mile-deep support was swept away in the Republican rout of 1994, the Endowment took a pretty big fall. When I was chairman (1998-2001), we were able to restore congressional support and get the NEA budget growing again, but we did not do so by funding politically- or sexually-charged performance art; instead, we relied on our Challenge America Initiative and its popular community-arts grants.
There is a place for a National Endowment for the Arts—even an expanded one—but the agency needs to operate out of a solid vision of the cultural mainstream, and it must remain aware of how to distribute money fairly in a democracy.
To the Editor:
Michael J. Lewis writes: In these early years [in the 1960’s], 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.
Later on, Mr. Lewis writes: “A better solution would be a blanket decision to support no contemporary work whatsoever.”
Which is it?
New York City
Michael J. Lewis writes:
Felicia K. Knight’s letter in defense of the NEA, of which she is communications director, catches me in a factual error: the NEA indeed comprises fourteen programs (although there were six at its founding in 1965). And she is right that the NEA has performed laudably in some areas: education is a bright spot, and so is the indemnity program, which comes at a time when insurance premiums have made the borrowing of works of art from Europe virtually unaffordable.
But Felicia Knight inadvertently confirms my point that the art wars of the late 1980’s have made the once-ambitious agency into a cautious dispenser of largesse. One can certainly strive for both artistic excellence and breadth of reach, but at a certain point these criteria will come into conflict. In cultivating a rose, one must ultimately give pride of place to one trait, and just as the modern florist has chosen color over scent, so the NEA has chosen to give a “direct grant to every congressional district” (not my words but those of her director).
A vivid example of this conflict between breadth and quality is given by Bill Ivey, who acted with probity and good judgment when he chaired the NEA. But he concedes that it was politically unacceptable for a third of grant funds to go to New York. However, given New York’s role as the principal center of American art, it might well be that such a distribution made good sense—just as it would make sense for the French government to favor Paris. I look forward with anticipation to Mr. Ivey’s book.
Finally, Peter Plagens believes he has found a contradiction in my suggesting on the one hand that the NEA should not be in the business of underwriting the creation of new works of art while on the other hand acknowledging that early grant recipients were of exceptional merit. But in 1965, when the agency was established, circumstances were unusually favorable for government support of the arts; in particular, the prevailing doctrine of formalism insulated art from explicit political content.
This is no longer the case. As art has expanded its boundaries to become, in many instances, indistinguishable from politics, it cannot ask to be subsidized by citizens of varying political views. Mr. Plagens is a critic of some distinction, and I wish he had let us know his own view of the matter.