Commentary Magazine


Art for Politics' Sake

This past October, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) issued a major report on the state of the arts in America. Based on a series of public “forums” held in various American cities, American Canvas is packed with ostensibly good news. Between the founding of the NEA in 1965 and today, it seems, the agency has fulfilled and overfulfilled what in another place and time might have been called- a five-year plan. The number of American opera companies has risen from 27 to 120, of dance companies from 37 to 400, of theaters from 56 to 425. If, in 1970, there were only 720,000 self-described “artists” in the country, today we have 1,671,000. Another 1.3 million Americans now work in the “nonprofit-arts” sector, accounting for $37 billion in productivity and $3.4 billion in taxes.

American Canvas is subtitled “An Arts Legacy for Our Communities,” and this remarkable story of expansion, for which the NEA takes a large share of credit, might seem to be legacy enough. But the agency is well aware that others hold a different view; indeed, the overall tone of its report is less celebratory than defensive. For the fact is that the NEA is held in deep distrust. Since 1989, when controversy broke out over grants made for the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic photographs of male nudes and Andres Serrano’s rendering of a crucifix submerged in urine, the NEA has lost 9 percent of its public funding in real terms. Nor is the distrust limited to the hard-line conservatives who led the charge against the controversial artworks. The last time the Roper organization polled Americans about the NEA (in 1995), 54 percent thought it should be eliminated.

American Canvas is fairly mum about the controversies over grants, alluding to them only obliquely, and piously noting that “artists are frequently in the front ranks of those asking difficult questions, exploring difficult terrain.” Serrano and Mapplethorpe, though mentioned, are not discussed, and no direct reference is made to the NEA’s role in the works they created. As for such NEA-sponsored “performance artists” as Karen Finley, who smeared her naked body with chocolate, and the now-forgotten showman who sprinkled paying audiences with his HIV-positive blood, they go unnamed. Electing neither to defend nor to apologize, the report simply dismisses the outcry over government-sponsored obscene art as a creation of the “shallow, often manipulative nature of the mass media.”

Who, then, is to blame for the distrust in which the NEA is held? American Canvas offers two answers to this question. The more predictable one targets the incorrigible philistinism of the American public: the report laments that the $4.31 billion spent annually on live performances by nonprofit art groups “is less than half of what Americans [pay] for flowers, seeds, and potted plants.” But, as if aware of the sterility of this particular line of argument—it involves attacking the very people the NEA means to court—the authors of American Canvas have come up with a different, indeed a diametrically opposed, answer to the same question.

The real problem, in the present view of the NEA, is not that Americans are too philistine but—to the contrary—that the “arts community” itself has become too elitist. “In building an intricate network of public and private support,” American Canvas notes, “thousands of institutions over the past four decades may have stressed the specialized, professional aspects of the arts at the expense of their more pervasive participatory nature.” In this sentence, and many others like it throughout the report, the NEA is signaling a major shift in policy.

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What would it mean for the arts to manifest “their more pervasive participatory nature”? We seem to have here yet another instance of the by-now familiar plea for artistic “inclusiveness”—that is, for breaking down the distinctions between high culture and low, in favor of the latter. This is certainly what the Clinton administration seems to have had in mind in recently naming William Ivey, a folklorist and the head of the Country Music Foundation, to succeed the outgoing Jane Alexander as chairman of the NEA. And it is what a number of the participants in the public forums on which American Canvas is based had in mind as well. Thus, the folklorist William Wilson argued:

We must move away from the notion that art can only be found on the museum wall, at the concert hall, or on the performing stage. We must understand that art includes the expressive behaviors of ordinary people . . . things that we make with our words (songs, stories, rhymes, proverbs), with our hands (quilts, knitting, rawhide braiding, piecrust designs, dinner-table arrangements, garden layouts), and with our actions (birthday and holiday celebrations, worship practice, playtime activities, work practices).

But though American Canvas hardly dismisses the artistic value of rawhide braiding and pie-crust designs, its true concern is less with the forms of art than with its function. And here, its vision is quite breathtakingly large. A hint of the NEA’s broader intentions can be gleaned from the adulatory treatment accorded in the report to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina—the same gallery that so angered Senator Jesse Helms when it displayed Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

According to American Canvas, SECCA has now embarked on a much more helpful course. Abandoning “the ‘in-your-face’ stance that previously characterized much public and political art,” the gallery seeks to become “a testing ground for a new kind of public art—one that could promote productive social change while introducing challenging new art forms to the community.” In line with this promising new thrust, SECCA has, for example, funded an exhibit made of tobacco products; a play done by the Drop Out Prevention Program at a local high school; a history of slavery called Insight: In Site: Incite: Memory; and an unspecified “project that will address the concerns of Latino migrant farmworkers in the Winston-Salem area.”

Nor is SECCA alone. Every one of the local arts organizations in America’s 50 largest cities, the report proudly notes, now uses its federal arts money for similarly activist ends. Ninety-three percent are involved in issues of cultural or racial awareness, 88 percent in encouraging “youth at risk,” and 63 percent in “crime prevention”; the last-named are mostly gang initiatives, which involve bringing rival “crews” together to paint murals and put on plays.

This, in a nutshell, is the NEA’s understanding of the art it should now be sponsoring: art that, whether high, low, or middle, is always and everywhere harnessed to the ends of social policy, to government, and to politics:

No longer restricted solely to the sanctioned arenas of culture, the arts would be literally suffused throughout the civic structure, finding a home in a variety of community service and economic-development activities—from youth programs and crime prevention to job training and race relations—far afield from the traditional aesthetic functions of the arts.

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The old NEA high-mindedly rejected the notion that its grant-making decisions were or could be influenced by political or ideological considerations; art was an autonomous creative endeavor, and had to be protected from those who would dictate either its forms or its functions. American Canvas, too, ritualistically invokes the sacred principle that art be kept “as free as possible from the vagaries of politics.” But this is mere boilerplate. Jane Alexander herself has put its new mission quite bluntly: the arts, she has said, need to be molded into “a new citizens movement, one that will do for the cultural environment what the ‘green revolution’ did for the natural environment.” Or, in the words of the report, artists must “insist on their place at the table of civic discourse and government.”

If the rhetoric again sounds Clintonite, it should. The utilitarian aim of American Canvas is to create a “new NEA” much as Clinton created the New Democrats: by main-streaming the agenda of the Left, wrapping it in the uplifting mantle of populism, and coopting as many sources of real or potential opposition as possible. Even the promises partake of Clinton-style grandiosity. Not only will the new program of the NEA serve the multiculturalist aim of “pulling us as diverse groups and cultures together,” it will, we are assured, improve our children’s school performance, contribute to the “quality of life,” foster “civic pride and participation,” stimulate the economy, and attract tourists.

By transforming the arts from a cultural into a governmental commodity, and one ranging “far afield from the traditional aesthetic functions of the arts,” the NEA clearly hopes to justify its continued existence on a cost-benefit basis: in return for so much federal support of the arts, the “arts community” will contribute so much to the furtherance of (the Democrats’) federal policy. Whether the ploy will work with Congress is anybody’s guess. But what is astounding—or, perhaps, all too understandable—is that the artistic and cultural elites of the country, so quick to rally to the defense of the NEA when it was under “political” attack by the likes of Jesse Helms, have had virtually nothing to say about this naked assertion by the Endowment itself that art is to be valued to the extent that it can be mobilized for approved political ends. American Canvas, whose arguments would have brought a blush to the cheek of a cultural commissar in Soviet Russia, marks a pitiful coda to the career of a now hopelessly corrupt institution.

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