Commentary Magazine

The Arts

To the Editor:

In “What To Do About the Arts” [April], Joseph Epstein covers a wide range of topics. . . . But above all, he laments the sorry record of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). During the Reagan and Bush years, Mr. Epstein sternly writes, NEA panel members happily approved creations guaranteed to affront us.

All true. And nothing that we did not know before his peroration. What is missing from his article, however, is an answer to the question, what have painters, sculptors, and musicians of conservative persuasion been doing since 1965, when the NEA was founded?

Evidently not much worth writing about. Consider that, after attacking wretches whose outputs they hold in contempt, spokesmen for what is right, reasonable, and useful in the arts, including Mr. Epstein, cannot even name any composers, painters, and sculptors they consider worthy.

So the problem might not be one of liberal or conservative values, approval or disapproval of middle-class institutions, or of how art has been politicized. Art has always been politicized, and the works of every period reflect the tastes and standards of the period’s patrons. (Recall that when asked why he never composed a string quintet, Haydn is said to have responded, “Because no one ever paid me to.”)

The problem as we approach the end of the 20th century is less an inept NEA than the breakdown of the society in which we live. Creative types, like the rest of us, have tended to notice that greed, opportunism, and lack of talent characterize not only NEA panels and faculties at universities, but politicians, editors at periodicals, and patrons of the arts. . . .

Without exception, managers of symphony orchestras prefer almost any year in their history to 1995; today, they are hard put to figure out what their ensembles are here to accomplish. As far as painting and sculpture are concerned, consider recent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney: in comparison, even Soviet realism can look good.

Milton Goldin
Tarrytown, New York



To the Editor:

Obsessed with the contemporary movements he repeatedly refers to in his article, Joseph Epstein is bewildered by the living world of his time. Little wonder that he is more concerned about art that will achieve museum status or be included in the canon compiled by a future Harold Bloom than about art that works now to keep us civilized as we struggle with “environmentalism, sexual liberation, a lingering anti-capitalism, and an inchoate but determined multiculturalism,” as he puts it.

Mr. Epstein’s assumption that this is an age of mediocrity is narrow- rather than high-minded. Art today is composed of many elements, including those from cultures other than the Anglo or European-turned-American. This confluence of traditions confuses Mr. Epstein, who is forced to improvise in the face of creativity that goes beyond pure aesthetics. The Epstein cultural barometer has markings for high-, low-, and middlebrow, but gives no indication of qualities beyond the author’s political bias.

Snide remarks about the “tender liberal conscience” or the silly “eat-your-arts” refrain are as mediocre in the context of the article as any of the art referred to. Mediocrity is not original to the United States in the late 20th century. It has never been a terminal disease for art before and will not be one now. . . .

Like more primitive critics of the NEA, Mr. Epstein restricts his references to state-funded artists to the sensational few. Our opportunist Representatives and Senators in Washington suffer from the same astigmatism that allows them to see only sensation. Karen Finley, whose performances address the reality of abuse, happens to be a much sounder moralist than the North Carolina Senator who is always among the first to lead the charge of the philistines. . . .

No system can guarantee quality, any more than critics are capable of identifying it. At best, we should do what we can to assist honest efforts and make them available to audiences who are prepared to risk some of their precious time by trying out the unknown.

Mr. Epstein should not underestimate the cultural heritage of the United States. . . . It deserves the same degree of public support that European governments provide their artists; and it could even be argued that it needs more support to make up for the damage inflicted by an effete and isolated body of critics and politcal reactionaries.

David Chorlton
Phoenix, Arizona



To the Editor:

When Joseph Epstein writes that “serious art is . . . thoroughly meritocratic and, in the best sense, elitist,” the statement rings so utterly true as to bear repeating simply for the sake of repetition. The difficult and demanding critical standards by which such art must be created and appreciated are implied, as is the rigorous educational process, formal or otherwise, required to comprehend, assimilate, and articulate those standards. Once it is understood, the elite, exalted status of the finest art is the source of its great value: its power to elevate human consciousness.

Although no other idea expressed in the article is as important as the preceding, almost every additional point is worth making and is well made. In outlining a largely positive prescription for our culture, however, Mr. Epstein reveals . . . a problem of his own. Whatever it suggests about our country and our century, the last truly important and constructive movement in the visual arts was Post-Impressionism. Abstract Expressionism was aesthetically interesting but artistically insignificant. Similarly, Clement Greenberg was an astute critic who relied on and promulgated a corrupt philosophy of art. Mr. Epstein’s admirable intentions deserve a stronger and more enduring foundation than Greenberg is able to provide. . . .

Harvey Gordon
Kalamazoo, Michigan



Joseph Epstein writes:

I hope Milton Goldin will forgive me if I continue to withhold names of conservative artists. I do so chiefly because they would probably resist the label, and quite rightly so. But their numbers are not few. They may be discovered through the absence of the blatantly propagandistic element in their work. The chief point of my article was to make plain that such artists, those who eschew the self-evidently and self-righteously political, are least likely to find favor at the National Endowment for the Arts, at any rate as it is currently organized and as its panels have in recent years been constituted.

David Chorlton ought to take the assemblage of platitudes that comprise his letter, find the appropriate slides for it, set the whole thing to music, read it with his clothes off, and apply for a grant from the NEA under the category: Inter-Arts, multimedia division. I don’t see how he could lose.

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