Art Lessons: Learning From the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding

Alice Goldfarb Marquis
New York: Basic Books, 1995
304 pp., $25.00 hc

Henry Gonshak
MT Tech-UM

This past July, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would abolish the National Endowment for the Arts in two years. As of this writing, the Senate has yet to pass its own legislation regarding the NEA's fate. However, in the glum words of one arts lobbyist, "It looks increasingly like the arts endowment is doomed." ("House Votes to End Funds for Arts in 2 years, Humanities in 3," Stephen Burn, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 1995)

While the vast majority of artists and their supporters are no doubt bemoaning the NEA's imminent demise, if one accepts the view put forth in Alice Goldfarb Marquis's original, if uneven, book, Art Lessons: Learning From the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding (which appeared several months before the House vote), the termination of the NEA might be a blessing in disguise for American culture. As she chronicles the history of public arts funding, Marquis seeks to demonstrate that from its inception the NEA has suffered from fundamental flaws that have only worsened over the three decades of the agency's existence.

The endowment was created by President Johnson in 1965 as a relatively minor "Great Society" program. In Marquis's view, Johnson's primary motivation, rather than stemming from any fervent commitment to the arts, was entirely political. At the time, politicians of both parties saw support for the arts as a sure vote-getter, since in those long-gone halcyon days, the arts were widely viewed as, believe it or not, uncontroversial, an ethereal realm that inspired some nebulous yet vital aesthetic and spiritual uplift (which didn't mean, of course, that the nation's cultural centers were regularly thronged.)

Another key factor behind the NEA's founding, Marquis claims, was the intense nationalism and anxiety inspired by the Cold War. Just as America's leaders were terrified that Soviet technology would lead to a deadly "missile gap" between the two nations, so our elected officials believed that unless the government committed itself to fostering the arts, the USSR's artistic preeminence might create a significant (albeit slightly less frightening) "culture gap." Oddly, Marquis fails to note the oddity of the near-clinical paranoia, symptomatic of the Cold War era, underlying American fears of Russian cultural hegemony, given that, since Stalin's reign, the Communist regime had systematically exiled, imprisoned or killed so many of its best artists.

While acknowledging the agency's inauspicious beginnings, Marquis still manages to summon up some words of praise for the NEA's founding members. The agency's original council included such cultural luminaries as Isaac Stern, Agnes De Mille, Leonard Bernstein, David Brinkley, Richard Rodgers and Gregory Peck, a group that by and large, Marquis maintains, were profoundly knowledgeable about the arts, infused with a zestful, pioneering spirit, and dedicated to circumventing bureaucratic red tape in order to get money swiftly out to the worthiest applicants.

Still, Marquis contends that, from the start, the NEA was crippled by a central problem that would plague it perpetually--namely, a fundamental uncertainty about the agency's precise purpose. Was the mission of the NEA to foster high culture by supporting the nation's most brilliant artists and sophisticated arts institutions, even if much of the work thus produced or displayed would almost surely remain inaccessible to most Americans? Or, on the contrary, was the agency's raison d''tre a democratic mandate to ensure that funding was allocated equally to every conceivable demographic, ethnic, religious and social group? Or was its basic aim dictated by a different sort of populism, one pledged to bringing great art to the masses?

Since choosing from among these conflicting paths was no easy task, the agency, Marquis claims, essentially opted to ignore the question, instead dispensing its largesse in random, chaotic fashion, while in its public pronouncements settling for high-flown rhetoric about the transplendent virtues of the arts. Despite this fatal flaw at its core, in the ensuing years the NEA's budget grew exponentially, thanks principally to the energy and political savvy of its most successful director, Nancy Hanks, who was appointed and steadfastly supported by President Nixon. However, by the early 80s the agency's growth had leveled off.

Then, at the decade's end, the NEA was rocked to its core by the nationwide pandemonium that followed Jesse Helms' lurid allegation that the agency was funding pornography, because a small amount of money had been awarded to arts institutions whose exhibitions had included work by two deliberately shocking photographers, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe--a charge primarily motivated, Marquis argues persuasively, by Helms' desire to bolster his then floundering re-election campaign.

Marquis notes that, for some time prior to the Serrano/Mapplethorpe flap, the NEA had occasionally awarded grants to controversial art, often of dubious merit. In 1972, for example, an NEA client gallery in San Francisco had featured a performance artist who'd hung himself from the gallery's ceiling with fishhooks, while the audience below listened to heartbeat on an amplified electrocardiogram. To rally a defense against Helms' attack, the NEA couldn't have had a worse leader, Marquis maintains, than the feckless John Frohnmayer, who throughout his tenure, abdicated his responsibility as director to oversee and make final decisions about all grant awards. Marquis also asserts that many of the NEA's individual boards, whose role it was to review initially all grant applications in their particular area of expertise, had tilted over the years so far left that by the late 80s their P.C. zealotry and radical chic posturing had predisposed them to favor wildly controversial artists of questionable talent.

In her concluding chapter, Marquis proposes a unique solution to the NEA's current woes, one that would seem to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike, since it blends a commitment to government funding of the arts with a belief in the virtues of the free market. In brief, Marquis suggests that a dramatically reconstituted NEA should simply provide funds for as many different kinds of artistic activities as possible, without tackling the complex, perhaps unanswerable question of what constitutes quality in art. Such funding would enable a wide range of artists to present their work to a popular audience. Those that pleased the general public would succeed, those that didn't would fail--in contrast to the present system, under which, Marquis insists, artists whose work is devoid of commercial potential are sustained by the artificial life support system of government funding.

It's an intriguing idea. Still, Marquis's proposal is vulnerable to the same objection leveled against the NEA's conservative critics, who argue that the government should simply get out of the arts funding business entirely: namely, that both views presuppose that the free market is a reliable judge of artistic merit. When one contemplates, say, the box office returns of recent movies, which consistently reveal that the latest blood-soaked thrillers, inane comedies and cliched melodramas make millions, while intelligent, original films often go bust, it seems hard to sustain a belief in the aesthetic acumen of the American public. Under Marquis's proposal, wouldn't schlock routinely triumph over real art? Isn't it possible that certain brilliant works of art are so complex and groundbreaking that they can only be nurtured by funding sources operating outside the marketplace? (Admittedly, such funding needn't come only from the public sector. Marquis documents the key role corporate funding has played in the support of many worthy artistic endeavors.)

The reforms I'd propose for the NEA are far less drastic than Marquis's: insist that the agency's director closely review all grants awards; strive to staff boards with members who represent a wide range of ideological and artistic perspectives and organize a comprehensive public relations campaign that would make an impassioned argument to the American people for the value of government-funded art. Of course, if the Republicans in Washington have their way, both Marquis's proposal and my own will be moot. Still, having read Art Lessons, I find it hard to worry much about the fate of the NEA, since clearly its survival has little to do with the survival of the arts in America.

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