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Money for Art, Pt. 2: Re-Playing the ’50s and the ’90s

by Jerome Weeks 5 Jun 2009 8:51 AM

Federal funding of the arts began in 1817. But the heart of David A. Smith’s ‘Money for Art’ is a history of the NEA — how it began, where it went wrong, how we might get past our war over it.



Roland Bernier, “Red Money #3”

David A. Smith’s Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy recounts the history of federal funding of the arts since 1817 when Congress bought its first set of oil paintings. But Dr. Smith — a senior lecturer in history at Baylor University — gets through the decades up to the 1960s mostly to set up his account of the National Endowment for the Arts. Indeed, it’s possible to read Money for Art as an extended preamble to the heart of the book, its account of the NEA’s culture wars in the ’80s and ’90s.

Dr Smith attempts to explain that outbreak by putting it in a historical context — to explain it, learn from it and perhaps even get past it.

Dr. Smith believes that since the ’60s, the NEA — and American culture in general — has gone too far in valuing (even celebrating) the needs and impulses of the individual artist. Built up over the course of several chapters, Dr. Smith’s argument is that by the ’80s, the arts and the NEA had become estranged from much of the American public (and its political leaders). The arts and the NEA had discredited themselves in the eyes of many by becoming over-intellectualized, over-concerned with ‘transgression for transgression’s sake.’ The NEA was increasingly beholden to a small, insular set of art-world postures and lefty academic opinions. It had embraced a multi-cultural pluralism, thereby surrendering whatever moral authority or wide cultural impact the endowment’s judgments granted the artworks it chose to fund.

A backlash from taxpayers and political leaders was inevitable. They were excluded, they were offended, they were confused but especially, they were condescended to.

A good case can be made for some of this. Other parts of it — no. To take one example: Citing Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, Dr. Smith presents the idea that the arts have become increasingly esoteric, obsessed with critical theory and have deliberately dismissed an ordinary, middle-class audience’s understanding.

Undoubtedly, some have. But there are two chief weaknesses with this view. First, as Dr. Smith more or less recognizes, it applies a situation in contemporary visual arts to all the other art forms. In fact, Money for Art is often limited by Dr. Smith’s reliance on building his case through the visual arts. Although he makes reference to music or theater, the great majority of his evidence, his thinking, his history, is derived from painting and photography.

American theater, for example, doesn’t exactly follow this supposed pattern of “increasingly obscure works deliberately alienating middle-class understanding or acceptance.” Outside of surrealist or avant-garde exceptions like Suzan-Lori Parks or Sam Shepard, our leading dramatists through the 20th century and into the 21st — Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Edward Albee, Wallace Shawn and so on — have all worked within the general conventions of stage naturalism. For better and worse, to be a major dramatist in America is to be a Broadway dramatist  — and Broadway is commercial theater, an art form in pursuit of the widest possible, ticket-buying public. These playwrights may aggressively question or even subvert aspects of American culture, but Shakespeare or Shaw would have little trouble following most of their scripts.

Much the same could be said for contemporary literature. For every post-modern fabulist or innovative ironist such as Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker or David Foster Wallace, there have been dozens upon dozens of more accessible, admired (even best-selling) authors on the order of Richard Ford, Mary Gordon, Russell Bank, Grace Paley, Larry McMurtry, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy and so on. In drama and the novel, difficult experimentalism remains mostly an “off-Broadway” or “small press” pursuit, hardly a threat to the dominance of the mainstream, middle-class audience. Yet many playwrights and novelists must make do with day jobs: university teaching or magazine journalism.

In short, the relationship of these major artists — and their mainstream acceptance (or lack of same) — is much more complicated than simple, bourgeois defiance.

Second — much like Wolfe — Dr. Smith holds to a view of the visual arts that presupposes 18th-to-19th century Western realism as a universal, commonsensical ideal. A landscape is a landscape, a still life is a still life, a portrait is a portrait. Anyone can see these forms and immediately grasp them — then and now. It doesn’t require specialized study to understand what is represented in a painting — from the 19th century all the way back to the Renaissance.

Nor was a viewer likely to feel threatened or disoriented by these artworks. It’s only when abstract art and cubism and Dadaism (and explicit left-wing ideology) enter the field in the late-19th-early-20th century that the separation between artist and audience supposedly begins. And it really becomes a divorce with the arrival of post-war abstract expressionism, conceptual art, minimalism, post-modernism, performance art, assemblage, neo-conceptualism — and all the theoretical baggage these ‘schools’ carry.

dav_oath_2 But Dr.  Smith’s (and Wolfe’s) ideal of  ‘accessible, conventional realism’ holds true only for a portion of Western art history and only for a portion of the art works created then. I defy anyone — without some specialized study — to decipher all the minor Greek deities and nymphs, the obscure saints and historical references, the Christian allegories and Old Testament figures that swarm through European art up through 19th-century neo-classicism and academic historicism.

Set aside something as involved and crowded with figures as, say, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment or the torrents of mythology and royal patronage in Rubens’ works. Let’s take a simpler-seeming oil painting. Who were the Horatti in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii? Did you know before you ever saw the painting? Yet we need to know who they are in order to understand this dramatic moment — and this dramatic statement, a political statement central to David’s neo-classicism and to French art of the period.

For centuries, artists served a narrow, highly educated audience. The idea that a painting should be immediately appreciated by all of us middling, middle-class sorts only developed after there was an audience of middle-class sorts who were willing to buy it. This phenomenon didn’t really occur until the 19th century and until after the Industrial Revolution.

Dr. Smith does back off from the overtly polemical bent of Wolfe’s attack against the lefty-elitist thinking embedded in some modern art. Dr. Smith notes that, to a degree, all art is “aristocratic.” It is created by people with unique talents and a unique vision that may not be embraced by everyone.

Our feeling alienated by such art is not a facetious point. But neither is it a recent phenomena. The Bonfire of the Vanities — not the Wolfe novel but the 1497 burning of hundreds of artworks and luxury items that was ordered by the Dominican friar Savonarola — was a popular outburst. But it was partly motivated by widespread ignorance and fear and resentment, by the suspicion that all of these paintings and sculptures of naked gods and goddesses were not celebrations of classical antiquity but simply, luxurious, pagan immorality. Dozens of masterpieces by artists like Sandro Botticelli were burned because, up until then, the Italian Renaissance was mostly an aristocratic and intellectual affair; thousands of ordinary, untutored Italians didn’t exactly appreciate neo-Platonic theory.

Not surprisingly, the Bonfire was a case of a political power struggle finding expression through the popular suppression of artistic images — much like our own culture wars. (As noted in Part 1, the culture wars  weren’t so much about art; they were about using scandalous arts to tarnish political opponents.)

Justine Smith, ‘Absolute Power,’ dollar bills, 2005

Today, many artworks certainly bewilder or challenge us. One certainly hopes so, at any rate. But partly as a result, for several decades now, there have been any number of art movements pushing back against this phenomenon. These movements have pushed for simplicity, clarity or a lack of in-your-face transgression. They’ve sought a way beyond irony, interiority, experimental self-reflection and whatever shock value is left. They’ve extolled a return to melodicism in classical music or to 19th-century realism in novels or to the figurative in painting and sculpture.

Yet these movements have been around long enough that in some instances, they’re already clichés. Noted art critic Dave Hickey once stated that beauty “remains a potent instrument for change in this civilization” and it would return as a central issue for art. Beauty would return, Hickey said, not as a product of class division or a substitute for spiritual improvement. Nor would it simply be an expression of rampant sexism or, especially, the beautiful as just the sizzle that sells the steak in the art market.

Instead, beauty would be an agency of visual pleasure, a basic part of art’s magic, one of the chief reasons we have always returned to it.

And Hickey made this now-famous declaration 16 years ago (see The Invisible Dragon).

Dr. Smith’s point would be that there’s nothing wrong with art that is challenging or bewildering until we ask a democratic government to justify funding all that challenging, bewildering art. In any prolonged, public argument over restricting the content of funded art (which is what the ’90s culture war essentially was), the artists and their supporters will lose. There are far more people bothered or bewildered by their work (or uncaring of it) than there are admirers of it.

Which, frankly, would seem to be precisely the goal for many artists: jolting or puzzling audiences and viewers into new realizations.

What’s more, Dr. Smith insists, such wars over artistic content run against the original purpose of the NEA — which was, in effect, to unite and inspire us through art. The NEA was never intended to bedevil or anger us.

Yes, “unite” and “uplift” are old-fashioned notions of art’s purpose. In Flaubert’s Parrot, novelist Julian Barnes notes that all of this talk of “uplift” in art makes it sound like a brassiere. But as Barnes also notes, “brassiere” is the French word for “life jacket.” These days, art may not don something as highfalutin’ as the “mantle of truth.” But in the end, art may still save our souls.

In reality, Dr. Smith’s account of the NEA’s origins reveals that the endowment was established with all sorts of conflicting ideals. But in practical terms, he’s perfectly right. When it comes to convincing Congress and the general public that supporting the arts is worth the trouble, “uplift and unify” are the sales pitches that work. (That, and making sure — as many government agencies, industries and pressure groups do in other areas like defense contracts — to spread the grants around to key Congressional districts.)

But having said this, I think that Dr. Smith — as do many others — understandably pines for what I call the Mid-Century Middlebrow Consensus. The term middlebrow is not used as a pejorative here. From the 1920s to the 1970s, there was a widespread belief that highbrow arts like classical music and serious literature were good for us. These same arts could also be made palatable for the great many of us who typically didn’t follow them, they could even find a welcome spot in the mass media’s quest for a mass market (“uplift and unify”).

What resulted has often been called a “golden age” for television drama, classical music, theater and other arts — considering, at the time, their relatively prominent presence in American culture and the American home. The mid-’50s to mid-’60s was the era when Van Cliburn became a national hero for winning the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow and Salvador Dali appeared on TV’s What’s My Line? It was the heyday of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on CBS, and Playhouse 90 and Actors Studio presenting TV dramas written by Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Gore Vidal and Rod Serling. Wide-circulation magazines regularly featured writing by Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, John Updike and Truman Capote, while the Book-of-the-Month Club brought hardcover copies of these same writers to suburban homes.

Jack Palance (center) in Rod Serling’s TV drama, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”

But all these cultural currents came together during the mid-’50s-to-mid-’60s partly because of large-scale social forces — forces like the Cold War, the civil rights struggle and the GI Bill. Millions of Americans went to college for the first time, often as the first person in their family to do so. They were exposed to these arts often for the first time. Or they were educated to appreciate them for the first time.

To all of these college-educated Americans, we must definitely add their immigrant parents. These often had a strong faith in education — as an Old World tradition and as way to ‘fit in,’ to become ‘fully American.’ What resulted was a middle-class that was eager to shed any Babbitt-ish self-image (or ghetto-ish ‘foreigner’ image), a middle class that believed deeply in education not just to get ahead but in the idea of the educated, cultured person as a worthy role to aspire to.

What’s more, those immigrant parents had often fled fascism or Stalinism — and saw American democracy as a real bastion of hope and goodwill, not to mention economic bounty. But they also still held dear many of the traditional European arts: the symphony, the stage drama, the large-scale novel of earnest, social concern. They conveyed their beliefs in the arts as enlightening, as social betterments, to their children.

Not so coincidentally, these same years saw a tremendous explosion in rebellious, American cultural creativity — from abstract expressionists, the Beats, Black writers and musicians, critics and novelists: Lionel Trilling to Ralph Ellison, Vladimir Nabokov to Susan Sontag. Some often expressly defined themselves against the middle-class and the middlebrow, but The Saturday Review, The New Yorker and even Playboy were still busily making them household names.

Now, bring all of this together and we have what may have been a unique cultural moment, a moment that led directly to the establishment of the NEA. But this exact same moment saw all hell breaking loose in the arts, in politics, in popular culture — and it eventually fractured that “middlebrow consensus.” Dr. Smith recognizes this, noting the irony that the NEA was seeking to promote the arts as unifying and uplifting just when they fragmented and shed any grand claim to truth or beauty.

But it wasn’t simply the radical artists and thinkers who brought this upon us and themselves. Huge changes in the popular entertainment industry — like the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and later hip-hop, like the inclusion of Black entertainers, like the TV networks dumping all their high-culture programming — all of these played a major role as well. As did anti-war politics, as did the civil rights movement and feminism, which saw white, middle-class, primarily masculine, middlebrow culture lose much of its authority and supposed universal appeal.

Then came the onslaught of the electronic media, which only increased the fragmentation. First came cable television, then narrowcasting in radio formats and then, of course, the electronic device you’re reading now.

All of this history is relevant to Money for Art because, one, we can’t put the genii back in the bottle. I don’t think we’ll ever see a cultural figure like Van Cliburn again. He wasn’t just a popular performer of classical music; he was a national hero, he was given a tickertape parade in New York  — like Charles Lindbergh or NASA’s astronauts. And I’m not sure we’ll ever see a cultural consensus again like the one that held sway then — however shaky that consensus was, however propped up by Cold War competitions and fears and (often secret, CIA) government funding.

This history is also relevant because Dr. Smith concludes Money for Art with something like an appeal for a revivified NEA, a call for a back-to-basic-principles endowment. He sees Dana Gioia as having spearheaded just this movement during the last administration — particularly with his emphasis on arts education and the production of Shakespeare’s plays across America. Dr. Smith wants to return to that ‘unique cultural moment’ in the ’60s.

And this time, wiser and older, we’ll get the NEA’s purpose right.

To earn federal tax money, Dr. Smith says, it’s not unreasonable to ask of the endowment, “In what way is art good for a democratic society?” Or more evocatively, he says, “What do the arts provide that America needs?

And he answers:

Exposure to great art keeps healthy individualism from becoming isolation by reminding people who are exposed to it of their common humanity. Such art provides a touchstone of familiarity — and therefore collegiality if not community — in an increasingly displaced society. Great art takes note of those things that are similar, not different, in all people. Lesser forms of art, not to mention popular culture, do not do this. Pop culture, so dominant, is ultimately transient, relentlessly replacing today’s art with tomorrow’s, watering down the whole concept of art in the process. The critic Mark Steyn has noted that as popular culture crowds out other forms, “eventually you dwindle down to a present-tense culture unable to refer to anything beyond itself. Folk art and controversial art actually work in a similar way, each exulting in its own isolation and reinforcing an identity not of common humanity but only of a compartmentalized block of it. Multiculturalism, so celebrated in contemporary America, is guilty of this on a much larger scale. In seeking to celebrate distinctions it works to calcify those distinctions into divisions. In the face of this, exposure to great art, it would seem, is needed now more than ever.

I would like to see a revivified NEA, and I could see it defining itself, to a degree, against popular culture, against the isolation that modern culture may foster, against the pursuit of the next disposable pop commodity, the next celebrity, the next hot fashion, the next videogame platform, the next trending Twitter feed that drives the entertainment industry and even our political universe today.

What, after all, is a “non-profit” status for — if not to give a tax break to those arts that don’t easily generate revenue for corporate culture’s bottom line?

But I wouldn’t want to see it happening on Dr. Smith’s or Mr. Steyn’s terms. For starters, the notion that popular culture divides, while “great art” unites will be news to many great artists — from Goya to the Romantics to J. M. W Turner to the Impressionists to the Symbolists to the pre-Raphaelites to the pointillists and the Dadaists and so on. Each of these groups, each of these great artists, vigorously defined their work against prevailing ways of thought. In many cases, they aggressively denounced the established style as wrong. Not just different or mistaken but wrong-headed, immoral, polluted, stupid, bad. That’s why so many have issued manifestos: to make their dissent clear, to draw a line in the sand.

Not surprisingly, each of these artists and schools and movements was initially received (or rejected) as just trouble-making upstarts. They didn’t unite anything at first — except that group of people who appreciated what these divisive artists were doing. These artists helped fragment cultural understandings of what art was supposed to do, what it could do. And by fragmenting (and then essentially winning their argument), they ultimately expanded those understandings.

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled, ten dollar bill and ink, 2008

On the other hand, the idea that popular culture divides and isolates people will be news to, say, the 20 million fans of Celine Dion, who form dozens of websites and Facebook pages to share with like-minded enthusiasts their love of All Things Celine-y. They track her every warble through official calendars and tweets.

For many artists, this kind of divided, distracted, isolated and alienated audience following their work would be a godsend. Smith’s dismissal of all popular culture is extremely out of touch with the realities of art and entertainment today — starting with the many ways “high art” and the “pop arts” permeate each other.

How, for instance, shall we consider crossovers? How many CDs or downloads does a ‘serious’ classical musician like Yo-Yo Ma have to sell before he ceases to speak to our “common humanity” and starts “watering down the whole concept of art” by turning his work into another mass product (as if it weren’t already)? Is it not possible to be a fine artist and a tremendously popular one? If it’s not, what are we to make of the careers (and often, the explicit goals) of Graham Greene or John Singer Sargent? J. D. Salinger and Frank Gehry?

I suspect that Dr. Smith and Mr. Steyn have very faulty and very narrow definitions of what constitutes “popular culture.”

Indeed, these days, perhaps our shabbiest, most compromised popular art form — television, aka the idiot box — has been producing such programs as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Generation Kill and Breaking Bad. These are masterworks of serialized dramas, some of the most profound art works we have right now in any genre. I am hardly alone in seeing The Wire as a modern heir to those grand, grim, city novels of the 19th century by Dickens and Zola that no one supposedly buys and reads anymore. The show’s creator, David Simon, marched through one city institution after another (public schools, real estate development, elections, media) as they all became warped by the forces of drugs, money, politics and crime. It was an epic treatment of American urban life from top to bottom. In his infamous manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” author Tom Wolfe — oh, yes, we’re back to him — argued that this is precisely what the great contemporary American novel must do: more reporting, closer examinations of our social institutions, an appreciation of the many, messy manifestations of our society.

And it was on commercial TV.

In America — our former poet laureate Robert Pinsky has argued — we don’t have a tradition of “hereditary curators.” We’ve never really had an aristocratic class bankrolling (and imposing) its tastes. As a result, Americans have continually improvised our culture. We borrowed bits from Europe and Africa and elsewhere, spun them around with new technologies and then mass-distributed and marketed them through sales gimmicks and shady old business practices. Voila: American pop culture in all its seedy, conflicted, cash-on-the-barrelhead glory. And to borrow a line from Walter Matthau about poker; These are all the worst things about capitalism that made this country great. Pinsky concluded that our singular and greatest cultural wonders reside in our impure, bastardized arts. These are such uniquely American expressions as jazz, comic books, blues and Hollywood films.

Among other things, I’m a theater critic. I love the sheer majesty of a well-done piece of classic drama. But America’s is the brash, hungry, open-armed culture that stole, inherited or borrowed everything and invented the tap dance, the banjo, vaudeville, stand-up comedy, the sitcom, vogueing, hip-hop and the Broadway musical. And we sold all that noise and glamor and gutbucket grit, we sold that ‘barbaric yawp’ to anyone with cash, transforming the world and creating the closest thing to a global culture humans have ever seen.

Yet today, let’s consider the cultural endeavors that are annually deemed worthy of support by our federal government. We are left with a list that is emaciated. This is the theater that the NEA funds today: recycled Shakespeare and whatever’s safe for children’s classrooms.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from the collision of the arts with American government and public funding. Given this, one applauds the continued impulse of the NEA to bring art works to people who wouldn’t normally have access to them. Godspeed.

But in its timidity, its safety, the choice of art the NEA funds today is fundamentally un-American.