This spring and summer will witness a bitter fight in Congress, and perhaps even across the country, over the quinquennial statutory reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). These twin government agencies, first established in 1965 under a common legislative umbrella, together now spend some $300 million on the direct subsidy of the arts and the humanities. Small money, as federal programs go, but the Endowments have nevertheless been deeply controversial since their inception, and recent events, all of them concerned with the NEA rather than the NEH, have only served to ensure that the controversy will continue.
The trouble began last spring with the revelation that NEA money had been used to pay for the exhibition of Piss Christ, the now-notorious photograph by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix submerged in a vessel containing the artist’s urine. Shortly thereafter, it became known that the NEA was funding a traveling exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, containing many homoerotic and sadomasochistic images, including one of a man urinating into another man’s mouth and another of a man with a whip handle protruding from his anus; in the expectation of a storm in Congress over this matter, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., decided in June to cancel its already announced showing of the exhibition. In October, the NEA first withdrew, and then conditionally reinstated, its funding of Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, an exhibition, more disgusting than obscene, of AIDS related paintings, photographs, and installations at the downtown Manhattan Artists Space gallery; the part of the exhibition the NEA finally refused to fund was an accompanying catalogue containing virulent anti-Catholic statements proclaiming, among other things, that the Catholic Church is a “house of walking swastikas.” Just this past winter, the NEA was criticized for its association with a presentation at the Kitchen, the Manhattan avant-garde performance space, of Annie Sprinkle, a one-time prostitute and porn star now turned so-called performance artist; in her “performance” Miss Sprinkle invited the audience onstage to examine her genitals through a gynecological speculum. Though in this last case the NEA denied any direct funding, the fact that it has all along generously supported the Kitchen seemed to bestow an artistic Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on everything performed there.
The uproar over these various events-and the suspicion that they are only the most obvious examples of an official attitude that in general encourages pornography, obscenity, and indecency-has sparked attempts in Congress by Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) and others to restrict grants in such areas by both the NEA and the NEH. For the most part, the attempts have failed, although in the process of defeating them, congressional arts advocates were forced to allow some restrictive language in the Endowment’s 1990 budget, and to establish a commission to study the NEA’s grant-making process, in particular its peer-panel system. The restrictive language is of dubious clarity and applicability; as for the study commission, at this point it seems little more than another hypocritical effort by supporters of public arts funding to legitimize their cause and whitewash the activities of those responsible for its administration.
The truth is that since the inception of the National Endowments there has been little serious discussion, not just of how the agencies should be run from day to day, but of what national policy should underlie their activities. Americans in any case tend to think of “cultural policy” as something slightly illegitimate, the sort of thing that gets promulgated not in a democratic society but by totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia; and many Americans also still tend to think of culture as essentially a private matter. But now, for better or for worse, the issue of such a cultural policy, and of its place in our national life, is very much on the public agenda.
Where, then, do we stand? I would begin with two contradictory assertions. The first is that in the United States today, we have no national cultural policy; though we spend public money, the purposes for which it is spent are random, aimless as to desired outcome, and subject to no accountability either as expenditure or as result. The second assertion is that, on the contrary, we do have a national policy—one that is consciously formed, specific as to desired outcome, and strictly accountable for its results. As I shall try to show, the contradiction is actually more apparent than real: in fact, our present situation is characterized less by contradiction than by a dangerous unity.
We have no national cultural policy: a quick look at the past decade would appear to bear out this contention. There was, to begin with, an effort by the incoming Reagan administration actually to eliminate both Endowments. Then, in 1982, William J. Bennett—by my lights, an excellent choice—was named chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in a bruising political fight with no questions asked (by the administration) about the possible fate of the humanities under his stewardship; his replacement, Lynne V. Cheney, also an excellent choice, has been unsupported by White House policy under two Presidents, and has been left alone to fend off congressional marauders and sniping from the intellectual and academic communities. Under both Bennett and Cheney, the NEH has clung to a strongly held idea of intellectual mission, yet nowhere in the federal government has there been an attempt to apply, say, to educational policy the rigorously reasoned and powerfully written NEH reports on the state of education and of the humanities. The voice of the President in the service of the humanities, or even in the service of a philosophy of humanistic education, has been totally lacking.
The story at the NEA reflects the same absence of policy-but without the redeeming feature of strong agency leadership. In 1981, a chairman, Frank Hodsoll, was chosen for the NEA who lacked a background in art or the arts; the battle for his replacement in 1989 was marked by unseemly competition among various old-boy networks, with the final selection of John Frohnmayer being made on the basis of pure political patronage. From the beginning, during Hodsoll’s regime from 1982 to 1989, a series of wise and far-reaching administrative reforms—all, now, under Frohnmayer, a thing of the past—were unfortunately wedded to a refusal to make distinctions between programs and grants, between transience and permanence, between high art and entertainment. Even arts education, for some a quasi-religious cause undertaken on behalf of the nation, ended up after a promising start as a program to hawk the electronic media to our most media-corrupted generation.
Overall, the cry at the NEA has been “presence”: the demand that every activity being supported bring the agency to the notice of as many influential people as possible. As was true in the first fifteen years of the NEA, it was felt in the 80’s that public support could only be achieved by yoking the agency to the wagons of the glamorous, the famous, and the successful. The White House has abetted this tendency by sponsoring on its premises a mixture of glitz and gloss, Michael Jackson, and now country music. But neither in the Bush administration nor during the two relatively high-minded Reagan administrations that preceded it did anyone ever think that the public “presence” which the agency sought through an orientation to celebrity could be achieved overnight through notoriety. Ironically enough, it has been the function of the now-famous Serrano, Mapplethorpe, Artists Space, and Annie Sprinkle cases to bring the NEA a presence in American life it was unable to win in the first twenty-four years of its existence.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the lack of a cultural policy has been the remarkable inability of the NEA and its supporters to undertake an effective defense of these objectionable grants, as well as of the presumed general purposes of the agency. Faced with public outcry, neither agency bureaucrats nor arts advocates at large could do anything more than assert lamely that the NEA, because it relied entirely on peer-panel review, in fact exercised no control over its grant-making. This response was so weak, and ultimately so lacking in philosophical weight, that even seasoned arts administrators—including leading voices at the NEA itself—were soon panicked into claiming that in making provocative grants the NEA was only fulfilling its proper function, since art itself was in its essence provocative. This line of argument, so far from improving matters, merely had the effect of reducing not only the NEA but art itself to being the handmaiden of anger, violence, and social upheaval.
And so for the last several months the struggle over the NEA has been waged entirely in terms of accusation and counter-accusation. Tons of ink and a myriad strident voices have been employed in answering Senator Helms and his supporters, who no more have a coherent policy than do those whom they criticize. Neither side, in fact, has made clear just how and for what purposes NEA money should be spent, if it is to be spent at all. Even more significantly, the President of the United States has been all but silent, close in name only to the activities undertaken on his behalf.
So much for the first assertion. Now for the second: we do have a national cultural policy. This policy, some years in the making but now fully discernible, is based on three elements: affirmative action, that is, the preferential hiring of women and minorities to fill both administrative and non-administrative positions in the humanities and, especially, the arts; a bias toward “multiculturalism”; and, finally, public advocacy and financial support of so-called cutting-edge art. Each of these elements has been, and is, advanced by different forces in American life, and for different purposes, but they partake of a common function and have a common importance.
By affirmative action I do not mean the hiring of highly qualified candidates, who are in fact to be found in all of the groups that make up American life. Nor do I have in mind an actual quota system, though the hand of Congress has been heavy in attempting to enforce just such a system on both Endowments. I am concerned with something even more dangerous: the predisposition to require that for each position that becomes vacant, every conceivable candidate of the proper gender or color be sought out. In the area of government arts administration, it is now clear that even minimum qualifications, which often amount to no more than limited acquaintance with a field, are presumptive reasons for hiring. For the most important cultural positions in government, only a record of gross partisan political opposition now serves as a disqualification, and even here the standard is ever more rarely upheld.
Outside government, affirmative action is no longer primarily applied for the limited purpose of bringing minorities and women into traditional activities (as in the case of the hiring of a black bassist by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last year).1 Instead it is implemented, from above, as a painless means of winning favor from well-organized and demonstrative groups, while from below it is deployed as a means of altering the traditional activities themselves, in order to transform them into activities for which no social or intellectual consensus now exists. This twin movement, impelled on the one hand by the desire to win immediate popularity, and on the other hand by the principled determination to mount a long-term cultural revolution, is now the most immediate of the factors eroding the life of traditional cultural institutions.
The name of that revolution is multiculturalism, a widespread assault on what is variously called Western, or European, or white-dominated, or male-dominated civilization. To see the multi-culturalist bias at work one need go no further than to the pages of An American Dialogue, a report on artistic touring and presenting put together by arts bureaucrats and paid for by a powerful public and private consortium made up of the NEA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. According to this document, the purpose of the arts is overridingly socio-ideological: to make “a profound impact on American society and the changes that are shaping it.”
The exact nature of this “profound impact” becomes clear in the way An American Dialogue treats the hitherto exalted status of European-based high art. These imperishable masterpieces, along with the artistic traditions derived from them, are now to be regarded as no more than one kind of ethnic manifestation; in preserving and extending those traditions on the American shore, European immigrants of the past, like peoples everywhere, were merely indulging old instincts and tastes, having brought “with them their hunger and demand for European-style performing arts events.” But, the report tells us, we should not grant favored status to this kind of cultural and artistic expression, for we now know that art is itself made up of a “breadth of genres, styles, sources, venues, artists, art forms, and expressions,” and that the art of all peoples is equally worthy of preservation and presentation.
It would be tempting to characterize all of this as blather. But I well remember a (failed) attempt several years ago to change the music program of the NEA from one concentrating on classical music and jazz to one open equally to all “world musics,” without reference to any serious aesthetic consideration or discrimination; today, the new administration at NEA gives every sign of implementing just such a change as part of its widely proclaimed multicultural agenda. In light of budget limitations, such a policy can only be paid for by taking money away from the large institutions that have been concerned with the transmission of great, albeit “European-style,” art.
Nor should we be deceived by the egalitarian rhetoric of the advocates of multiculturalism. Beneath the slogans of equality lurk implicit, and sometimes explicit, hierarchies of favored cultures, often chosen with political ends in mind. According to An American Dialogue, art is the product of “cultures and people . . . scarred by centuries of violence against them . . . these histories, and the images and the expressions that have grown from them, must be recognized and supported.” Here we come to the true heart of multiculturalism: the frankly instrumental use of culture and art as a device of political consciousness-raising. In the private nonprofit sector, this thrust is already fully internalized. Both the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, to name only the two giants of American cultural funding, have made it clear that they intend to downgrade and even eliminate support for art based on traditional European sources, and instead will encourage activity by certain approved minorities in the United States and abroad. Where they lead, the public sector will surely follow.
The final element in our national cultural policy is the promotion of the so-called cutting edge (once known as the avant-garde). This takes many forms. Sometimes the cutting edge is a fringe movement in such traditional art forms as painting, music, opera, theater, photography, or dance. Sometimes it is a new aesthetic hybrid, such as multimedia art, multidisciplinary art, interdisciplinary art, or performance art. In these latter hybrid activities, the place reserved in multiculturalism for racial or ethnic or national minorities is filled instead by the claims of political radicalism, gender redefinition, and “life-style”—the latter perhaps now little more than a euphemism for florid and variant sexualities.
It hardly needs saying that what gives the cutting edge its current vitality in cultural policy is not the degree of artistic achievement it has displayed but rather its extra-artistic, social content. When I recently asked the woman responsible for arts grants in a great foundation whether she had any idea of just how bad was the cutting-edge art she supported, her answer was swift: “Listen,” she said, “I’ve seen a lot more terrible work than you’ll ever see.”
The simple fact is that this cutting-edge art, flagrantly exemplified in the Serrano, Mapplethorpe, Artists Space, and Sprinkle cases, more subtly presented in the genre as a whole, is concerned not with art but with advocacy, not with the creation of permanent beauty but with the imposition of hitherto rejected modes of behavior and ways of living. At a conference just this past March on culture and democracy, the art critic Donald Kuspit put it well: the Mapplethorpe photographs, he remarked approvingly, for all their classicizing, half-ironic aspects, serve the purpose of “ultimately sanctifying the perverse subject matter.” That being so, it was inevitable that cutting-edge grants would come to be defended by the arts establishment not in terms of artistic achievement but in terms of free speech.
Congress is now beginning to consider the statutory reauthorization of the National Endowments. The real battle, it seems plain, will initially be over the NEA, not the NEH. At this moment, the defenders of the NEA, an uneasy coalition drawn equally from establishment notables and from political and artistic radicals, spend little or no time talking about civilization and permanence, about the past and the future. They certainly spend no time talking about policy, about the large issues that properly underlie any consideration of what should be supported, and why. But neither do those who have the greatest interest in pursuing just such questions. In particular, the great institutions which in the past have been regarded as national treasures, and richly supported by government funds, everywhere stand timorous and silent.
Here is the point of dangerous reconciliation in the contradiction with which I started. For we both do not have, and yet do have, a cultural policy. Until now, our not having a cultural policy has meant no more than the tendency of our national leaders, both public and private, to regard art and culture as trivial, diversionary pastimes, at best mildly amusing or sentimentally uplifting. It has been consistent with this trivializing attitude to use the National Endowment for the Arts as a political cow, ripe for milking. But precisely in this way, our not having a national cultural policy has served to facilitate and consolidate the cultural policy we do have-namely, the effort to exploit the vestigial prestige of art and culture to accomplish radical social and political goals.
What, in the present environment, is the course that should be followed by those concerned with the stability of traditional political institutions, and committed to the preservation and transmission of the great traditions of art and learning and the values they embody? It seems to me there are essentially two options.
The first option is to reject in toto the entire apparatus of government support for the arts and, with the arts, the humanities. This would mean an end to the National Endowments, and an abandonment of the idea that one of the tasks of the federal government is to foster a common civilization. Because the rejection of direct government support would now be based not on a theoretical conception of the proper limitations on government, but rather on a gathering perception of the artistic and moral degeneration such support implies, the result would likely be a reexamination of indirect governmental support, in the form of tax deductions, as well. This in turn might lead to a reconsideration of the entire structure of tax deductions for charitable contributions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether such contributions are still today in the widest public interest. What we end up contemplating, in short, is a fundamental change in a whole series of longstanding American arrangements.
The second—and in my judgment the better—option is to refuse to abandon public life to those hostile to the cultural traditions, and the social norms, by which we continue to define—and defend-ourselves. Pursuing this option means continuing to fight, within government and without, in public and in private, for the preservation and extension of our common cultural and artistic inheritance. It means pressing, openly and passionately, for a cultural policy-but a policy which, when linked to programs of government support, will help make possible, in Coleridge’s great phrase, “the harmonious development of those qualities and faculties that characterize our humanity.”
In any case the battle has begun.
1 See “A Limit to Affirmative Action?” by James Blanton in the June 1989 COMMENTARY—Ed.