Small lukewarm beer [NEA funding]

The Art Newspaper, April 2000, p. 5.

Small lukewarm beer [NEA funding]

By Jason Edward Kaufman

A version of this article was published in The Art Newspaper, April 2000, p. 5.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. To mark the 35th anniversary of its founding, the National Endowment for the Arts recently assembled a panel of past chairpersons for a whence-and-whither discussion of the long-suffering federal agency. The event–held at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government–seemed an ideal opportunity to focus on the political raison d’etre of the endowment and thereby get to the bottom of the chronic problems which have battered its existence for more than a decade.

Gathered before a packed auditorium were all the surviving former chairs: Livingston Biddle (1977-81), Frank Hodsoll (1981-89), John Frohnmayer (1989-92), Jane Alexander (1993-97), and Bill Ivey (1998-present), with NY Times columnist Frank Rich as moderator. After an a capella performance by soprano Jessye Norman, incumbent Ivey declared that the NEA must move beyond its attitude of moral entitlement toward an era of community service in which support is truly earned. He described the U.S. as a permanent border culture in which the arts provide a meeting ground and avenue of communication between races, nationalities, ethnicities, and artistic traditions, and he spoke of the need to place the arts at the center of public policy in order to promote progressive social reforms that will fulfill the democratic egalitarian dream.

Ivey cited three areas in which the NEA can make a real difference: education, the lives of artists, and diplomacy. By education he means the arts’ ability to bridge differences and create civil society, their potential to foster high-tech literacy (arguably far afield of the NEA), and their ability to enhance the intellectual development of children. He spoke also of improving the lot of artists as a unique class of workers, ambassadors of the border, as he put it. And he referred to the soft power of culture in international relations, its ability to get what we want through attraction rather than coercion which could make art the centerpiece of our diplomatic agenda.

The discussion then centered on the perennial problem of whether or not the endowment should sponsor difficult art, and the more topical problem of the relationship of the NEA to the market. Frohnmayer, a liberal Republican who served under President Bush, contended that the NEA has been too safe and that challenging art is our birthright under the Constitution. Hodsoll, a Christian fundamentalist who served under Reagan, admitted that difficult art is fine, but not on taxpayers’ money. Instead of pushing the moral envelope, the NEA should be an avenue and vehicle for strategic investment, he said, adding that there should be no wall between NEA-funded arts and Hollywood movies or pop music.

Frohnmayer recoiled at the notion of a commercialised NEA. “I see the NEA as a counter- market strategy — to support what the market won’t sustain,” he said, adding that America should be the leader in ideas and spirit as well as the market. Ivey, a former head of the Country Music Hall of Fame, maintained that the NEA does not exist to bolster Hollywood, but should ensure the financial health of undercommercialised modes of artmaking such as folk art, crafts, etc. His message was not so much anti-commercial as anti-elitist: “We think of art with a capital A, but I think of how the NEA serves the customers in Walmart,” he said, referring to a discount department store he passes on the way to work. Biddle, who served under Democratic president Jimmy Carter, was alone in stating that the NEA should fund only the best because that is what is remembered and that is the legacy the NEA wants to foster.

David A. Strauss, a specialist in constitutional law at the University of Chicago, recently described the government’s relationship to the arts as “a black hole of First Amendment law. No one really knows how to think about it, including the Supreme Court justices,”
he said. “On one hand, government officials can’t have carte blanche in deciding what to fund and what not to fund. But on the other hand, it is clear the government is entitled to make some decisions on what it will fund and what it won’t fund.”

Athough the problem remains glaringly unresolved, the NEA panelists did not address the matter directly. Instead, they cited how they dealt with problematical art during their tenures. Hodsoll pointed out that certain things if funded would destroy the NEA, and that he would quash the grants or tell the recipients the money could be used only for another purpose. Alexander asked, “If you start down that slippery slope, where do you stop? With Wagner’s operas? Who makes the choice?” Hodsoll replied, “You have to make choices in everything in life.” And he pointed out that the governance ultimately resides in the legislators who authorise the NEA, who are sensitive to the propriety of how their taxpayers’ money is spent. Ivey conceded that there are things you simply cannot fund, and added, “The question is how to keep small things from converting into questions about abolishing the NEA.” Alexander said the tension between politics and art bodes ill for the NEA, but the conservative Hodsoll predicted that the NEA will survive, regardless of the political climate.

On the immediate horizon, the NEA budget stands at $100 million — where it has been for the past four years. (It should be noted that this figure, so tiny compared with other Western nations, does not take into account the budgets of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, national monuments, and federal libraries.) President Clinton has requested a 50% increase for FY 2000, but has never gone to the mat for the arts, so the likelihood that Congress will approve the $150 million proposal is slim. As for the fate of the NEA after the November elections, Democratic candidate and Vice President Al Gore would support the agency, and his Republican opponent George Bush would not. As governor of Texas, Bush made his state the country’s lowest in per capita arts spending.

Whichever candidate wins, however, the Congress may continue to question the existence of the agency. Ad hominem appeals based on arguments for the social and economic beneficial impact of the arts have yet to convince legislators that federal government has a legitimate role in funding culture. And in the absence of a clear political-philosophical justification for the agency’s existence, the NEA seems destined to remain perpetually buffeted by shifting political winds. Its reputation as the embodiment of the culture wars which characterised American fin-de-siècle ideological debate is following the NEA into the new millennium.

Jason Edward Kaufman



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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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