The Magazine

Good for Art

Money helps, and talent too.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The tendency of the National Endowment for the Arts has not been at all to Professor Garber's taste. In recent years it has ceased giving grants to artists--with the exception of writers--and has expended its funds chiefly on institutions and programs, many of them bringing Shakespeare, ballet, and other traditional artistic wares to rural communities and other places where they are not usually available. The agency's modus operandi, Professor Garber finds, has been to seek consensus; its goal is, in her words, "to do no harm." She prefers harm, lashings and slashings, with ample money going to artists who don't in the least mind sticking it in the ear of the public, not least their patrons, the United States government.

I was a member of its National Council, or policy setting body, for six of the stormiest years in the NEA's history, from 1984-90. This was a time when the counterculture had become, in the arts at least, the mainstream culture. The result was that much art was of the in-your-face kind, especially in the visual arts and performing arts. These were the years of performance artists smearing their naked bodies with chocolate, photographs of men with plungers stuck in their rectums, crucifixes set afloat in bottles of urine, paper-towels smeared with HIV-positive blood sent skimming out on pulleys over the heads of audiences--all done either directly with the aid of NEA money or under the roofs of institutions funded by the NEA.

How very different from the old avant-garde--that extending from the French impressionists through
Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Arnold Schoenberg--a movement having chiefly to do with changing technique in the arts. But the avant-garde in the 1980s had turned largely political: It was about one form or another of ethnic or sexual liberation, of protest and leftwing politics. Its chief message tended to run: I'm an outraged gay or lesbian--or an angry black man, or an aging sixties radical--and I've had it with this detestable bleeping country, with its middle-class respectability, its vaunting of the family, its organized religions, its censorship, and hideous capitalist system. And by the way, nice to learn that I've been awarded an NEA grant, and when do you suppose I might receive my check?

Art is a house with many mansions, also garages, grease pits, small but real slums. Art can be wild, extravagant, offensive, obscene, vile, exhibitionistic, sado-masochistic, filled with political rage, outrageous--it can be all of these things and more. And no one is saying it shouldn't be what the artist feels the need for it to be, though none of this is my particular idea of a good time. But once artists take federal or state--that is, taxpayers'--money, they are under an obligation to be, at a minimum, not directly insulting. If they feel the need for their art to go on the attack--against the customs and institutions of their country--then logic and decent manners suggest they are under the obligation to create it on their own nickel.

The other problem the NEA encountered was that of democracy itself. Art isn't about democracy; it is an elitist activity. Place the word "mediocre" before the word "art" and it isn't any longer art. Yet so much in the funding arrangements of the NEA encouraged mediocrity. Affirmative action was, of course, a great blow for mediocrity in the arts--even NEA peer panels, which recommended grants, were put together along affirmative action lines--for the NEA was committed to helping the disadvantaged, which meant awarding grants to all putative victim groups.

Then there was the grubby political element to consider. A fellow member during my days on the National Council was a Florida state senator who couldn't tell a Picasso from a puffin, but saw it as his mission to make sure that Florida got its fair share of federal arts money, whether or not genuine artists or serious artistic institutions existed in the Sunshine State. And why not? Tax dollars come from taxpayers, so why shouldn't everyone get his fair demographic share?

Late in Patronizing the Arts, Professor Garber compares federal spending on the arts with current funding for science, or Big Science, as it is now sometimes called, next to which spending on the arts is of course puny. She argues that much science is artistic and art is itself becoming more scientific.

But the comparison doesn't hold up. The difference between science and art is that science is progressive, art is not; science is a collective activity, one generation building on the ones that came before, with a generally agreed upon agenda of what are the great problems that need solving. Artists don't solve problems; they work out their visions. And every artist is in business for himself and sets his own agenda. Scientists will tell you that, though Galileo,
Newton, and Einstein were of course great geniuses, if they had never been born other scientists would have come along and eventually made their discoveries. But Marcel Proust, and with him all other major artists, was sui generis; no one else could have written A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Professor Garber is attracted to the analogy of art with science in part because so much of science is done in universities and her book's closing argument is that the best possible patron for the arts is now the contemporary university. She makes the point that, increasingly, much training in the arts is done in universities in departments of theater and acting, visual art, film and photography, music, dance, and creative writing. (When one thinks of all the would-be poets and novelists being churned out by university creative-writing programs, one begins to understand what Degas meant when he said that "we must discourage the arts.") Professor Garber argues that the arts would be good for the university, but the greater question is whether the university is good for the arts?

My sense is that it would not. Professor Garber writes that "freedom of expression, the toleration of difference, and the high value placed on originality and imagination" are all found in the university. Wonder how, in my 30 years there, I seem to have missed it, and found instead deep conformity, beginning with political correctness and extending outward into anti-Americanism and a hardy loathing for anyone not aligned with all the okay causes.

This conformity cannot be good for artists or for their arts. When one thinks of the powerful critics of the arts in the past century, the best among them--Edwin Denby in dance, Virgil Thomson in music, Clement
Greenberg in visual art, Edmund Wilson in literature--almost all came from outside the university. Apart from actors and a few playwrights, most serious novelists, poets, composers, and painters did not acquire their training, or their inspiration, from the university, and fewer still found their subject matter there. The great world, not the university, will always be the ultimate training ground for artists, at least for those who wish to go beyond the academic in their ambitions.

Even with the great good luck of generous patrons, the artist is left where he has always been: attempting to master his craft, trying to narrow the gap between his talent and his ambition, alone with his mad passion, ill-rewarded if rewarded at all--a grant here, a small prize there--hoping to make a little dent in the world's great yawning indifference.

Think of his travail from time to time, and pray that your son or daughter doesn't come to you to announce that he or she wishes to be an artist.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the forthcoming Fred Astaire.