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November 22, 2002

The Politics of the NEA, Part I


In my never-ending series on American culture I thought it was finally time to get around to the NEA. The story of this august institution begins at the end of the 1950s. The social prestige of the arts had reached a new high in American life. Around the country, cultural events formed a new platform on which the affluent and socially ambitious could court distinction. While John Kennedy (like most of his colleagues in the Senate) had never been known as a friend of the arts, he had noticed that the arts constituency was growing and it included many powerful figures: bankers, lawyers and doctors, university presidents and newspaper publishers. After his election, Kennedy carefully used high culture to brand his administration as aristocratic and forward-looking.

RockefellerNelson.jpg Fear of Rocky: Motivation for the NEA

The political question of government support for the arts, however, really became a hot-button issue when New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (considered Kennedy’s most likely challenger in the 1964 election) upped the ante by establishing a state arts council in 1960—the first in the nation. In doing so Rockefeller rallied both liberal Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans, as well as such powerful labor unions as the American Federation of Musicians, Actors’ Equity, and organized stagehands, electricians and carpenters around the bounty of public arts funding. Sensing a threat, Kennedy moved to enhance his own cultural profile. He sent Arthur Goldberg, his labor secretary, to New York to get headlines by mediating a strike at the Metropolitan Opera. Kennedy also proposed a National Culture Center for Washington, D.C. and appointed a prominent group of artists to its advisory board.

Although Kennedy supported establishing an agency for federal funding of the arts, he was assassinated before this was accomplished. In the months that followed, it became clear even to anxious observers that however little Lyndon Johnson knew or cared about the arts, he was just as determined as Kennedy to woo the arts constituency, and was better at getting legislation passed. Johnson propelled a languishing arts bill through Congress. Although Congressional hearings focused on the problems of individual artists, it was actually a coalition of major arts institutions, New York City’s congressional delegation, the American Federation of Musicians, Actors’ Equity, the Motion Picture Association, and John D. Rockefeller III (puppet-master of Lincoln Center), that helped Johnson put the heat on recalcitrant legislators. On September 16, 1965, the House and Senate agreed on legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

There was a significant gap in the legislation, however: to wit, what was the National Endowment of the Arts supposed to do? To what purpose was it to spend the $2.5 million allocated to it the first year? The congressional committee reviewing the bill affirmed that the endowments’ principal objective was

…the encouragement of free inquiry and expression…conformity for its own sake is not to be encouraged…no preference should be given to any particular style or school of thought or expression. Nor is innovation for its own sake to be favored. The standard should be artistic and humanistic excellence.

While a remarkable collection of fine sounding phrases, this is completely vacuous as a plan of action. How is excellence to be judged, if there is no “style” or “school of thought” to set goals and determine standards?

To captain this rudderless ship, Johnson appointed Roger Stevens—a successful real estate investor, Broadway producer and Democratic rain-maker—as the first chief of the NEA. Stevens knew the score politically, and began by calling on each senator and representative. He would pull out a list of the trustees of the larger arts institutions in the politician’s district and point out that the names overlapped with a list of major political donors. The politicians quickly took his point. Moreover, a major selling point on behalf of arts funding was that the arts constituency could be bought cheap. With federal expenditures for 1969 of less than $8 million, politicians recognized that supporting the arts reaped an astonishing harvest of good will among people who mattered.

However, the lack of any clear direction to the fledgling agency remained a significant, if virtually ignored problem. Alice Goldfarb Marquis describes the situation in her book "Art Lessons":

From the agency’s beginnings, brave words about the sacred nature of the arts had obscured the black hole where policy might have resided. By 1968, the U.S. Bureau of the Budget was insisting that the NEA, like every other government program, define its objectives. Trying to comply, Steven’s aide Charles Mark kept formulating goals and Stevens kept brushing them aside. As the budget people pressed him, Stevens finally agreed to justify each grant under such vague objectives as “aid to artistic institutions…wider distribution of the arts…and aid to individual artists,” goals so broad, Mark wrote, that “we never had any trouble deciding where to place each [grant].” When Mark was asked by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 1969 to write a paper on American cultural policy, he declined, because in four years at Steven’s side…“I had seen no evidence of a cultural policy of any kind.”

This lack of a cultural policy was not only impractical, it was in striking contrast to most other regimes of government funded art. Just to make this point clear, let’s compare the NEA with the intensely focused government program for the arts in France in the late 18th century. I choose this period because it was probably the most successful bureaucratic governmental arts program in Western history.

French art in the middle of the 18th century was perceived to be in decline by serious critics both in and out of government; it was, in the words of Anita Brookner, widely considered:

…to be hastening down the primrose path of frivolity and fashion, thereby suggesting a disagreeable comparison between the artistic luminaries of Louis XIV and the general libertinage of those of his successor.

This sense of artistic decay was made even more intolerable by the political and military difficulties of this period, which culminated in the disasters of the Seven Years War, during which France lost both Canada and India to the British. Something had to be done, and it was; the government reacted in a very organized way. As Albert Boime reports in his excellent book, "Art in an Age of Revolution, 1750-1800":

…Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, and during his reign history painters enjoyed larger subsidies than ever before. Far more puritanical and reform-minded than his grandfather, Louis XVI regarded Boucher’s pictures for Mme. De Pompadour as indecent and wholeheartedly supported the new tendency [neoclassicism]…In December 1774, d’Angiviller presided over the academy and announced that he and the king intended to step up and systematize the commissioning of history painting. He confirmed this the following month when he issued an official declaration…Every year, gifted artists would be assigned four or five history pictures illustrating both ancient and French history, ultimately comprising a series retracing “action and deeds honorable to the nation.”

Moreover, the bureaucrats, realizing that they had no painters currently able to project their message in the “grand style” they required, were determined to create such artists out of whole cloth:

D’Angiviller hoped to project images of French history in the same grand style heretofore reserved for classical antiquity…Vien’s correspondence with d’Angiviller confirms that his selection as director [of the French Academy of Rome] was part of a comprehensive policy governing the art complex. Vien was charged to…systematically expose [the students] to ancient examples, to send them to Naples to view the excavations [of Pompeii], to introduce them to scholars, dealers and officials at Rome who study…antiquities.

In short, the politicians provided their painters with nothing less than (1) a program: history paintings of actions and deeds honorable to the nation, (2) a style: neoclassicism and (3) a training program to nurture it: the French Academy of Rome under Vien. And this training program paid off; in slightly over a decade, Vien’s pupil J. L. David produced a masterpiece (“The Oath of the Horatii”) and inaugurated a century and a half of unprecedented French dominance of the visual arts.

DavidJ1785OathoftheHoratiiHoriz.jpg J. L. David, The Oath of the Horatii, 1785 (detail) Political Art: You Get What You Ask For

Although, ironically, this painting has come to be seen as foreshadowing the French Revolution, it is more historically accurate to view it as “made to order” to terms of the Royal arts initiative launched by Louis XVI and d’Angiviller: severely Neoclassical in style while bursting with an easy-to-read (as well as deeply, almost hysterically felt) patrotism. In short, the French government developed an arts program intended to fill its political needs, funded it, and educated a somewhat unstable genius to execute it.

In contrast, in creating the NEA, nobody was prepared--at least on the record--to say what it was supposed to accomplish. Well, as we know, nature abhors a vacuum, and in my next posting we’ll see what filled up the policy vacuum at the NEA.



posted by Friedrich at November 22, 2002


Fab, many thanks.

A fact-byte that I ran across and found fascinating is this: guess who was the President who most drastically increased the budget of the NEA?

Answer: Nixon.

Your posting also helps make clear two key things:

1) The government's, and government funding's, role in turning the arts into a branch of the social-services industry

2) The immense difficulties of crafting a coherent arts strategy in a country as various and wooly as the USA. France is highly centralized, and the French are by and large in agreement on wanting a French style, as well as what that might be. But the U.S.? Endless quarrels, nearly all of them legitimate, as far as I'm concerned. A museum of Hispanic peasant art? Why not? A grant to someone doing a postmodern take on clog dancing? How to argue against it? We have all these many, many art traditions -- something to be artistically relished. But from a government-strategy point of view, something impossible to manage.

So? Back to a social-services, it's-good-for-you rationale. Which seems to make everyone lose the point of art.

Here's a q&a with a critic of the NEA you may find interesting. Hmm, can I put a link in a comment? Let me see...

Hey, it works.

Looking forward to more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 22, 2002 1:12 PM

I was delighted to see my book, "Art Lessons" quoted in your article about the NEA. Quite a bit has changed since that book was published:
1. The NEA's budget has been cut by 50%.
2. The NEA must give the states more funding than ever before. This is good because the states do a much better job of funding the arts.
3. The NEA no longer gives grants to individual artists. This is where the most egregious failures lived -- the "artist" who got paid to throw streamers of crepe paper from an airplane, the "artist" who hired a team of skywriters to post his four-line poetry in the sky over his home, not to mention the more famous "artist" who painted her naked body with chocolate and other famous creative folks.

Posted by: Alice Goldfarb Marquis on November 25, 2002 9:22 PM

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