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The State of the Arts in Contemporary America

by Wayne P. Lawson

One context for the arts in contemporary America is that majority is minority now. Laurie Anderson and her performance pieces are being panned because of repetition and sameness, and Philip Glass' musical constructions are said to be too long and his new collaborations boring. The kaleidoscopic nature of America, it's multicultural, ever growing base continues to grow so that by the year 2000, the arts will reflect a society which we cannot yet define. We can only guess at it. Nevertheless, the arts will reflect that society, and public support for the arts, however young, will be at the core of our artistic growth. So will the controversy surrounding the use of tax dollars and the values inherent in the freedoms of artistic expressions.

Almost 25 years ago, Congress declared that the encouragement and support of the arts, while primarily a matter of private and local initiative, was also an appropriate matter of concern for the federal government. To carry out that charge, and the other obligations of the public support network is a task as challenging today as it was then. Our world is not the same, however. We face an era of internationalism; an era in which we are besieged by electronic media and instantaneous access; a time when cultural diversity presents ideas, challenges and opportunities in forms different from America's traditional heritage.

A Brief History of Public Support for the Arts

Separated from the only culture they admired, and with only 14 million inhabitants in a few states, it was no wonder that the founding fathers left cultural development to private individuals and groups. John Adams' repeatedly quoted statement from a letter to his wife in 1790, telling her about his hopes for future generations, does not really envision the arts in a pluralistic society as we have come to know it. Adams sought to study politics and war so that his sons could study mathematics and philosophy in order to give the right to their children to study painting, poetry and music. Whether we want to admit it or not, Adams' view, even for that time, was elitist. English prototypes served the purposes of defining "American" culture, and the idea of an indigenous culture would not have made sense to most people. The desire was for a general style that asserted first principles, tended toward abstraction, and worshiped antiquity. This mattered greatly to the young republic in the 1790s. Jefferson's Academy in Virginia was hardly for all who wished to partake. One need only to look at his buildings. They insist that elites matter and are valuable; they imply that the democratic task is not to level, but to create space for the exceptional while protecting general access to it for a very small informed group. We sentimentalize Jefferson and his colleagues if we suppose that they were not elitists. From the beginning, artistic development was left to private individuals. Private policy for the arts had begun.

A decade after the Constitution was accepted, the first federal support of the arts took place in the establishment, by act of Congress, to provide "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress." Art and music were included in the early collection. The first federal support of the visual arts took place in 1817, when the Fourteenth Congress commissioned John Trumbull to paint four revolutionary war scenes to hang in the Capitol rotunda. They grace that extraordinary place to this very day. It was the same John Trumbull who, as President of the American Academy of Fine Arts, in 1826 proposed to President John Qunicy Adams that there be "a plan for the permanent encouragement of the fine arts by the national government." That idea had to wait for 139 years to come to reality.

In 1859, Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities and President James Buchanan appointed a National Arts Commission to promote the arts. However, the Commission came to nothing because Congress wouldn't give it any money. It was disbanded in 1861. In 1879, Representative Samuel Cox, a democrat from New York, introduced a joint resolution in Congress to establish a Council on arts matters, but again Congress chose not to take any action. Four years later, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It opened in 1892 with Dvorak as its first Artistic Director. In 1897, a proposal for a National Office of the Arts was reviewed, but nothing came of it. In 1899, an extraordinary event took place. The Mormons, who settled in Salt Lake City, sent east for artists to decorate their temple and created the first state Arts Council in the country. This began a process that took until 1974 to complete when an arts council was finally established in every state in the Union. One other small step toward public support for the arts took place in 1910, when President Taft, with Congressional approval, established a Commission of Fine Arts to advise upon questions of art when required to do so by the President or Congress. The Commission dealt primarily with the architectural appearance of Washington, as it still does today.

In the face of the First World War, the stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression, it is little wonder that the recorded history of federal support of the arts then leaps to 1934, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt established the Treasury Department's section on painting and sculpture. This first government bureau involving the arts, assigned artists to decorate federal buildings around the country. A year later, the famous Works Progress Administration provided public service employment through such programs as the federal writers project. In addition, the American National Theatre and Academy was founded under a charter by Congress. One congressman noted that 25 million people in 22 states witnessed the federal theatre productions. Sixty-five percent of them had never witnessed a play before. Federal musicians played to aggregate audiences of 92 million persons in 273 cities in 42 states; 11 million people witnessed art exhibitions or were taught in art classes. Still, not all was praise and applause, nor was anyone attempting to create a national policy for the arts. These actions were creating jobs. Good politics -- right!

Opponents of the New Deal found support of the arts an easy target, and there were rumblings that the program was supporting communists more than it supported artists -- sound familiar? In 1938, Congress took a giant stride to the right and set the stage for a death blow to the concept of federal support of the arts, at least for awhile. The country's attention turned to war, but its artistic spirit and creativity continued. John Steinbeck received the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath; Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid was given its first performance in New York; and Schonberg, Stravinsky, Bartok and Kurt Weill left their native lands to come to the United States. Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma played for 2,248 performances.

In 1951, President Truman asked the Commission of Fine Arts to investigate ways in which the arts could be helped by the federal government. Two years later, the commission reported to President Eisenhower, recommending that a Cultural Center be established in Washington under the jurisdiction of the federal government. That recommendation wasn't acted upon until 1958, but it eventually resulted in a national memorial on the banks of the Potomac -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The dawn of the sixties brought a new young President and dreams of "Camelot." Pablo Casals played his cello in the White House, and a galaxy of other stars brought the arts to every state banquet. New York created its own state Arts Council which quickly became the largest in the nation, expending some $65 million dollars in 1989. In 1962, President Kennedy appointed August Heckscher as his special consultant on the arts and asked him to prepare a report on the relationship between the arts and the federal government. A trio of significant years -- 1963, 1964, 1965 -- were to follow.

In January, 1963, Senator Javits of New York introduced legislation to establish a United States National Arts Foundation. In April, Senator Hubert Humphrey sought to establish a National Council on the Arts and a National Arts Foundation to assist in the growth and development of the arts in the United States. In May, Mr. Heckscher submitted his report, in which he recommended the establishment of an Advisory Council on the Arts and a National Arts Foundation to administer grants in aid. On June 12, President Kennedy established the President's Advisory Council on the Arts. In October, he dedicated a new library at Amherst College, saying:

"I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision however it takes him."

Unfortunately, President Kennedy did not live to see the members of His President's Advisory Council appointed.

In 1964, Congress passed legislation to establish a National Council on the Arts which met for the first time in April of 1965. Among that stellar group were Elizabeth Ashley, Leonard Bernstein, David Brinkley, Agnes Demille, Gregory Peck, Richard Rodgers and Isaac Stern. Later that year, President Johnson, sitting in the rose garden, signed the law that finally created a federal agency to support the arts -- The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Initially, it received an appropriation of only two-and-one-half million dollars and had fewer than a dozen employees.

During its first ten years of existence, the grant making function of the NEA was where the basic elegance of Congress' design for the agency was most apparent. To ensure that the Endowment's involvement could be kept within reasonable bounds, the law creating the agency decreed that its funds could never contribute more than 50 percent of the cost of a project, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. The arguments that went back and forth about the NEA creating "State Art" were nullified by this manner of funding. In addition, Congress imposed other safeguards; namely that all decisions about what the Endowment could support should come from advisory panels of experts who would review grant applications on their merits and make recommendations on funding. With such a system, there is little room for bureaucrats to impose standards of taste, or lack thereof, on what the Endowment supports. It is this system which, I believe, now constitutes the basis for a cultural arts policy in the United States.

The State of the Arts

Art and art institutions in the United States have been, and are today, principally supported by individuals. Although it is a smaller role, contributions from foundations, community and government sources provide the critical underpinning that allows the fine arts to pursue intellectual development outside the box office. Funding patterns in the United States reflect a pluralism that stems from our democratic culture. It is rare to find art organizations that do not have a multiplicity of support rather than relying on only one source of revenue.

Perhaps the most significant result of our pluralistic funding of the arts is the way that artistic excellence comes to be defined in the process. Excellence becomes a balance of public appreciation, individual evaluation, and peer review. Though agencies, mainly governmental, that employ the peer review process make no attempt to promote peer review as a stamp of approval, the process plays a key role in defining artistic excellence nonetheless. The recognition an artist or organization derives from the panel process takes the form of a very traditional democratic forum -- a forum that involves an inclusive exchange of ideas and for articulating and blending the best ideas from the best artistic minds throughout the country.

While we have no formal "Academy" of arts in the United States, we do have enough informal influences to constitute a similar power. There is an "informal Academy" that is still dominated by a Western European interpretation of artistic value, by the value judgments and fads of New York City's art centers, by less than a dozen art critics also located in New York, and by an economic system of "collectable" art investments. The most recent example of the informal Academy's proscriptive perspective was the New York Times characterization of the NEA's expansion arts program as a "circus." Whatever one might think of individual grants in expansion arts, the program is a very small step toward recognition of the diversity of cultures that actually constitute the American people. The informal Academy often uses "excellence" as a veil for exclusion of new or different art ideas. The national and state governmental forums also provide a balance against the domination of art in America by the informal Academy.

Today, the public support system for the arts is suffering from an identity crisis. This is the result, at least in part, of a rapid growth for public art agencies since the 1960s -- a whirlwind process which has, by necessity, centered more on responding to immediate need than to consideration of the more philosophical and analytical aspects of arts. As government appropriations have been scrutinized and cut, agencies in the public sector have begun to question what business they are really in. Censorship now rears its ugly head.

All of us interested in the arts must think differently now. We need to think about the role of art in society -- not just in the lives of the well-educated, but in the average citizen's daily realm. We need to think about the lack of understanding and appreciation for artworks, about the low priority of arts education in our schools, and about the responsibilities we share in shaping the art of our culture. In the Christian Science Monitor, Theodore F. Wolff articulated many of the thoughts lurking in my mind:

"Americans don't really know what to do with art and with those who produce it. They seem confused about its place in their lives, most particularly the degree to which the art seen in the museums and galleries truly represent them and their ongoing realities. They want art, in fact many need it, and yet feel alienated from much of what is being produced as art today."

The arts are not superfluous to society, and those of us in the arts community must not be peripheral to civic activities and the mainstream of life in our localities. Perhaps we have contributed to the "arts are frills" myth by catering more to the arts community and not always addressing the quality of life concerns of the public at large. In order to respond to cultural and social change, we must be sensitive to the needs of our communities. We cannot limit our programs, services, and artworks to what others are doing or what we have done in the past. To fulfill our responsibilities, we must risk, and be innovative on every level.

At the same time, there are public gifts and burdens in a democracy -- gifts and burdens in making art. Most Americans recoiled some months ago at the death threats against author Salman Rushdie. Most Americans believed that threats of death were not equal to a work of fiction -- not even an offensive one. Yet, this past summer when art funded by the NEA offended some of our citizens, politicians immediately felt compelled to ban the work and withdraw funding from its exhibitors and underwriters. I'm speaking, of course, about Seranno's "Piss Christ" photograph at the Maplethorpe exhibition. Twenty-five years ago, when the NEA was established, debate focused on whether public support would have some chilling effect on personal creativity. Now, we're debating over what limits there should be on art funded by government (with little thought of any chill), and over what punishments should be meted out if any one of hundreds of NEA funded projects is not up to someone's definition of art. How should a society react to art that may be offensive to certain individuals or groups?

There is a feeling in some quarters if the country, and certainly in parts of every state, that freedom is defined by the boundaries of what offends "me." What displeases "me" must be controlled. What creates displeasure within "me" must be censured. The protection of the individual from harm is the proper function of a police force. The policing of society from ideas and art that may seem strange, even disquieting and abrasive, is still repression. What is truly dangerous is not what can be imagined by an artist, but what can be done by those who have stopped imagining. We may choose to turn away from anything we find distasteful -- except repression. If repression is the lesson that children learn from us, surely it will deaden their hearts and leaden their steps. The gift and burden of democracy is to hold the torch as high as we can -- in spite of the weight of so much freedom -- and then to pass it on.