Lower your voice and show some respect: America's cultural establishment has collapsed in mourning. Even in the best of times, the nation's elite culture regards its health as fragile and its future as doubtful. But now it sits in doleful misery, its tunic rent and ashes sprinkled liberally on its bowed head. What happened?
Bad news indeed: The cultural establishment's last line of defense--the National Endowment for the Arts--has been routed. Now nothing stands between art and barbaric pillage.
Truth is, one piece of bad NEA news came after another last fall, rather like Job's servants arriving in relays to report his compounding ruin. First, the House of Representatives voted to kill the NEA entirely. The endowment survived thanks to the Senate, but its budget was again cut, this time to $98 million, a reduction of $78 million since 1992. Then, the Hill gave the NEA permission to pursue additional private funding--in effect, a license to privatize. To the high priests who tend culture's flame, this is tantamount to defilement, because private funds have private interests attached to them. Then, NEA head Jane Alexander announced that, after four years in the role, she'd had enough and was returning to acting. Alexander is probably the most effective lobbyist the NEA has ever had, and has been instrumental in keeping the endowment alive in the face of congressional hostility; her departure was perceived as a setback for federal patronage.
But the worst blow to American high culture was self-inflicted. In October, the NEA released a report on the state of the national arts, American Canvas, that was intended to celebrate Alexander's leadership. It is an incoherent document, on the one hand rejecting commercially generated culture while, on the other, accusing the high-end cultural establishment of failing to serve a popular audience. Worse, not only did American Canvas discern an undemocratic "elitism" among America's artists, it sought to subordinate cultural activity to modish social metaphysics, especially such values as diversity and multiculturalism. That report naturally offended those who have been contemptuous of federal cultural management all along.
But it also offended many of those who have looked to the endowment as a sanctuary for "serious" artistic expression, for "quality" freed from pandering commercialism. Now, from the NEA's own point of view, art has been joined to an ethnic census of those producing it. And be-cause the NEA report sees art manifested in such entertainments as children's face painting, culture becomes divorced from either "seriousness" or "quality." A number of pro-NEA critics looked at the report, saw betrayal, and donned sackcloth. Having given over art to the state to protect it from the seductive wiles of profit, they were shocked to discover that art had commenced sleeping with politics instead. The Vestal being debauched, all that remained was to wall her up and to prepare for the coming onslaught of barbarism and bad taste.
Published reaction to this chain of events makes for useful, if often startling, reading. A series of essays, half-funereal and half-forensic, have appeared that are noteworthy for two elements: their often seething anger and their attempt to cast blame for this perceived cultural disaster. In their effort to determine just who is killing high culture, critics have rounded up some interesting suspects. Here's an abbreviated line-up:
Barbarism. This is playwright Tony Kushner's suspect, as identified by him in a perfectly furious essay published in the Los Angeles Times. To Kushner, NEA beneficiary and author of the immense commercial and critical success Angels in America, "our choice" as a society is "really the NEA or barbarism." The role of government, he writes, includes "guaranteeing a decent standard of life for all citizens, which standard must include both breathable air and accessible, serious art." That is why "the fight for the NEA is, at its core, the fight for America's political soul, our identity." Kushner believes that the NEA's response to its critics has been too soft, or, as he puts it, "blasé." The endowment shouldn't be prattling on about elitism and funding alternatives; it should be demanding ever more government money in the name of civilization. Instead, its report is an exercise in complacency, and "isn't complacency a declaration for barbarism?"
Kushner feels no need to define what he means by "barbarism." And in a way he doesn't have to, because the warning of the barbarians' approach is among the oldest complaints in cultural history. It dates back, most famously, to the Roman poet Juvenal, an embittered and perceptive curmudgeon who, in the first century A.D., introduced the phrase bread and circuses to the Western litany of alarm about the dangers of satisfying mass desires.
Cultural historian Patrick Brantlinger, who has traced the history of the idea of mass culture as social decay from antiquity to modern times, terms the concept "negative classicism." Give the masses what they want, goes this argument, and their low, bloodthirsty characters will overwhelm the better sort of people and eventually destroy civilization. The screaming vulgarians who packed Rome's arenas paved the way for the collapse of that mighty empire; their modern, mass-audience counterparts, gorged on cynically made-for-profit entertainments, are undermining our own society.
(It's worth mentioning in passing that the lavish distribution of grain and the infamous "games" and "contests" of Rome were state programs intended to control the populace. The spectacles were hugely expensive, and helped ruin those who had to pay for them. Had Rome's culture actually operated on a for-profit basis, the bloody arenas might never have existed. In fact, Rome did develop a nascent market culture in its famous booksellers and mimes, though it failed to develop the idea of authors' rights that would have encouraged that market's development.)
Kushner's nearest formulation of negative classicism is in the form of a largely unintelligible question: "[A]re we going to continue on the path of surrendering more and more of our vital, social, communal strength, health and will to an ego-anarchism...serving the mad profiteering of a monied elite?" The problem with critiques of mass culture that demonize the producer is that, in seeking to exclude the mass audience from blame, they necessarily deprive it of will. The struggle for culture is therefore re-duced to a pair of small, warring camps: mad profiteers vs. the enlightened, nonprofit NEA. More money equals salvation for the NEA, art, and civilization. How much money Kushner doesn't say, but the European example of state-supported culture may give us an indication.
The NEA has never spent more than about 64 cents per citizen to improve our cultural lives. France, on the other hand, spends $32 per Frenchman for the same purpose. Yet France is filled with cultural elites who sound even more desperate than Kushner does. They complain bitterly not only of a rise in domestic barbarism but of American cultural terrorism and imperialism too. Anyway, given that elites have been raising the alarm about the barbarians for 20 centuries, it is unlikely that such brutes are the proximate cause of the NEA's woes. But there are other suspects.
Democracy. This is the culprit fingered by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein in an extraordinary manifesto-like essay. Rothstein, deeply offended by the NEA's accusation of arts elitism, fired back that the arts were supposed to be elitist. Art, he wrote, is "an essentially undemocratic achievement by extraordinarily gifted individuals." The "real problem" with the 30-year-long NEA debate, according to Rothstein, "might be called the `ideology of democracy.' In this vision of the world, not only are all people created equal but so are all ideas and all cultures," the antithesis of artistic discrimination. "There are differences between us at birth that the civil order must ignore but the esthetic order is beholden to," he argued. "Even the evaluation of art is guided by such undemocratic gauges as cultivated taste and extensive experience."
This is an elitism of such purity as to inspire awe. But in the course of making a number of reasonable points (about, for example, the necessity of distinctions), Rothstein makes a pair of serious errors. The first is that he imagines himself in a debate with democracy. He's not; he's in a debate with other elites who have gone slumming in multiculturalist dogma, and who have gained ascendancy in a number of cultural institutions. The second is that while he characterizes democracy as an ideology, he regards art as an unchanging state that can be appreciated best by those with sufficiently refined sensibilities (such as himself). But art is not a state of being; it too has a significant ideological dimension, and that is as true for the elitist concept Rothstein is championing as it is for any other.
In fact, the system of fine arts as we understand them arose only in the 18th century. Poetry and drama, of course, extend to antiquity. But the ancient world understood the arts in quite different terms. Rhetoric was an art. Medicine was an art. Magic was an art. Indeed, anything that had to be learned systematically and had an effect on others was regarded as an art. Nor did the Middle Ages share anything like our notion of the fine arts, according to art historian P.O. Kristeller. Thomas Aquinas, for example, identified the arts as including cooking, shoemaking, and juggling. Imitative arts such as painting and sculpture were never grouped together conceptually or understood as such. Even Renaissance ideas of art differ significantly from our own. Leonardo Da Vinci regarded painting and mathematics (but not architecture) as being of a single class of activities, while others compared music to fencing and equestrianism.