Farewell Mapplethorpe, Hello Shakespeare
The NEA, the W. way.


Roger Kimball

Under normal circumstances, the White House announcement that the president was seeking a big budget increase for the National Endowment for the Arts might have been grounds for dismay. Pronounce the acronym “NEA,” and most people think Robert Mapplethorpe, photographs of crucifixes floating in urine, and performance artists prancing about naked, smeared with chocolate, and skirling about the evils of patriarchy.

Thanks, but no thanks.

But things have changed, and changed for the better at the NEA. The reason can be summed up in two trochees: Dana Gioia, the distinguished poet and critic who is the Endowment’s new chairman.

Within a matter of months, Mr. Gioia has transformed that moribund institution into a vibrant force for the preservation and transmission of artistic culture. He has cut out the cutting edge and put back the art. Instead of supporting repellent “transgressive” freaks, he has instituted an important new program to bring Shakespeare to communities across America. And by Shakespeare I mean Shakespeare, not some PoMo rendition that portrays Hamlet in drag or sets A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a concentration camp. (Check the website for more information.)

Mr. Gioia is moving on other fronts as well. He has hired a number of able deputies who care about art and understand that what the public wants is more access to good art–opera, poetry, theater, literature–not greater exposure to social pathology dressed up as art. After a couple of decades of cultural schizophrenia, the NEA has become a clear-sighted, robust institution intent on bringing important art to the American people.

It’s quite odd, really. People keep telling us–that is, professors and CNN commentators and Hollywood actors keep telling us–how very stupid President Bush is. Yet everywhere one looks he is supporting some of the most intelligent and dynamic people ever to occupy their cultural posts. Dana Gioia at the NEA, his counterpart Bruce Cole at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leon Kass and his panel of distinguished scientists and philosophers at the President’s Council on Bioethics (see their website to get a sense of the good work they are doing on clarifying the enormous moral issues surrounding the debate over biotechnology). The Left keeps screaming about how dim George Bush is, but in the meantime, he has illuminated one area of public life after another with immensely talented and articulate people.

There is plenty of room for debate about whether and to what extent government should be directly involved in funding culture. But there can be no argument that if we are going have public support of the arts, it should be done in an enlightened and life-affirming way. This is the George Bush approach to cultural reinvigoration. Conservatives–by which term I mean people who are interested in conserving what is best from the past–should applaud his efforts. After years in the wilderness, the NEA has finally come home.

Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion and author of Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity.