The National Endowment for the Arts, a symbol of the aspirations of Camelot and the Great Society, has ever since its founding in 1965 endeavored to bankroll creativity in America. Four decades and $4 billion in subsidies later, its shortcomings are manifest. For all the hyperbole that greeted President Obama’s nomination of Broadway impresario Rocco Landesman to chair the endowment — “potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” playwright Tony Kushner said — neither the appointment nor the $50 million in stimulus money the president is steering the endowment’s way is likely to bring about a change in its culture.
Conservatives have long sought to get rid of the NEA on the grounds that it is a dole for lazy aesthetes, an intrusion of the state into civil society, and a bureaucracy that has, in its day, funded a good deal of offensive rubbish. (It no longer makes grants to individual artists.) But the inadequacy of the NEA is deeper than all of that.
The organization owes its existence to August Heckscher, President Kennedy’s special consultant on the arts, who in 1963 proposed the establishment of a national arts foundation. But the agency has never lived up to the expectations of President Kennedy himself, who was possessed, Arthur Schlesinger said, of a “vision of the truly civilized community America might become.”
Put to one side the implication that America is less than truly civilized; all countries have room for improvement. Yet it is precisely as a civilizing force that the NEA has failed. Nearly half a century after Kennedy dreamt of a nation redeemed by art, we are no closer to having about us, in our daily life, the kinds of beautiful forms that the citizens of a provincial town circa 1300 could take for granted.
It is not that all the NEA’s programs are bad. As programs go, “Shakespeare in American Communities,” which brings the plays to audiences they would not otherwise reach, and “Poetry Out Loud,” which encourages children to recite verse, may be good ones. The difficulty is that the programs do not address the underlying crisis of art, the failure of communities today to produce the kinds of art that, until quite recently, the communities of the West produced spontaneously, joyously, almost as a matter of course.
The NEA, in “bringing,” as it professes to do, “great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” is a $155-million-a-year import-export business. It exports art from places where it is made to places where it is not made, much as a businessman might export plastic toys from China to California or Connecticut. This is a palliative.
The NEA’s import-export approach to the arts derives from its flawed Romantic model of creativity. In the Romantic model the artist is an alienated, Byronic figure. He lives in a kind of artistic industrial zone, typically a bohemian neighborhood in a great city, and he mingles, for the most part, with other artists. He is not part of a larger community in the way Aeschylus and Sophocles were part of Athens; instead, the artist has, ever since the Romantic revolution, been estranged from civic life, his existence a kind of protest.
By trucking artists from their lofts in Tribeca or their garrets in San Francisco — a disproportionate amount of NEA money goes to California and New York — into “rural areas, inner cities, and military bases,” the NEA perpetuates the Romantic stereotype of the artist as alien, a circus performer who has only the slenderest relation to the non-artistic natives. Such an artist may be on closer terms with his metropolitan patrons: but they patronize him precisely because he is a weirdo, an expensive pet on par with a fancy type of poodle.
Looking at reproductions of the art the NEA has sponsored over the years, I was struck by the way the endowment’s Romantic culture has reinforced the idea of the artist as alienated freak, a prisoner of his grievance. What is most unsatisfactory in the outré modernism the NEA has so often favored is its limited emotional and stylistic range. It is only to be expected that the artist will be a misfit: His weirdness is a source of his creativity. But when the artist lives not in an artistic ghetto but in an ordinary community, he finds a greater fund of material and inspiration. He need not feed on his own disaffection. The spectacle of the petulant poet or painter dramatizing his revolt against the world through a kind of idolatry of the grotesque no longer has the power it did when Byron composed Manfred. The bohemian pose of alienation is now used by entrepreneurs to sell coffee to lawyers. Nor is it the merchant class alone that has bought, tamed, and trivialized Romanticism’s tropes of decadence and revolt. It is all but impossible to take seriously an art of rebellion crafted by pensioners of the state.