The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently revised its guidelines for supporting American artists with financial subsidies; as a result, there is no future grant money earmarked for visual artists of any kind, individual or institutional, while funding remains available for historical projects, musical and dramatic works, and the like.
This leads one to wonder – isn’t ART an integral part of the National Endowment for the Arts?
While I believe that in fact is true, I also can appreciate several reasons why the NEA was forced to make this change.
First, the majority of the controversy in recent years concerning the NEA has arisen from its selected recipients in the visual arts. Mapplethorpe, the “Piss Christ”, and so on have left a bad taste in the mouth of most “conservative, God-fearing” would-be patrons of the arts (they are, of course, the would-be patrons of the arts because the patrons of the arts have ALWAYS been the wealthy, conservative establishment – they are they only ones who can truly afford to be). The focus of a lot of “back to the basics”, “family values” groups has been to gloat over and righteously point out the failings of the NEA to exercise good taste in its selection process for visual art. This doesn’t happen quite so much with symphonies. They are not so blatantly political, nor are they as likely to be politicized. Visual art, after all, at least since Warhol, has been brought down to the level of public consumerism; not so with orchestral works, or even to a lesser extent, with plays – simply because they are still somewhat elitist enjoyments and divertisements.
Second, of all the arts, visual art is art of the individidual. No medium ever failed Socialism quite so completely as painting or sculpture has done – because Fine Art ultimately glorifies the individual. No GREAT work of art was ever created by committee, and clearly, not all individuals are capable of creating these works. While this is also true of plays, symphonies, etc., the different is that visual art is also intended to be experienced individually. Unlike a new ballet, where the audience is gathered together en masse, darkened in a room together, and given a collective sense-embalming, visual art must be considered one-on-one, painting-to-viewer. Further, unlike a play, which can be reproduced numerous times using different unknown cast each time (therefore, availing itself of the collective talent pool), or a book, which can be reprinted without losing any of its inherent individuality, a painting or sculpture loses its uniqueness and value if copied or multiplied. The basic problem, from a marketing standpoint, with the visual arts is that many of them cannot successfully be mass-produced. They MUST be individually acquired to be appreciated. An additional problem is that although art has historically been used by many political and religious machines to sell something, it ultimately is not the best tool for convincing multitudes of people to think alike. Unlike a song, poem or lines from a text, it cannot effectively be quoted in the third person. Therein lies its danger to the perpetuation of a dumbed-down, collectively brainwashed, equality of ideas but inequality of persons agenda (BTW, we used to have in this country an agenda that stated that all people are equal, but some ideas are better than others; we now seem to believe that all ideas have equal merit, but some people are just better than others).
Third, but probably a corollary to point one, the NEA cannot intelligently select “great” art to sponsor because we as a society are not particularly interested in either creating it, or defining what we think it is. Each year, the funding for Fine Arts in our public schools is less and less. We have become a culture that is focused on the technology of creation without embracing the reasons why that creation is necessary. The emphasis on a “return to the basics”, of reading, writing and arithematic (ostensibly because we have ‘fallen behind’ and ‘can not compete’ with other nations who are also trying to follow the greed-is-good, capitalist world-view we taught them) has deprived our country of the one thing, the only thing, that can guarantee that our culture will, at minimum, survive, and at best, evolve – the Arts. This is less the case with music and writing – after all, while only 10% of Americans read books on a daily basis, there still is a great market for music – and the plethora of now “pop” classical musicians – Andre Rieu, Yo-Yo Ma, Pavarotti, Charlotte Church, etc. even helps those who are interested in NEA money. People still plunk down a lot of money to see “Cats” – so there is money in the theater, too. Granted, we’re not really getting any “new” Shakepeares or Mozarts, but maybe we as a culture don’t deserve them.
On the other hand, there is not much that can be done to salvage the arts of painting and sculpture from a plebian standpoint. Public funding for the arts has always been a double-edged sword to begin with – it’s for those who aren’t good enough to get a REAL sponsor, some might say. And unless you’re dealing with Monets, Van Goghs, Rembrandts, you’re not talking about a lot of money, anyway. The general public thinks the grand masters are over-priced – as a result, they certainly don’t believe someone they’ve never heard of is worth $1000 a canvas. In the vernacular of those who think the cinema isn’t worth it either, they’ll “wait until it comes out on video.” If your art makes it to prints, reprints, posters, etc., you’ll see some return on your investment.
Fourth, and finally, artists exist and create to show humanity, culture and society the possibilities of becoming. It is a medium that is intended to foster the process of evolution, rather than stagnation. As a result, probably the “best” and “finest” art comes about in cultures that believe that their evolution is not finished yet. Michaelangelo’s David doesn’t show the human form as it is – it shows it as it could be. The culture that currently exists almost world-wide is not interested in evolution; for the most part, we as a species believe that we are the end of the food chain, that when mankind appeared, the world of the creation (whether biologically or theologically) was finished. We have not always thought this way, but our thinking has become more and more rigid in this respect over the past century or so. We have become convinced that such a thing as “prehistory” exists; and we are constantly trying to distance ourselves from the “history” that we claim is our very foundation. The distillation of our “inner core”, so essential to the vision of the artist, is becoming quite an ugly and deprived thing. And although it may be true that the vanity of hope is the religion of the young, there aren’t a lot of hopeful signs that we are as a culture interested in perpetuating any hope in our future generations. As a result, the role of the artist in society, this society in particular, has become atrophied. We don’t want to know where we could be going, and so we go nowhere.
The bottom line with art appreciation (which is the problem with the NEA, in a nutshell) is EDUCATION. We aren’t teaching kids (or their parents, for that matter) that visual art is important. At least, visual art that you can’t create with a computer. As a result, there isn’t much the NEA can do – they can’t pick art for us. Nor can they tell us what we should think is great art – because in our current cultural backwash, praise of the mediocre has made most genius irrelevant. Why should we believe the NEA, when it comes to defining art? We don’t have much reason to trust them. And after all, it is OUR money.
So I think the NEA did the only thing it COULD do. Back out of the art business.
Which I think requires that they change their name to NEMAMA:
National Endowment for the More Acceptable and Marketable Arts
That’s my two cents. If you don’t want it, give it back. I’d like to put a Rembrandt on lay-away so in 20 years I can prove that there actually were artists that were worth endowing at SOME point in human history.