Editor’s note: With this issue, The New Criterion inaugurates a section devoted to Notes & Comments on timely issues and recent events likely to be of interest to our readers—H.K.
The Mapplethorpe mess, now enjoying rather more than Andy Warhol’s proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, bids fair to become part of the dubious history of the artist’s confrontation with bourgeois society. As the uproar over the Helms amendment attests, the impact of this governmentally supported provocation on the climate for public support of the arts in this country will not soon go away.
Because the National Endowment for the Arts directly funded the showing of Mapplethorpe’s sado-masochist photographs, there has been a huge, and justified, outcry in Congress and across the nation about the use of federal subsidies for what is so plainly in the case of these photographs offensive art. There have been, and will doubtless continue to be, legislative attempts to prohibit such support in the future. In our opinion, such efforts, among them the Helms amendment, are doomed—unless they reflect the results of a serious re-thinking of the proper purposes of federal support for culture, and the proper mission of the NEA.
Direct public expenditures for culture were born in the 1960s out of a curious amalgam of Great Society uplift, guilt over the John Kennedy assassination, and an upper-class desire to transform noblesse oblige into gouvernement oblige. Amidst all the hoopla and self-congratulation surrounding the NEA, there has never been any real consideration of what art might be supported, and what the cultural interest of the state, as surrogate for the society, might be.
Instead, the operative philosophy underlying direct public patronage has been: “Art is good, more art is better, the most art is the best.” The result of this arts boosterism has been an intellectual vacuum, which has been filled by powerful and noisy constituencies demanding and receiving federal support for art as mass entertainment, for art as social and political redress, and for art as an extension of the boundaries of cultural consciousness and individual life-styles. One need only look at public television and the vulgarization of museum exhibition programs and symphony orchestra schedules to see the triumph of art as entertainment; the proliferation of special-interest arts groups organized by gender and ethnicity is evidence enough of art as redress; the Mapplethorpe exhibition at such a distinguished national institution as the Whitney Museum in New York—even leaving aside for the moment the exhibition that was scheduled to appear at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington—is proof of the use of art to advocate hitherto unacceptable modes of personal behavior.
And so the NEA is now on trial. In its hour of need, the agency’s advocates can call upon no arguments for its continuation other than the old and tired sentimentalities about how the arts embellish our existence and provide otherwise unavailable amenities to daily life—and lots of commercial and economic benefits in the bargain.
These arguments, it cannot be repeated often enough, will no longer do. Their lack of specificity and purpose, their failure to understand the nature of art and the long-term needs of culture in a political democracy, doom them to failure in convincing the American people (and their leaders) of the value of the NEA or in defending public decency against antinomian assaults. After much delay—a delay itself signifying drift and confusion at the highest levels of government—a new chairman of the NEA has been nominated. Unfortunately, leadership is impossible without policy: an appointment, no matter how qualified, can hardly substitute for a policy.
But policy is impossible without the making of choices and the giving of reasons. What is required is nothing less than the proclamation of a viable goal for public support and for the NEA (and for the National Endowment for the Humanities as well, though the condition of the NEH, because of recent strong and thoughtful leaders, is less critical).
Stated negatively, public cultural support cannot be about the provision of entertainment, either upscale or for the masses; it cannot be about the accomplishment of immediate and partisan social and political goals; it cannot be about the stretching of the limits of permissible personal behavior; it cannot validate the so-called “cutting edge” of art or thought.
Stated positively, public support must concentrate on nothing less than the transmission of the civilization of the past, via the present, to the future. Public support thus must concern itself with civilizing works of art, literature, and thought, their preservation, study, communication, and regeneration. While new work does have a place in public support, that place can hardly be central if the protection of civilization, the major purpose of such support, is to be accomplished. Above all, the sole criterion for public support must be that of the continuity and permanence of the highest achievements and values of human society.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 1, on page 1
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