With the departure of Jane Alexander from the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts, the country is no doubt in for yet another noisy round of acrimonious debate and media muddle over the purposes and practices of the Federal government’s role in funding the arts and the institutions that serve them. It would be nice, of course, to think that this unfortunate replay of the old exhausted arguments could be avoided—that the appointment of Ms. Alexander’s successor at the NEA might even be used as an occasion for shedding some fresh light on the divisive controversies that have plagued this hapless agency for some years now. But we very much doubt that this will happen.

For the terms in which the problems of the NEA are now debated by both its champions and its critics no longer have much to do with advancing the cause of high achievement in the arts. To the nation’s great misfortune, high achievement in the arts has come to be stigmatized as evidence of “elitism.” As a consequence, the discussion on all sides of the NEA problem now has much more to do with social policy than with artistic accomplishment, and for this fateful shift in priorities the NEA is itself largely to blame. It was the NEA that sowed the seeds of its own destruction when it succumbed to the policy of judging the arts on the basis of their social agendas rather than on their artistic merits.

This shift in the agency’s grant-making powers occurred long before Ms. Alexander arrived at the NEA.

This shift in the agency’s grant-making powers occurred long before Ms. Alexander arrived at the NEA. It was given its greatest impetus during the Carter administration in the late 1970s, and, despite some valiant attempts during the Reagan administration to temper the practice, the policy of substituting social criteria for artistic standards remained in force as the defining culture of the NEA. It was indeed during the Reagan and Bush administrations that the now regnant culture of the NEA added a new name and a new ideology to its own social agenda: multiculturalism, which also operates under the rubric of “diversity.”

It cannot be said that Ms. Alexander herself ever exhibited the slightest understanding of what this development signified. Above all, she never understood that the NEA’s entrenched practice of judging the arts by the social agendas they claimed to advance—rather than by disinterested artistic standards—was a glaring problem for an agency charged with supporting the arts. Indeed, far from addressing this problem, Jane Alexander aggravated it by slavishly following established precedent in embracing the practice as a policy to be defended. This is the principal reason that her tenure at the NEA proved to be such a shambles. She seemed never to be able to grasp what the controversies were really about.

Those controversies were never more than incidentally about the pornography or blasphemy to be found in certain exhibitions and performances funded by the Endowment. Those were important issues, to be sure, for it was never in the public interest for a government agency to appear to be supporting sexual indecency or attacks on the religious beliefs of its citizens. These were impulses that were already flourishing, without widespread censure, in the larger and increasingly permissive private sector of American cultural life, which of course commands a far bigger budget and ultimately wields much greater influence than does the NEA.

What the NEA was being called upon to provide for such antisocial cultural imperatives was a public stamp of approval, and it was well understood by its advocates that such an endorsement would be seen to be an affront to the public itself. This, indeed, was the principle reason for seeking NEA support for “controversial” projects like the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. The actual sum of money involved was incidental, for the financial resources of the Mapplethorpe estate greatly exceeded the paltry grant requested of the NEA. The whole point was to win official approval of what in that famous case was a sexual subculture guaranteed to be offensive to public taste—a subculture that specialized in consensual sexual torture. Artistic merit was never the main issue. What was being sought—and what the NEA proved eager to grant—was yet another public endorsement of an extreme example of the adversary culture that already reigned supreme in the private sector of the art world, and indeed throughout the arts and entertainment industries.

What the debate about the future of the National Endowment for the Arts should mainly focus on, then, is whether an agency of the Federal government ought to continue using public money to support an adversary culture: a culture that is not so much critical as openly contemptuous of the traditional moral and civic values of mainstream American society. As we have seen again and again over the last two decades, the gradual institutionalization of the adversary culture at the heart of American society requires that taxpayers in effect collaborate in the disparagement and ridicule of their own moral and religious beliefs.

This is something that the political commentator Irving Kristol saw with great clarity in his 1979 essay “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals.” “It is not uncommon,” Mr. Kristol wrote,

that a culture will be critical of the civilization that sustains it—and always critical of the failure of this civilization to realize perfectly the ideals that it claims as inspiration. Such criticism is implicit or explicit in Aristophanes and Euripides, Dante and Shakespeare. But to take an adversary posture toward the ideals themselves? That is unprecedented.

The great peculiarity of our time is that the people and institutions entrusted with upholding the values of our culture have often turned out to be the most implacable enemies of those values. As Mr. Kristol observed, “the more ‘cultivated’ a person is in our society, the more disaffected and malcontent he is likely to be—a disaffection, moreover, directed not only at the actuality of our society but at the ideality as well.”

In recent years, the National Endowment for the Arts has become synonymous with this culture of disaffection. Consequently, its public identity has been informed not by the many laudable enterprises that it supports but by the ethos of “transgression” that spokesmen for the Endowment never had the courage to castigate and distance themselves from. This is the chief reason that the NEA has become a political lightning rod. Partisans of the adversary culture would have us believe that the only alternative to the nihilism they teach is philistinism. But the question that Jane Alexander’s departure from the NEA may finally allow us to ask is whether we wish to perpetuate a situation in which this symbolically important agency is hostage to the grotesque anti-ideals of a depraved adversary culture. There is nothing inevitable about the moral chaos with which the Endowment has become identified. But whether the Endowment in anything like its present form can free itself from the taint of that identification is another matter entirely.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 3, on page 1
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