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Money For Art

By Joseph Losos
December 21, 2008

David Smith, quoting G.K. Chesterton, observes that “art is the signature of man.” Thus “this utter distinctiveness makes art vitally and continuously important in human society.” But - and this “but” is the central theme of Smith’s book “Money for Art” - the connection between art and society, the role art can and must play in a community, is complex, a tangled web. That is especially true today, for the dominance of nonrepresentational art in the visual arts, and similar trends in literature and music, makes that role problematic.

Is high culture necessarily an elite affair, designed for and appreciated only by a small minority? Is that something that has come about in the past century or two, or has that always been the case? Is art fundamentally the province of artists, or is it a question for the total society? As the author puts it, is it a matter of I (the creator) or We, (all the rest of us)? And, if the latter, how do We make our preferences known? Should art educate the citizenry, or should the people tell the artists what they want? And, if the second option is the prevailing mode, as it has been through most of American history, is that authority largely vested in rich people?

Those are hard questions. Of course, the arguments about “modern art” have been going on for decades; the famous Armory show of 1913 set off fights that have not let up since. But it is the movement of the federal government into art patronage that has moved these disagreements into the political arena. This battle, as Smith points out, took time to develop. The New Deal art program was centered on the Works Progress Administration and was intended to provide work for painters, above all, and not primarily intended to bring art to the people.

Thus it followed a history of public art built on the perceived need to beautify government buildings. When Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration proposed expenditures for supporting art in a minor way, it was basically as a response to Soviet and/or Western European claims that we were a nation of uncouth philistines. Sending symphony orchestras abroad seemed important and, while we were at this task, showing off our painters and writers made sense, too.

The first budgets were small; a few million here or there. But government programs have a natural tendency to grow, and this one sure did. John F. Kennedy’s administration urged more expenditures, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s more yet, and more than that under Richard Nixon, etc. When Jimmy Carter became president, the word from the executive branch was that we had until then ignored the arts (a ridiculous assertion, as Smith insists), and the federal support took off.

However, as that happened, the question of which art was to be assisted became a major issue, as it had not been when the sums were smaller. The National Endowment for the Arts, the vehicle for government spending, had to decide what and whom to give money to. At first, only institutions (museums and orchestras were pretty safe) got grants, but increasingly individual ones were given, and some of the recipients were not so safe.

At least decency should prevail, conservatives insisted. No, those on the leftward side replied; art must be free, the artists must determine what their self-expression produces. OK, the rejoinder came, but, as that articulate spokesman for the right, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, commented, let the artist have complete freedom, but why should the taxpayers have to pay for the horrid stuff?

The U.S. government has decided to support art, but is (to take a highly publicized case) a more or less naked dancing woman coated with chocolate art? If anything is art, a plausible conclusion from much of current thinking, does that mean that public money must be given without standards?

This well-written, often exciting little book delves into the story of the debate over these issues. At times, the dispute over federal expenditures on avant garde art overshadowed large questions of national policy, with disputes over tiny proportions of the art budget (at its peak approaching $200 million in the 1990s) obscuring all the admired programs to bring art and artists to rural communities and school programs.

But this furor has, in recent years, died down. The budgets are now about half those of the 1990s, and the NEA seems to be more cautious. Perhaps the more exuberant artists have decided that it is not worth the effort to attempt to get federal money. Thus it is now more possible to examine this vivid episode in American cultural and political history with less heat and more objectivity. That is what this book seeks to do, although it is clear that Smith is on the side of the conservatives. Given that, this is a sensitive and at times funny foray into our recent past.

Joeseph Losos is a St. Louis investment adviser

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