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Culture of the bizarre

The tragedy of artistic welfare: The National Endowments have fostered bad art, poor scholarship, and entitlement attitudes; it's time artists and academics face up to the hard work of welfare reform-with a view to making them once again productive membe

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were established in 1965, one of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's programs that would usher in the "Great Society." A great nation, he said at the time, must have great art and great scholarship.

Just as the programs designed to fight the war on poverty would cause prosperity for all, the NEA would enable the arts to blossom. The NEH would help our nation draw on our rich history, promote our literary heritage, and bolster the quality of higher education. Or so the argument went.

Thirty-five years later, most of the Great Society programs have been abandoned as expensive failures.

Two remain: the NEA and the NEH.

After all this time, some assessment is in order: What new, culturally significant artistic movements have emerged since the NEA was founded in 1965? Abstract expressionism? No, that was the '50s. Pop art? No, that was the early '60s; the NEA had nothing to do with it. Even the most experimental and avant-garde artistic movements came into existence without taxpayer assistance. Certainly, a plethora of new styles have come and gone in the last few decades, but the general public is oblivious to them.

So perhaps some different questions should be raised: How are the arts doing in American culture? Does the public have more appreciation for the arts? Are the arts enriching more people's lives?

It seems that the attitude of the general public is more anti-art than ever. The NEA-funded art that makes the headlines-with its curious affinity for excrement, often applied to some religious symbol-outrages some people, while others just laugh in contempt or shake their heads about how they just don't get modern art. Even the people who defend the crucifix in the urine or the Madonna smeared with feces usually do so by appealing to the nearly universal ignorance about art: Who are we to say what art is? The NEA must not have been doing its job in making the arts more accessible to the American people.

What about the state of the humanities, thanks to the NEH? Have colleges bolstered their liberal-arts requirements? No, most of them have dismantled their core curricula pretty much beyond recognition. Are the humanities disciplines of history, literature, and philosophy thriving thanks to NEH grants? No, a typical course in the humanities these days, at least in the major universities, will probably have mutated into a "cultural studies" course, concerned with issues of gender oppression, homophobia, and other shibboleths of left-wing politics. Humanities in the traditional sense-the study of what human beings have thought, created, and achieved, in the context of universal human values-are hard to find. The scholarship in history, literary criticism, and philosophy has become so theoretical, so politically correct, so poorly written, that it hardly belongs in the tradition of humane letters at all. Ironically, much of this work that undermines the humanities received its funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

President Johnson was right that a great nation needs great art and great scholarship. But today we have neither. The NEA and the NEH, far from nourishing the role of the arts and humanities in our culture, have instead weakened them.

Many of the problems with the National Endowments are the same problems as the rest of the not-so-Great Society. The welfare state, it turned out, did not eradicate poverty; rather, it encouraged and institutionalized poverty, by making millions of Americans dependent on the dole. Ironically, pulling people off these programs through the welfare reforms of recent years actually reduces poverty. People once shackled to the welfare rolls are becoming independent, instead of dependent, whereupon they are developing their own talents, making more money, and becoming productive members of society.

The NEA and the NEH-which have been derided as "welfare for the rich"-could use some welfare reform of their own. If artists and scholars were to become less dependent on federal money, they too could become (as they always have been before) productive members of society.

Government can control art in two ways. One is by censorship, which artists naturally abhor. The other way is with money. Artists can grow to like this practice, though it is actually a far more effective means of control than censorship.

The former Soviet Union subsidized the arts, showering artists with special privileges, public acclaim, and generous stipends. But to get them, artists had to become members of the self-policing artists' union, and violating Marxist aesthetic theory or advocating any other politically incorrect ideas meant loss of funding.

The NEA, of course, does not offer subsidies on the Soviet scale. Its yearly budget-some $170 million, more or less, depending on the yearly budget fights-is not nearly enough for that, though its influence is multiplied by matching grants, state agencies that follow its lead, and the "imprimatur" effect of small NEA grants attracting private donors. Nevertheless, it has helped create an artistic establishment that-like its predecessors-has actually encouraged mediocrity and weakened aesthetic standards.

Both endowments operate on the principle of "peer review." This means that decisions about grants for artists and scholars are made by other artists and scholars. In practice, this means that artists no longer have to create works that appeal to the public; they have to create works that appeal to other artists.

It is intrinsically bad for art when artists do not have to communicate with an audience, but only with each other. Artists are "enabled" in their tendencies toward self-absorption and self-indulgence, encouraging art that is little more than esoteric experimentation, inside jokes, and voguish political statements. Art becomes insulated from the culture, a self-contained world, torn by internal bickering, irrelevant to the world outside. In the meantime, the public-which provides the funding-benefits not at all. Art becomes more and more elitist, while the public is left with the vulgarities of pop culture.

It would be better for the arts and the humanities if the National Endowments were simply shut down. This is what many conservatives-who observe rightly that promoting the arts and the humanities is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution as a specified power of the federal government-are calling for. But the endowments are hard to kill.

In fact, if the NEA and the NEH were to disappear overnight, to be completely replaced by private funding, little would probably change. The major foundations, philanthropies, and even corporations choosing what art to put up in their new office buildings have mostly adopted the same peer-review panels as the endowments.

Just as welfare reform did not happen by zeroing out all of the welfare programs, but by changing them so they deemphasized handouts and stressed equipping recipients for independence, perhaps the endowments could stay in existence temporarily, to help undo the damage.

And a great nation does need great art and great scholarship. The capacity of the arts to inspire, to elevate, and to civilize-even to heighten moral sensitivity-was recognized in the early days of the republic. 19th-century Christian ministers often were great advocates for the arts. That today's art is often degrading rather than elevating means that our culture needs to discover what really good art can do.

Here's what the next "culture czars" should do:

(1) Eliminate peer review. Public funding means that the public should benefit and that the public should have a say. Citizens with taste, sensibility, and common sense would make up the panels.

Other programs would be established to connect artists with audiences. When artists have to make works that appeal to real people, they will rediscover such neglected artistic concepts as meaning and beauty. And if they do that, they will make enough money so that they are not dependent on NEA grants.

(2) Cultivate aesthetic literacy. Both artists and the public have lost the concepts of quality, standards, and aesthetic excellence. The endowments should welcome proposals to help teach people to understand works of art and to discern between art that is good and art that is bad, or somewhere in-between.

Curricula for schools, homeschools, museum docents, and college classrooms would be aimed at eliminating the great cop-out, "I don't understand art," that lets artists get away with murder.

(3) Preserve our national treasures. In our pop-culture climate, the high culture does need to be preserved and passed on. It is in the national interest to preserve rare books, restore damaged paintings, transfer old movies made on inflammable film stock to a more permanent form, and keep alive valuable cultural institutions.

Grants for such seemingly mundane matters should be increased. Programs such as the current NEH project of editing classic American writers (the thankless chore of studying the author's manuscripts, revisions, and multiple texts to get at the author's original intention-which is not always present in current editions) will be continued.

(4) Build up the cultural infrastructure. Just as it is legitimate for governments to build roads and bridges, local governments have found it legitimate to operate cultural institutions such as libraries and museums. NEA and NEH money can help, but control needs to remain at the local level, and the grants should help these institutions find support by cultivating their own local audiences.

Traveling art exhibits of works by classic artists such as Vermeer and Monet have been attracting huge crowds, demonstrating that the public has a hunger for great works of art that is not being satisfied by most contemporary art. The endowments could provide seed money for such ventures-money that could be paid back when a profit is turned, making more funds available to smaller institutions to help them too give their visitors a taste for good art.

(5) Cultivate work in the American interest. There is no reason for the NEH to fund Marxist scholarship, or for the NEA to fund anti-American propaganda, or for either to give grants that undermine American institutions, such as work that mocks or blasphemes religion. Artists are free to create such works, if they want, but taxpayers are free not to pay for them.

Conversely, the endowments may have a role in funding works and exhibits that do promote the American ideals of equality, transcendent rights, and freedom. The NEH should fund archeological and archival research into our nation's history. The NEA could encourage the nearly forgotten genre of public art, the building of monuments and memorials. Both endowments could patronize artists and scholars who would build up American values and contribute positively to the national culture.

(6) Emulate Lynne Cheney. During the Reagan and Bush years, the NEH actually became a force for good. William Bennett was director of the NEH until he became the drug czar, no doubt finding drug lords somewhat easier to deal with than English professors. In both roles he worked to keep noxious influences out of our culture. Then Lynne Cheney-wife of the current GOP vice-presidential nominee-took over.

Her effectiveness could be measured in the howls of the academic left. But in her tenure, the NEH put out reports attacking relativism, chastising universities for political correctness, and spelling out what a genuine liberal-arts core curriculum needs to be. She vetoed grants for left-wing TV projects, but funded Ken Burns's documentary on the Civil War.

The NEH could use another Lynne Cheney, and the NEA needs a Lynne Cheney of its own.