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Art & its institutions: notes on the culture war
On the M.I.T. symposium The Public Patron: Drafting a Mandate for a Federal Arts Agency & related matters.
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But the new barbarian is no uncouth
The life of art in this country has clearly entered upon an entirely new phase of its history in this last decade of the twentieth century. For a large part of this terrible century, the gravest assaults on art and its institutions have been mounted by totalitarian regimes in the course of their efforts to impose an absolute and remorseless control over every aspect of life and thought. Now, for the first time in the history of modern democracy, we are witnessing a similar assault on the art and culture of a free society from within the ranks of its own intelligentsia and its official cultural bureaucracy. The effects of this incipiently totalitarian incursion into the life of art are proving to be all the more insidious, moreover, for being made in the name of democracy itself.
It is not only that the politicization of art and its institutions is rapidly accelerating. As a direct consequence of this politicization, every aspect of the life of art has also been increasingly bureaucratized. In more and more of the art world’s activities, the center of intellectual gravity has already shifted from decisions made by artists in their studios to decisions made by committees of non-artists that take a purely instrumentalist view of art. An immense superstructure of art advisers, art consultants, art lobbyists, art activists, and other non-artist art professionals, working in close conjunction with a vast network of arts councils, offices of cultural affairs, public art projects, minority and “community” arts groups, and other special-interest cultural organizations, both in and out of government, now exerts an enormous influence in determining public policy as well as private patronage in the art world.
The most significant thing about this bureaucratic leviathan is that it is completely captive to the political Left. Its principal purpose today is to advance the radical Left’s agenda for the cultural revolution that has already completed its “long march” through the universities and is currently in the process of annexing many other institutions of cultural life—the art museums, for example, where the revolution has made enormous inroads in programs and acquisitions, and in the policies of the foundations, corporations, and agencies of government that support museums. The effects of this cultural revolution, which are not always separable from the most cynical commercial motives, have already made themselves felt in the media, too—see, for instance, the lamentable condition of the cultural pages of The New York Times and the way the arts are covered on National Public Radio and PBS.
The art museums are thus going the way of the American theater, which is largely dominated by this cultural revolution, and in this respect, at least, are coming to resemble the productions of the Hollywood studios. The same political imperatives now threaten the future of classical music in this country and cast an increasingly malevolent shadow over the life of serious literature. Political tests are now applied and enforced in virtually every field of artistic and intellectual endeavor, and they are always the same tests. The individual artists who wish to remain independent of these tests—and there are still many artists who do—face an ideological monolith of such formidable power and influence that it makes the old philistine resistance to advanced art seem positively benign by comparison.
Nowhere is the influence of this monster arts bureaucracy more vividly evident than in the kind of Orwellian “discourse” it uniformly employs in its public discussions of art and culture. In this politically denatured discourse, aesthetic considerations are consigned to oblivion while standards more appropriate to the social sciences are given priority. Artistic criteria of value and achievement are supplanted by claims to preferment made in the name of group rights, racial justice, sexual equality, minority empowerment, and other politically correct petitions for advancement on the basis of extra-artistic interests. Art that is not explicitly enlisted in the service of some approved social, sexual, racial, or similar political mission is now an interest that dare not speak its name in the councils of the new arts bureaucracy. Nor are distinctions between high art and popular culture permitted in the kind of bureaucratic discourse that is specifically formulated to eradicate such distinctions lest the dreaded demons of “elitism,” “excellence,” “quality,” and other challenges to a radical and leveling egalitarianism persist in reminding us that in art, as in life, some things are by their nature discernibly superior to others.
In both the rhetoric and the actions of the arts bureaucracy, the current practice of imposing strict political criteria on art and culture has already acquired some characteristic features that are recognizably totalitarian in spirit. Thus, while claiming to speak in the interest of a wide-ranging and beneficent “diversity,” the leaders of this cultural revolution adamantly refuse to tolerate any dissent from their own orthodoxy. While advocating greater public access to the arts so that more and more people may enjoy their pleasures and benefits, the new cultural commissars carry on an unremitting campaign to strip high art of everything but its name in order to render it more appealing to larger numbers of people. As a result, any sort of “community” art activity—meaning, in effect, any sort of properly defined politically driven cultural program—is given parity with, if not indeed priority over, the traditional fine arts. Meanwhile, in the classroom the great art of the past is systematically deconstructed and “demystified” as a racist and sexist conspiracy devised by white European heterosexual males to preserve their own power.
This downgrading process takes many forms, some more destructive than others. The old musical comedies, for example, are elevated to the status of grand opera in order to avoid invidious distinctions between high art and popular entertainment—and also, not incidentally, to expand the opera audience to include people who do not like opera. Even that pestiferous form of urban blight called graffiti must be legitimized and aggrandized as serious art—art of the “people”—to make it qualify for the new politically correct support system. In the 1980s, there were actually two graffiti programs funded by the federal bureaucracy at the same time—one to pay for the eradication of graffiti from the urban environment, and another to pay for encouraging its practice as a form of creative expression. Maybe this is what the radicals mean when they talk about the contradictions of capitalism. In this new dystopian realm of arts policy and its rhetoric, “access,” too, has become an instrument for imposing political tests, for it is now instantly recognized as a signal to “dumb down” the arts in order to make some approved substitute qualify as the real thing. In the Orwellian discourse of the cultural revolution, “access” often means nothing but censorship in the service of “diversity.” In other words, enforced conformity to a low cultural standard.
It was to be expected that the change of administration in Washington would encourage this already powerful aspect of the cultural revolution to become even more aggressive in the pursuit of its radical demands, and so it has. Make no mistake about that. But in attempting to assess the likely consequences of this new aggressiveness in politically correct arts policy, it needs to be remembered that the essential character of the regnant arts bureaucracy and its ideological outlook was set during the immediately preceding administrations in Washington. What began, in the Carter administration, as an amateurish and essentially “pork barrel” attempt to implement a more populist arts policy quickly developed, during the Reagan and Bush administrations, into a tougher-minded and more openly radical program for the arts.
Some spirited attempts were made at both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to allay the worst effects of this headlong drive to politicize arts policy and to slow the pace of the programs that were already trashing the teaching of the arts and the humanities in the universities. But we can see now that nothing of lasting consequence was accomplished during the Reagan and Bush administrations to change the goals or alter the momentum of the Left’s cultural revolution, which continued to prosper even as the American electorate was sending conservatives to the White House with large majorities. On the contrary, the election of presidents Reagan and Bush served as a powerful stimulus to the radical Left, which knew how to exploit liberal sentiment for its own illiberal causes. The Left was far more expert than anyone in the White House about the many ways in which the resources of both the government and the private sector could be made useful to the cultural revolution. This was a battle that conservative politicians never really understood, and therefore proved powerless to affect. To understand the nature of the cultural revolution of our time, you have to take the arts and the life of the mind far more seriously —you have to comprehend more profoundly the magnitude of the loss that follows when the arts have been effectively strangled in the interest of a radical political agenda —than most conservative politicians have shown themselves able or willing to do. Their response to this crisis has been, for the most part, simplistic and unproductive where it has not actually played into the hands of their radical opponents—which, alas, it often has. The only notable exception was Vice President Quayle, but even his campaign to expose the true character of what he rightly dubbed the “cultural elite” in this country, welcome though it was, came too late to make a significant difference. Still, it is worth pointing out that after President Bush had been safely defeated in the election, the staunchly liberal Atlantic published a lengthy, well-documented, and much-discussed article proclaiming to its readers—as the magazine said on its cover —that “Dan Quayle Was Right!” It was a bittersweet moment for those of us who had for years looked to Washington—and mostly looked in vain—for some sign of leadership or even understanding in what came to be called the culture war. But the conservatives sadly proved to be inadequate to the challenge. Which is how it happened that while winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union abroad, the conservatives in Washington lost the culture war to our own commissars at home.
The cultural revolution, which had its origins in the antiwar movement and counterculture of the 1960s, now presents this country with the gravest domestic crisis it has faced since the end of the Vietnam War. It has already gone a long way toward destroying our institutions of high culture and our institutions of higher learning. It has made every serious artistic pursuit more problematical than it has been in this country within living memory. And because the cultural revolution has turned every aspect of family and sexual life into an arena of political combat and made every problem deriving from race and ethnicity a battle zone, the culture war is also a moral and social crisis of vast dimensions.
The ambitions animating this cultural revolution grow more unbounded and more uncontainable with every passing day. At a conference that was convened in June at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the title “The Public Patron: Drafting a Mandate for a Federal Arts Agency,” we were given a very graphic glimpse of where this cultural revolution is going and of the kind of assistance it is receiving in high places. Thus, the conference was told by no less an eminence than Robert Adams, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which is now the most aggressively P.C. cultural agency of the federal government, that “no overarching standard remains” to be applied in the arts, and that the whole discussion of taste, standards, and values in the arts is in complete “dis- array.” What Mr. Adams proposed as a replacement for that lost “overarching standard” were “political agreements” in the name of “pluralism,” which is now merely a euphemism for multiculturalism and enforced “diversity.” This was the voice of the Washington cultural establishment, and its message was unambiguous. It was now accepted policy that the arts were to be treated as a political entitlement, and there was to be no more talk about standards or values. Henceforth “political agreements” would determine the allocation of resources. The elimination of artistic considerations was accepted as a fait accompli.
Then the conference was given a preview of what these “political agreements” would entail in a rousing speech by Adolfo Nodal, the general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Los Angeles. Mr. Nodal represented what I suppose can be called the “grass roots” sentiment of the cultural bureaucracy, and he was even more candid than Mr. Adams in dismissing as irrelevant what he dubbed “cosmic arguments” about the arts. “We must move the debate beyond ‘excellence,’ beyond ‘freedom of expression,’” he insisted, and then disclosed to the assembled cultural commissars his own view of what the mission of the arts was now to encompass. The National Endowment for the Arts, he said, needs to be radically expanded, for in the future the arts could and should be used to “reform our schools,” “remake our cities,” “assist inter- national trade,” and foster “holistic health care.” Clearly, for Mr. Nodal the sky—or perhaps we should say, outer space—was the only imaginable limit to what the arts would accomplish in transforming every aspect of our society if his proposals were heeded. This speech made Mr. Nodal the real hero of the “Public Patron” conference.
It was left for Ellen Stewart, the founder and director of La MaMa, to sound the strongest note of political paranoia at the conference. She declared without qualification that the condition of the American artist today is exactly comparable to the situation of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. There was throughout the conference, of course, a good deal of talk about the terrible treatment and neglect of artists in America, but it was Ellen Stewart who took the most extreme position by suggesting that the country was actually attempting to exterminate its artists. What was even more remarkable than what she said was the fact that none of the other speakers on the program—not even the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution—bothered to contradict her. It was my impression that no one on the program thought her comments especially extreme. We were thus reminded that this facile political paranoia is also a constituent feature of the cultural revolution, which defines all opponents of its progress as agents of the devil. This is another of the tactics that identify this cultural revolution as essentially totalitarian in spirit.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 September 1993, on page 4
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