Is the National Endowment for the Arts now to become judge and jury in arts education in the United States? That is what has been suggested by no less an authority than the NEA’s present chairman, John Frohnmayer. This development is particularly troubling, coming as it does at a time when the NEA, in its present dilapidated and discredited condition, can expect no more than what might be called unearned pity, even from its former friends.

For more than two decades after its founding in 1965, the NEA emphasized not just the money it contributed to arts institutions and artists but also the “Governmental Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” its financial support conferred. According to this argument, the very fact of NEA grants, no matter how small, brought with it increased private support for particular recipients and for the arts in general.

This happy situation, of course, no longer obtains. The NEA and its advocates can continue to talk, as they always do in difficult times, of grants for the playing of Schubert and the showing of Michelangelo. But such prattle rings ever more hollow. In the public mind and in its own, the NEA is the Maecenas not primarily of Schubert but of Serrano, not of Michelangelo but of Mapplethorpe. For almost two years now, the NEA and its hired guns in public relations—and its voluntary flacks in Washington and elsewhere—have wagered the future of the agency on its sponsorship of social, sexual, and political provocations. Under Frohnmayer’s inept leadership, the agency has made clear that its higher artistic mission is to support the dq\exciting,” “cutting-edge” material that the public—and many art lovers cowed into silence by their academically educated betters—have found offensive. Frohnmayer, hardly a paragon of intelligence or consistency, has waffled time and time again, but in the end he has always managed to come down on the side of bad art, if it can be called art at all. Even in the debased terms of the “performance art” Frohnmayer takes so much pride in supporting, his act has been a poor act indeed.

Now, admidst all the hoopla about “America 2000,” the glitzy new strategy for making America the best in the world in student achievement by the end of the decade, the NEA has jumped with both feet on the educational bandwagon. The cry once again is arts education, to be overseen by the NEA in Washington and enforced on students and teachers by that unjolly green giant, the federal Department of Education. What will be taught, how it will be taught, and who will teach it are even murkier today than they have been in previous educational campaigns. Is arts education to be the teaching of masterpieces, the multicultural excitement of ethnic differences, or simply gorging on self-expression? The answer is, surely, “All of the above”—with the masterpieces of civilization coming in a distant last.

All this is bad enough, for it ensures that no worthwhile arts education will take place under NEA auspices. But the real state of affairs is still worse, for the NEA now proposes to become the arbiter of whatever little of art is still taught in American schools. At a recent meeting of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, a group concerned with increasing private support for the arts, Chairman Frohnmayer announced (according to an official summary of the proceedings):

… the NEA has recently signed an agreement with the Department of Education by which the NEA, with generous assistance from the private sector, will undertake the assessment process for testing in dance, theater, music and the visual arts.

This hardly disinterested judgment, it must be understood, is to come from the agency that has already brought us Serrano and Mapplethorpe, and Holly Hughes and Tim Miller. The present NEA is not fit to judge its own efforts at the implementation of its own programs, and there is no evidence that it is fit to oversee any aspect whatsoever of the arts-education process.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 5, on page 1
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