It is unfortunate that for the first time since its creation in 1965 the National Endowment for the Arts has become an issue in a presidential political campaign, and it is another sign of the disarray that has overtaken this federal agency that this has been allowed to happen. Yet given the inattention and inaction of the Bush administration in all matters pertaining to the conduct of the NEA during the stormy three-year tenure of its own chairman, it was all but inevitable that the most notorious of the agency’s grant-making decisions would sooner or later be drawn into the campaign maelstrom. After all, those dubious grants were already the subject of acrimonious debate in Congress, in the press, and in public forums throughout the nation, and there was never any reason to believe that the controversy generated by those grants was likely to diminish as a general election loomed— especially with the activities of the NEA still so ineptly directed by a chairman who, astonishingly, seemed to know even less about politics than he did about the arts.

We know of no one who regrets the departure of John E. Frohnmayer from the chairmanship of the Endowment, yet his resignation leaves the outstanding problems of the agency with no visible solutions in sight. Such solutions can only be formulated and acted upon within the framework of an intelligent and comprehensive policy on federal arts funding, and that is something that the Bush administration, despite mounting provocation and fierce contention, has refused to address during its first term in office. Now, under the worst possible conditions, it will be obliged to do so, for the NEA is not going to disappear as a divisive issue after Patrick Buchanan’s departure from the campaign trail for other political venues.

It should be recalled, in this connection, that two years ago an excellent opportunity to reform the NEA with bipartisan support was unaccountably botched. Responding to the first wave of criticism and uproar over the Mapplethorpe and Serrano imbroglios, the White House and the Congress joined in appointing a special commission to look into the policies, programs, and procedures of the Endowment and recommend whatever reforms were thought to be necessary. The chairmen of this commission—John Brademas, then president of New York University and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, and Leonard Garment, the well-known Washington attorney who had been the White House advisor on arts policy in the Nixon administration—were both well-versed in the NEA’s operations and generally regarded as “friends” of the agency. The bipartisan commission which they headed could not therefore be regard- ed by anyone but the Endowment’s most uncritical supporters as ideologically hostile to federal arts funding or to the agency itself.

Yet the report that finally resulted from the inquiries of the Brademas-Garment commission (as it came to be called) contained some devastating criticisms of the NEA’s operations. It also contained some sound recommendations for the agency’s reform. On two matters in particular the commission report was very pointed. It found the peer-panel system—the committees appointed by the NEA to pass judgment on grant applications —to be riddled with conflicts of interest, and thus in urgent need of sweeping revision. It also found that, more often than not, the Endowment had lost sight of the fact that it was accountable to the American people as a whole and not merely to the agency’s beneficiaries in the so-called arts community.

There was even a suggestion that this facile notion of an “arts community” had been too narrowly understood, thus making the Endowment hostage to special interests. In reality, of course, the life of the arts in this country is made up of a great many different groups, individuals, institutions, and audiences that are by no means in perfect agreement about what the arts should be doing or about what the NEA should be doing, and it was one of the conclusions of the Brademas-Garment commission report that on this matter, too, the Endowment was in urgent need of a revised outlook. Most generally stated, the report sought to recall the NEA to the fundamental fact that it was an agency of government and not a lobbying or activist organization for special interests.

Although far from perfect in every respect, the commission’s report offered Washington a sound and responsible basis on which to begin to consider necessary reforms in the NEA’s funding operations. Yet, like so many other government commission reports, this one was quickly consigned to oblivion. It turned out that no one in Congress, in the White House, or at the NEA was the least bit interested in reform. And so the Endowment was left to stagger on, moving inexorably from one scandal to another, until it ended up as an issue in the presidential campaign.

Now it seems unlikely that a new chairman for the Endowment will be confirmed by the Senate before the November elections even if the Bush administration could find a nominee willing and able to face the gladiatorial combat that a Senate committee hearing would inevitably entail in the current political atmosphere. Yet this does not mean that some clear and concrete policy decisions about federal arts funding in general and the NEA in particular can be deferred any longer. The mess at the NEA is only going to get worse if the issues that have afflicted the Endowment are not boldly and directly addressed.

Agood place to start is with that reminder from the Brademas-Garment commission report that any federal arts-funding program must be understood to be accountable to the American people as a whole. The NEA must be made to abandon its self-appointed role as a lobbying agency for special-interest groups—and most especially for radical-fringe groups—in the arts. It probably should get out of the business of passing judgment on new art altogether. It was never a terrific idea for an agency of the federal government to get involved in the very difficult task of deciding which new art—and which new art forms—should be supported with public money and which should not. In a field where even the so-called experts are not only deeply divided in their judgment but also often compromised by their own special interests and professional affiliations, no government bureaucracy will ever be capable of making sound decisions. For the NEA to continue to pretend to do so will only expose the agency to a continued barrage of hostile attacks from every political and cultural quarter. Decisions about new art are best left to our diverse and highly pluralistic private sector, which is where the real judgments of posterity are made. There is in any case something absurd about the government acting as a kind of licensing agency for social rebellion masquerading as artistic innovation. The practice of supporting licensed rebels is already a growth industry in the museums and the universities that needs no help from the NEA.

What the NEA is best equipped to do is to serve as a support for the great models of art and the great institutions of art that have come down to us from history. This, in fact, is what the business of the Endowment has been mainly about, and the principal reason for its creation in the first place—to help give the American people access to the greatest artistic achievements of our civilization. There are undoubtedly cogent arguments to be made about which achievements of the past qualify for that exalted status and which do not, but those are arguments which scholars, connoisseurs, and artists should be left to settle for themselves. It would, of course, change the nature of the NEA if this withdrawal from the arena of new art were to take place; it would make it, yes, more conservative. But that is the kind of change that now seems warranted if the agency is to survive as anything but a source of friction in our society—indeed, if it is to survive at all.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 8, on page 1
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