Longtime readers of The New Criterion will recall that in years past we often had occasion to criticize the National Endowment for the Arts. Lurching from a demotic populism, on the one hand (Elvis Presley, folk art, …), to the darker precincts of the transgressive “cutting-edge” (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andreas Serrano, …), the NEA was an agency in search of its soul.

No doubt legitimate questions can be raised about whether the federal government should be directly involved in supporting the arts at all. We suspect that a good case can be made that that task is better handled privately. But if we are going to have direct taxpayer support of the arts—and we are—let’s have responsible and intelligent public support. In this space in September 1989, we argued that

public cultural support cannot be about the provision of entertainment, either upscale or for the masses; it cannot be about the accomplishment of immediate and partisan social and political goals; it cannot be about the stretching of the limits of permissible personal behavior; it cannot validate the so-called “cutting edge” of art or thought.

… [P]ublic support must concentrate on nothing less than the transmission of the civilization of the past, via the present, to the future. Public support thus must concern itself with civilizing works of art, literature, and thought, their preservation, study, communication, and regeneration.

It is gratifying to report that the National Endowment for the Arts seems finally to have come around to our way of thinking on these issues. Under the leadership of the distinguished poet and critic Dana Gioia, the NEA has said farewell to the ephemeral and the meretricious. One evidence of the agency’s new commitment to quality is “Shakespeare in American Communities.” This ambitious fourteen-month program —supported by the Sallie Mae Fund and Arts Midwest in conjunction with the NEA—will send six theater companies across the country to perform Othello, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard III. In addition, the NEA is collaborating with the Department of Defense to bring a tour of Macbeth to military bases in the United States. (“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly”: a useful bit of advice for a soldier.)

According to a press release, “Shakespeare in American Communities”—which will bring these plays to more than one hundred towns and cities—is the largest tour of Shakespeare in America’s history. Size isn’t everything, of course. But it seems clear from the sober educational materials accompanying the program that the NEA has gone to great lengths to be sure that what people will get from this project is Shakespeare and not some postmodern or dumbed-down travesty. We will not be subjected to A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a concentration camp or Richard III presented as an allegory of the perfidy of George W. Bush or the American military policy.

In a letter introducing the initiative, Mr. Gioia expressed the hope that “Shakespeare in American Communities” would “help revive the American tradition of theatrical touring and … bring the finest art to the broadest possible public.” The emphasis, we believe, is as much on “finest art” as on “broadest possible public.” It is a worthy, a noble ambition, and it promises to help foster a more lively and informed interest in Shakespeare. Productions began in September with a suite of shows in New England. For more information, readers may call the National Endowment for the Arts at 202.682.5400 or visit their website for the program at www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 4, on page 1
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