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Culture of the bizarre

Culture | 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 members of a truly Great Society

Issue: "How shall we then govern?," Oct. 28, 2000

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.

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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.

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