The National Endowment for the Arts, which under earlier administrations had become notorious for using federal money to fund art that was offensive to the taxpayers who were paying for it, has announced its most ambitious project ever: bringing Shakespeare to the American people.
The Shakespeare in American Communities program will mobilize six regional theater companies, which will go into more than 100 cities, small towns, and military bases to put on plays by the greatest writer in the English language. The performers will also go to some 1,000 high schools to work with students, many of whom have never before seen live drama.
The goal, according to NEA head Dana Gioia-the neo-formalist Catholic poet whom President Bush appointed to direct the agency-is to prove that "excellence in art and democratic outreach are not incompatible."
The project, though unprecedented in its scope for the NEA, will cost a relatively modest $3 million, out of the NEA's total budget of $116.5 million. Reading crusader and first lady Laura Bush will serve as honorary chairman of the 15-month program.
Of course, if Americans want to enrich their lives with Shakespeare, they could hop on the interstate to a big city, where they could probably catch one of the ubiquitous Shakespeare in the Park festivals. And it is hard to find a hinterland so remote that it does not have a video rental store, where customers could pick up a Kenneth Branaugh production of the bard.
Moreover, it is difficult to find a constitutional justification for using tax money to subsidize artistic productions of any kind.
But the project demonstrates a major philosophical shift for the NEA from the days when it paid Andres Serrano to immerse a crucifix in urine for the amusement of the New York art world.
Under the old NEA, most of the grants went to elite, established artists-whose celebrity often came from their outrageous or shocking experimentation-and to the elite, established institutions that made up the exclusive, rarified realm of the "art world." NEA grants really did amount to a subsidy for the upper class.
A different model for helping artists emerged during the Depression, when President Roosevelt included artists and writers in the Work Project Administration. The idea was not to pay these creative folks to pursue their art however they pleased, freed from the demands to make a living. Rather, they were put to work using their craft for the social good of ordinary Americans.
Well-known novelists were paid to do research and to write up regional histories. Artists were paid to paint murals on the walls of WPA-built post offices.
To this day, if you go into a small-town post office, you may be surprised and delighted to see some really good 1930s-style art on the walls.
The United States was born in a revolution against the monarchy of Old Europe, and immigrants fled the aristocratic class system of their homelands precisely to enjoy a land of opportunity built on the principle that "all men are created equal." As a democratic republic, the government of the United States must answer to "the people."
Although this native populism has sometimes led the nation into trouble, the exaltation of "ordinary people," "the common man," "the every-day hard-working American" has been an important American value. This is in stark contrast to the elitism of the various aristocracies, whether social (having to acknowledge "one's betters") or political (leave it to governmental experts to make decisions).
This populist approach used to characterize the American approach to the arts. In Europe great works of art were kept in palaces, but Americans established museums that were open to the public, their founding documents often stipulating that they were to be free of charge and open to "the working man."
President Lyndon Johnson started the NEA as part of his "Great Society," a moment in American history that put full confidence in experts, technocrats, and social engineers to solve all of our national problems. In the shadows of President John F. Kennedy's aristocratic "Camelot," it's no surprise that art experts administered the NEA for the benefit of other art experts.
Now, though, the priorities seem to have shifted. Instead of funding the trivial experimentalism of the avant garde elite, which often despises ordinary folks and their values, the NEA is funding Shakespeare: classic, meaningful work of aesthetic greatness, with a universal appeal and, because of its moral foundation, offering a genuine social good.
Finally, the NEA is producing art for the red states.