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Salt Lake City Weekly Politics Against Art

The anti-N.E.A. phalanx makes a wide variety of mutually contradictory arguments.

By Katha Pollitt

AUGUST 11, 1997:  The other night I came across a TV ad encouraging viewers to visit Alabama. It had the customary montage of state attractions. You know, Alabama — the fishing, the football, the beaches, the plantations, the symphony, the ballet. The symphony (with a black conductor, yet)? The ballet? The good boosters of Alabama must not have got the word that the arts are elitists, effeminate, blasphemous and obscene. They seem to think they're more like, well, fishing: Something you might voluntarily choose to do in that precious sliver of free time, your vacation.

I count this ad as yet another piece of evidence that the right-wing attack on the National Endowment for the Arts is playing to a small, if ferocious, constituency. Contrary to stereotype, Americans like the arts, and the more access they have to them, the more they like them. New York City's museums these days are as crowded as Bloomingdale's. Opera — opera! the epitome of long, dull and foreign, the butt of 1,000 jokes — is hot, with a whole new audience drawn in over the past few years by the addition of supertitles to live performance and by subtitled PBS broadcasts. Last year Americans spent 50 percent more time attending arts than sports events. Even poetry is showing signs of life.

Sure, some of this interest is idle and superficial, an aspect of social climbing and status seeking, the Higher Shopping. The fact remains that more people are seeking out the arts than ever before in American history, which makes this what educators call a teachable moment. If we lived in a civilized country, the government would set itself immediately to expanding and developing and complicating this curiosity and openness to art. It would bring back art and music and drama — aka "frills" — to the public schools, it would hire writers to run classes and book clubs in public libraries, it would make museum-going free again and subsidize theater tickets (as even the British Tories did) so that going to a play would be more like going to the movies and less like investing your life savings in a high-risk mutual fund. If Oprah Winfrey can get huge numbers of women usually dismissed as romance-reading featherheads to tackle challenging novels by Toni Morrison and Ursula Hegi by talking her audience through them in a warm, enthusiastic, unscary, we're-all-in-this-together way, think what the government could do if it were willing to spend a little money to enlarge our minds and broaden our tastes a bit.

I know, I'm dreaming. The conventional wisdom has it that right-wing Republicans will ultimately fail to shut down the National Endowment for the Arts when it comes to a vote this fall. Even if this proves to be the case, though, the year-in, year-out yahoo-conservative onslaught is having its effect. You see it in the strained attempt of N.E.A. boosters to find a bottom-line rational for arts funding: Art employs a lot of people, grants for high culture and experimental projects act as "seed money" for eventual pop-cultural blockbusters. To which the right ripostes that funding art as a jobs program is just pork-barreling, which we all detest and despise, and if high culture is R&D for Hollywood, why shouldn't Hollywood pay for it? (Sure — and why not have the A.M.A. finance the National Institute of Health?) You see the N.E.A. defenders' lack of confidence, too, in the stress always placed on the paucity of "controversial" grants — Piss Christ, the Mapplethorpe exhibition, Karen Finley. Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear an N.E.A. spokesperson speak up in favor of art as, well, art and argue for more controversy rather than less? Must everyone like everything?

Art by the mouthful: A painting by V. Kim Martinez will feature in an upcoming Art Access Gallery exhibition. The gallery receives funds through the Salt Lake Arts Council, which gets NEA funds.
As an amalgam of high-culture reactionaries, anti-government ideologues and faux Populists, the anti-N.E.A. phalanx makes a wide variety of mutually contradictory arguments. Thus, Hilton Kramer attacks the N.E.A. for supporting trendy mediocrity, while Dick Armey attacks it for appropriating the taxpayer's dollar — 38 cents, actually — and giving it something, anything, that a particular taxpayer might not approve of, presumably including those things Kramer champions, like abstract painting. If the government funds major institutions of unquestioned excellence and magnificence, most of which are located in New York and a few other major cities, that's upper-class urban elitism; if it funds a suburban orchestra in Ohio or a young, unfamous poet in Oregon, that's subsidizing the second-rate. And if it tries to split the difference by underwriting the export of urban high culture to the provinces — say, a production of Angels in America in Newt Gingrich's Cobb County, Georgia — that's the invasion of the body snatchers.

Isn't it interesting that none of these arguments are made against, say, the space program? The recent Sojourner Mars extravaganza cost $160 million a day — a little less than twice the proposed annual N.E.A. budget, but widely proclaimed an incredible bargain. (NASA will cost $13.7 billion in fiscal year 1997.) Like public arts funding, the space program has lost its cold war rationale, but unlike it, rolls on regardless. It's equally impractical — surely someone would have invented Teflon by now — and at least as "elitist." Rep. Sonny Bono says he's never met anyone who benefited from public arts funding; well, I've never met anyone who cares what kind of rocks Mars has. In my opinion, the space program is the obsessive pursuit of trivia, the Higher Stamp-Collecting. Yet despite the fact that I have held this view since Sputnik, I am forced to subsidize NASA with my taxes, while red-meat conservatives like Newt Gingrich exempt space exploration from their condemnation of government programs.

Why should the personal interest of a small band of futurists and technogeeks have a permanent claim on the national treasury, while those of us who enjoy the arts are told to pay full freight? Why isn't Mars a "frill"? Is it because the arts are seen as feminine — worse, gay — but space is all about he-men? I knew there was a feminist angle to this.

I wonder what would happen if arts supporters demanded parity with space fans: They get $13.7 billion, we get $13.7 billion. Or conversely, the N.E.A. goes, and NASA dies as well. Everyone who'd rather go to the ballet in Alabama than watch Martian rock retrieval on TV raise your hand. See? There are more of us than we think.

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