An ad hoc group called “New Yorkers for the National Endowment for the Arts” held a ginger meeting on May 11 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to drum up support for the beleaguered agency. The ostensible purposes of the gathering were to introduce New York arts advocates to Anne-Imelda Radice, the NEA’s new acting chairman, and to see a short video, narrated by Walter Cronkite, in support of the endowment. The meeting was presided over by such notable NEA backers as John Brademas, the former congressman who was responsible for much of the agency’s legislative success in the 1970s, and William H. Luers, the president of the Metropolitan, whose wife, Wendy, is a very active member of the National Council on the Arts, the NEA’s advisory board.
Perhaps the longest speech was given by pollster Louis Harris, who announced, to warm approval, the results of his latest survey of public attitudes toward federal arts subsidies. Harris seemed thrilled that support for these subsidies had gone up from 48 percent in 1974 to 59 percent in 1987, and had now reached the high level of 60 percent. Harris was particularly enthusiastic about his poll’s finding that 52 percent of the American people now supported aid to individual artists, the first time that a majority had so expressed itself; for Harris, this rise in sympathy for individual artists was a “sharp and bitter” response to the attack on these artists that had been so prominent in the wider attack on the NEA over the past several years. Otherwise, the speeches were short, and even Radice had little more to say than that she felt it was significant that the first event in support of the NEA was taking place at the Metropolitan Museum.
There was but one slight note of discord on this harmonious occasion: a questioner from the floor asked what Radice’s position was on supporting “difficult art.” This question, clearly referring to the grants for provocative sexual and sacrilegious art that have fueled recent opposition to the NEA, seemed calculated to put the new acting chairman in an uncomfortable position before the very partisan invited audience; everyone present surely suspected that at that very time she was in the process of deciding to reject a grant of $10,000 to MIT, approved by an 11-1 vote at the last Council meeting, for an exhibition containing, inter alia, images of human genitalia. But the questioner was in effect gaveled down, and Radice was spared the problem of speaking, in an unfriendly environment, to the key issue convulsing federal arts policy today.
In the event, the gathering came to an end not with the bang of Mapplethorpe and MIT but with the whimper of Walter Cronkite doing what he has always done best —reading a prepared script. The almost ten-minute-long video left few tears unjerked as it moved through countless brief images of “the arts” in their broadest contemporary definition. The video pointed out that the NEA had practiced multiculturalism before it became a trendy word. There were action shots of orchestra musicians, every kind of ballet, folk, and modern dancer, folk and ethnic performers, museums, art classes, and everywhere great numbers of scrubbed, appealing, bright-eyed, and attractive children. On this video, the NEA was the mother of all America’s arts, the sponsor of all its artists, and the teacher of all its children.
Insofar as the video had a soloist, it was the rhythm-and-blues star Ray Charles, who kept chanting the name “America.” There was nary a word—or, God forbid, a picture —about the great debate as to whether government should be in the business of supporting art, or what passes for art, that even sophisticated art lovers find offensive. Nor was there anything about the NEA’s original mandate to conserve the greatest artistic treasures of the past. The achievements of high art and the task of sustaining them were lost in this pageant of praise for cultural populism. Instead, everything was reduced to warm and smiling faces. Under the new dispensation, sanctified by Walter Cronkite, one may be pardoned for thinking that the purpose of the video, like that of the Metropolitan Museum meeting that introduced it, was to con a gullible American people into thinking that here, in what used to be the austere majesty of a great art museum, was nothing more than bedtime cookies-and-milk. Some cookies, some milk. But then, too, some bedtime.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 10, on page 2
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