WASHINGTON — There's nothing important George Bush knew about John Frohnmayer the day he fired him, February 20, that he didn't already know the day he hired Frohnmayer two and a half years ago. And indeed, the unceremonious dumping of the chairman of the Arts Endowment tells us nothing we didn't already know about George Bush. But it's a timely reminder.
In 1989, when Frohnmayer was appointed, Bush was just beginning his presidency. He had won the 1988 election with a remarkable exercise of hateful demagoguery, but now he was eager to show that the real George Bush was classier than that.
Politics, to George Bush, is performance art. Not unlike the notorious Karen Finley, he had smeared himself with symbolic excrement. Now the performance was over and he wanted a shower.
So he picked John Frohnmayer, a high-minded Oregon lawyer and certified artsy-fartsy, to head the controversial National Endowment for the Arts. And Frohnmayer did exactly what Bush wanted. He threaded the needle between right-wing arts bashers and the arts establishment. His tenure was not always an exercise in principle, but it was a moderate Republican's earnest approximation. It was, in short, George Bush's presidency on its best behavior.
Frohnmayer doled out his courage in wisely calibrated amounts. But any dose of political courage is apparently intolerable to George Bush in election season. With Pat Buchanan on the stump denouncing the Arts Endowment as 'the upholstered playpen of the arts-and-crafts auxiliary of the Eastern liberal establishment,' Frohnmayer had to go.
The rise and fall of John Frohnmayer is thus a metaphor for George Bush as a person and as a president. He knows what's right and he'll do it--if there's no reason not to. He sincerely wants to be virtuous. He just doesn't want it very badly. If it's a choice between virtue and something else he wants, like re-election, virtue is the first to go.
Bush doesn't even have the courage of his lack of convictions. Look at the snakey way he let Frohnmayer go: pretending he had quit, praising his 'integrity and decency,' but adding that 'some of the art funded by the NEA does not have my enthusiastic approval.' What an artfully qualified remark. Give that man a grant. But does Bush share Buchanan's disapproval of Frohnmayer's NEA or does he not? Don't ask.
In a country with real problems, this question of arts subsidies plays an absurdly overblown role in the public debate. For the Rev. Donald Wildmons and Senator Jesse Helmses, it's a valuable 'hot button' issue to use in direct-mail fundraising. For them, and for a presidential candidate like Buchanan, it's junk-food populism: a high-calorie, low-nutrition substitute for serious politics. To hear Helms and Buchanan, you would think that a large part of the federal deficit could be eliminated if we would only stop paying people to take pictures of themselves with a bullwhip up their rectums.
Even some long-time supporters of government arts subsidies are starting to wonder if these battles are worth it. Other rich countries manage to subsidize the arts far more generously than we do without much fuss. But maybe our political culture just isn't up to it.
From a liberal point of view, the case for government arts subsidies is not without flaws. The typical customer of the subsidized arts--museums, opera, public television, etc.--is more affluent than the typical taxpayer. Movies, baseball games and rock concerts get no government subsidy. Why should the customers of these entertainments help to finance the entertainments of those who are, on average, better heeled than themselves? And the preening self-righteousness of the arts crowd can get on your nerves, as they insist on this subsidy as a kind of right. There is something irksome about people wanting to be a counterculture on the majority's nickel.
Much of the art we treasure from past centuries--paintings, cathedrals, most classical music, even some of Shakespeare's plays--was created under government (or official church) sponsorship. If our democratic society is going to produce similar gifts for future generations--not to mention our own--we probably need some institutional substitute for the commissioning function of kings and cardinals. The NEA is it.
Furthermore, there is no way to subsidize the creation of new art (as opposed to repeat performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony again) without subsidizing art that gives offense to someone. The latest fuss is typical, in that the actual connection between the offensive material and the NEA is indirect. The fuss concerns a single passage in a single poem in a single publication of a group that received a whopping $5000 NEA grant for general purposes.
To expect the NEA to inspect and warrant the purity of every product of a grantee of a grantee is absurd. To expect politicians to show a bit of backbone when these fusses are raised is not absurd, but if the politicians aren't up to that, we might as well forget the whole exercise.
Supporters of arts subsidies often make the mistake of defending any item a Helms or a Wildmon attacks. That is foolish. Not only is it inevitable that an arts agency will subsidize works that are offensive to a minority. It is inevitable that the agency will sometimes find itself subsidizing works that are rightly offensive to the majority of people--on moral grounds or on political grounds or simply as bad art.
Arts funding is not a science. If the majority itself isn't prepared to shrug off a few genuine mistakes every year, then it isn't ready to be in the arts subsidy business.
TRB wrote this commentary for The New Republic.