Art lovers can seize the offensive

Andrew Heiskell

September 16, 1993|By Andrew Heiskell

AMERICA'S artists have learned the hard way in recent years that, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, "life is made up of marble and mud."

Filmmakers, sculptors, painters and other creators have been pelted with political ads, televised sermonettes and lurid direct mail that impugn their morals and patriotism.

Unless the mudslinging is replaced with a positive vision of the importance of culture to individuals and the nation, the arts will continue to take a beating.

Congress recently showed the fickleness of its support by shaving appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts. Longtime friends of the arts even took a swing at the NEA over a tenuous link between a long-ago grant and California artists who have handed out $10 bills.

Arts lovers have an opportunity to seize the offensive. We are likely to gain an able ally in the actress Jane Alexander, President Clinton's choice to head the NEA, whose hearings begin next week.

She knows the arts world from the inside and is a persuasive communicator.

Her unusual opportunity to rally public support for the arts is likely to succeed if she adheres to three guiding principles.

* There should be clear standards of artistic merit. Some art the public sees is determined by choices made by private foundations, local, state and federal art agencies, museums, corporate sponsors and the media.

Obviously, some "art" that is not ageless -- the $10 giveaway -- has slipped through the net.

Alexander can set a standard: Financing should never be denied because art is controversial, but should always be denied if it lacks artistic merit.

The NEA's peer review panels, which represent a broad geographic distribution, are intended to make sure tax dollars finance excellence in art.

By exercising careful oversight over the composition of the panels and helping them do their job, Ms. Alexander can make sure this responsibility is met. She has to make certain the panels are free from cronyism and political coercion from the right and left.

* The First Amendment is the first principle. Early and often, she needs to assert unswerving opposition to all censorship. When federal, state or local governments impose content controls on financing the arts, the battle is complex and the chilling effect lasting and insidious.

Ms. Alexander can go a long way toward preventing a chill by taking a firm stand against content restrictions, safeguarding the agency's multi-layered decision-making process and standing behind grant decisions under political fire.

* Art can heal instead of dividing. The Rev. Don Wildmon, Pat Robertson and others and political-correctness counterparts on the left have spent years using criticism of art to polarize America. Ms. Alexander can try to foil this by developing new ways to use art to bridge differences and expand understanding.

There is a lesson in the Vietnam War exhibit "As Seen By Both Sides," which has toured 11 cities. It drew such heated criticism from Vietnamese-Americans that museum officials in San Jose and Minneapolis canceled plans to present it.

But the Atlanta College of Art Museum invited local Vietnamese-American residents to participate with the artists in a panel discussion on issues the exhibit raised. That led to a stronger bond between the arts community and public -- a model on which Ms. Alexander can build.

To help bring diverse political and social groups together in support of the arts, Ms. Alexander will need to make systematic contact with the public, touring all regions and talking with many Americans about what culture means to them, their communities and the nation.

She'll need to bring those thoughts back to the NEA and the arts community. While she alone cannot ride to the rescue of the arts, she can gather a posse that will help do the job.

Andrew Heiskell, chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under Ronald Reagan, is chairman of the executive committee of People For the American Way.

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