Quality or controversy? NEA can't tell difference

January 16, 1995|By ROGER SIMON

The National Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965 to use tax dollars for, in part, the "encouragement of excellence" in artistic achievement in America.

Today, however, the NEA faces extinction. Many in Congress believe, as Newt Gingrich does, that the NEA is dedicated to spending tax dollars on "the weird."

While it funds many noncontro- versial projects, the NEA also funds pictures and actions that many consider obscene, disgusting or sacrilegious.

Susan Lubowsky, director of the NEA Visual Arts Program in 1989, offered this defense: "I think that controversy has always been endemic to art, that certainly it's been endemic to 20th-century art. Even as far back as Caravaggio, people complained because he painted the Virgin too naturalistically, with dirty feet. I think that discussion of obscenity and propriety are endemic to art, because art is always on the cutting edge, and anything that's on the cutting edge is going to offend someone."

I happen to know and like Susan Lubowsky. And I would not disagree with her statement. The real question for me, however, is whether the NEA funds subjects that have no value except for controversy.

If George Orwell had gone on stage, turned his back to the audience and dropped his pants to reveal the words "Communism Bites" written on his behind, that would have been a controversial act on the cutting edge. (And I suspect that, had the NEA been around, it would have given Orwell a grant.)

But would that have demonstrated excellence in art?

Happily, Orwell did not become a performance artist but wrote "1984" and "Animal Farm" instead and made the same point with real artistic merit.

But the problem with the NEA, it seems to me, is that it has confused controversy and excellence in the arts for too long.

You may wonder, as I do, why so much of "cutting-edge" visual art deals with the repulsive, profane, gloomy and dark side of life.

I am not saying that these aspects of life should be ignored. But since contemporary artists can do literally anything, since they are liberated from the old conventions of draftsmanship (i.e. the ability to draw), why does so little of their work celebrate the joyous, the uplifting, the pleasant and lighter side of life?

Could it be that such work would not be noticed and lionized by "cutting-edge" art critics? Could it be that such work would not attract the attention and money of the NEA?

Defenders of the NEA say that one of its purposes is to act as an imprimatur, a seal of approval, for art.

So, if we look at the bulk of visual art being produced in America today and find it lacking, can we not with some justification blame the NEA?

I am familiar with the arguments against ending the NEA: The withdrawal of even a small amount of money would damage the arts and would amount to censorship.

OK, fine. But there is a reasonable alternative: Every state in America has an arts council. So why not take the NEA budget, throw in a 10 percent increase as a sign of goodwill, and distribute it directly to the states?

I'll tell you what's wrong with this: It would upset America's cultural elite.

"The NEA sets national standards," Marc Wilson, director of the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City, snapped at a reporter when such a distribution of NEA funds was suggested. "Standards at the state and local level are not nearly as high as the NEA."

But that is exactly what is wrong. A tiny, insular group of people sets the standards for art in America.

I have no trouble at all with non- elites in Kansas or Wisconsin or Alabama or New Mexico or California or Maryland making their own decisions on where to spend their art dollars.

I own art by artists from those states and many others, and they are not pictures of Elvis on velvet or dogs smoking cigars. And all of them, in my opinion, are superior to a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, which met the NEA's "high" standards in the past.

You could argue endlessly whether art is the property of the masses or the property of the cultural elite, but one thing is beyond argument: Tax dollars are the property of the people.

And the NEA has done a less than excellent job in spending some of them for some time now.

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