New battle over art

January 02, 1996|By Andrei Codrescu

NEW ORLEANS -- I'm no fan of the National Endowment for the Arts: It has encouraged mediocrity. Like every bureaucracy it has rewarded those who can write neat applications. This is the ideology of safety and sloth.

On the other hand, the conservatives who want to slash the NEA are off on their own ideological crusade which has absolutely nothing to do with art. They seem to believe that an evil malaise has taken residence in our souls because of modern art. In reality, art has merely diagnosed and represented the various maladies ideology itself has inflicted in our souls. You can't blame the messenger.

Populist hay

As for those politicians who make populist hay out of anti-art sentiments, they are only reflecting their constituencies who prefer ''Hard Copy'' to ''Masterpiece Theatre.'' Kitsch is the prevailing taste of the masses, and it's easy to get them excited by pointing to pictures of naked men and invoking Armageddon. It's the oldest and cheapest political con game in the book.

The NEA should be redefined not slashed. It should be redefined as an educational organization instead of a canonizer of taste. It should finance art education, performance and folk arts. It's worth the price of two missiles to have art teachers in the public schools. It's an old argument, but it's made new every time by the politics of the right.

I used to think that Louisiana's racist-tinged, populist politics was backward, but the way things are going we are now in the avant-garde. Our representative Billy Tauzin wants to cut the NEA because ''the voters I answer to are unhappy as I am at some of the things they've done.''

And I thought that the voters were unhappy with their representatives. These are the same voters who are presumably unhappy about the movies and TV, which are the private capitalist enterprises that Republicans love so much.

In reality, they are unhappy about things their representatives don't even talk about: the quality of their lives; the speed and confusion of late post-industrial America; the way they are herded into voter blocs, polled, surveyed and dismissed; the breakup of community.

They are unhappy, in other words, about things that only art deals with.

The true concerns of the voters are the province of artists. No wonder the pols want to kill art: It does for the people what they can't. Art shows them up to be superficial and thoughtless. Instead, everyone could profit if we had some humility from the ideologues and some modesty from the NEA.

Andrei Codrescu teaches writing at Louisiana State University.

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