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Casey Nelson Blake | The Nation

Casey Nelson Blake

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Casey Nelson Blake

Casey Nelson Blake is professor of history and director of the American studies program at Columbia University. He will spend the next academic year writing a book on the politics of American public art, with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Readers of this magazine do not need reminders of the costs of the cold war. The mountains of corpses, the damaged lives, divided families and displaced refugees, the secret police forces and death squads, and the resources wasted on ghastly weapons of unfathomable evil are not only markers of a recent past but still-active landmines buried a few inches beneath the surface of our contemporary lives.

What may be harder to remember is the ways the global struggle with the Soviet Union enabled social and cultural achievements that made the United States a decidedly more decent society. From Harry Truman's integration of the armed forces to the Brown decision and the 1963 March on Washington, the initial phase of the civil rights movement capitalized on the moral embarrassment of segregation for a nation trying to win the hearts and minds of Third World peoples. Likewise, the rapid postwar expansion of state universities, the infusion of government monies into public schools after Sputnik and the creation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities in 1965 were all episodes in an ideological cold war meant to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the "free world" to the Soviet bloc. It was a strange era that offered both Martin Luther King Jr. and his persecutor J. Edgar Hoover their big chance to bring the United States closer to their ideals.

Two monuments to the cold war stand catty-corner to one another on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue: On one side, the brutalist Hoover FBI building; on the other, the restored neo-Romanesque post office that houses the NEA and NEH and bears the name of Nancy Hanks, the liberal Republican chair of the NEA during its glory days in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Care to guess which building will be renamed first?

Michael Brenson's new study of the NEA, Visionaries and Outcasts, emphasizes the cold war origins of the agency in an effort to place the "arts wars" of the past dozen years in historical perspective. Looking beyond the 1995 budget cuts that devastated the endowment, and the earlier battles in 1989-90 over NEA-supported exhibitions by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Brenson tracks the unfolding of a tension between "ideology and idealism" inherent in the NEA founders' understanding of the agency's role in American culture. Arts advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought federal support for the arts to promote international awareness of the cultural vitality of a society dedicated to free expression and civil liberties. At the same time, cultural policy-makers like August Heckscher and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.--heirs to the upper-middle-class lampoon of middle-class "conformism" that stretched from Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) to William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1956)--saw in federal arts funding a way to create an American "civilization" equal to Western Europe's, which would inspire their fellow citizens with something more ennobling than the stuff of television and Levittown. Much like Clement Greenberg, the towering figure in postwar art criticism, Camelot culture warriors mounted a two-front campaign against the state-dominated art of the Soviet bloc and the kitsch of a newly affluent society.

Amazing as it now seems, the man (and he was imagined as a man) who was to do such heroic work for the nation was the artist. Kennedy's wooing of celebrity artists and writers--epitomized by his choice of Robert Frost to deliver a poem (he recited "The Gift Outright") at his 1961 inaugural and his subsequent invitation to Pablo Casals to perform at the White House--was not only an attempt to surround himself with glamorous and influential opinion-makers but, according to Brenson, a determined effort to establish the artist-prophet as a symbol of defiant individualism in an other-directed age. Whether it was Frost the aging Yankee reciting from memory at the inaugural or the Abstract Expressionist painters wrenching meaning from existential meaninglessness, the image of modern artists as "visionaries and outcasts" served liberals' war of ideas against Communist adversaries abroad and the benighted middle classes at home. As Kennedy put it in his 1963 speech at the dedication of the Frost Memorial library at Amherst College--the occasion for his most extended comments on the arts--a great artist was the "last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state."

Visionaries and Outcasts sketches the history of liberalism's dream of the visual artist as national hero from the early 1960s to the present. Brenson was originally commissioned to write an internal study of the NEA's visual arts program, but the former New York Times art critic chose to revise and publish his work independently after the dismantling of that program by the Gingrich Congress in 1995. The book he has produced is more than an institutional study of one office in a federal agency, however. Brenson rightly considers the program that gave some 4,000 fellowships to individual artists between 1965 and 1995 as the heart and soul of the Endowment. Although early chapters suffer from the bureaucratic language common to government reports, the book concludes by raising thoughtful and provocative questions about the tragic history of the NEA. As he revised his study, Brenson expanded his vision to include the rise and fall of this heroic image of the modern artist as prophet and redeemer of late-twentieth-century US culture. "The NEA became a lens onto larger issues of the changing identity of the American artist and the enduring problem of...the visual artist in a country that...is still only comfortable with the artist as a maker of high-priced commodities controlled by galleries and museums."

In the story Brenson tells, modern artists were useful to this country's political elites only so long as the cold war was raging. Once that war was won, and the political culture had shifted markedly to the right, the lonely artist was no longer a bearer of universal values but a threat to them. The ideological rationale for the endowment collapsed along with the Berlin wall, and cautious NEA administrators invested their idealism in established art institutions. Better to fund museums than to risk spending money on unruly individuals who might turn out--like Serrano or Mapplethorpe--to be "controversial." Despite the defensive maneuvers of arts administrators and their allies, a vengeful Congress cut the NEA's budget by 40 percent in 1995 and eliminated all grants to individual artists (except writers). The endowment has since limped along into the twenty-first century, but more as an occasion for petition drives and liberal fundraising than as a vital force for artistic creativity. In reality, the NEA of 1965 is dead, and with it the official myth of the artist as critic and savior of American national culture.

During the three decades when it mattered, the NEA's visual arts program gave small grants, no strings attached, to many of this country's major artists, often offering them assistance early in their careers before private money was forthcoming. The mechanism for doling out funds was peer panels composed of artists, curators, scholars and critics, who operated without political oversight from federal officials. In fact, Kennedy liberals organized the peer-panel system precisely because it insulated art-funding decisions from state interference and therefore drew another contrast with the state cultural agencies in place in the Soviet-bloc countries. Artistic freedom, in the view of Camelot arts advisers, required the support of professional panels that would judge art strictly according to nonideological, aesthetic standards. At a time when a Greenbergian theory of aesthetic autonomy reigned supreme in New York-based art circles, the freedom of the NEA's peer panels from politicians' control seemed to most liberals a necessary complement to a Modernist logic that divorced "pure" painting and sculpture from political ideology, representation and traditional subject matter of any kind.

The NEA's panels instantly became objects of criticism from true "outsiders," who interpreted talk of an autonomous aesthetic as a bid for power by art-establishment cronies. Brenson ignores the early history of such attacks, which originally came from the political left, and instead repeats the now-familiar story of the persecution of the NEA by the Christian right and its allies in Congress after 1989. The story is a bit more complicated than that, however. In the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authority of the peer panels and the autonomous aesthetic theory they defended came under attack from other quarters: from advocates of more politically charged, social-realist and feminist art; from African-American and Latino artists who saw little of their work or their traditions acknowledged, let alone supported, by the NEA in its early years; and from folk artists and enthusiasts of regionalist cultural traditions who disputed the place of New York Modernists at the pinnacle of the NEA's cultural hierarchy. Although the Endowment quickly made concessions to its critics on the left, the peer-panel process remained largely unchanged from its original incarnation until 1995, in the aftermath of the Republican sweep in the previous fall's elections, when the conservative polemic against the tyranny of a "cultural elite" hostile to the values of "normal Americans" finally succeeded in killing off the visual arts fellowships.

Brenson devotes almost half his book to an admiring account of the panels' operations, quoting extensively from artists who served as referees or benefited from the program's largesse. He condemns the system's rightist critics as ignorant and presents the panels in the most glowing terms imaginable as models of aesthetic judgment, openness and generosity. "The peer panel system embodied the idealism and nobility of the NEA," he tells us. Those who applied unsuccessfully during these years may have had another view of the matter, but no one can deny that the award of such a grant at an early stage of an artist's career meant far more than the money involved. Installation artist Ann Hamilton recalls that "winning" her fellowship in 1993 "gave me a very important sense of support from my peers, which is and was very important in maintaining the trust and faith necessary to make new work, to change, to make a leap of imagination toward what can't easily be knowable or containable in language." This was the NEA's visual arts program at its best--"a gift," as Brenson calls it, "in the fullest sense of something given especially to one particular person, with a special knowledge of who that person is and what that person needs, by someone or something that cares--in this case a government agency, on the advice of peers."

What went wrong, then? Given its distinguished history, why was the visual arts program so vulnerable in 1995? Visionaries and Outcasts is not altogether helpful in answering that question, though it offers a rudimentary road map for a fuller account in the future. Brenson rounds up the usual suspects--Jesse Helms, fundamentalists, New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer--and, in a more intriguing move, notes how the ground shifted beneath the panel system in the 1980s as the art market and American artists themselves transformed the cultural meaning of the visual arts. The go-go art market of the Reagan era created a private reward system that made the NEA irrelevant to many young artists on the make, while conservatives inside and outside the endowment began assigning to museums the universalistic values that 1960s liberals once invested in the image of the heroic artist. Meanwhile, radical artists gave up the Modernist ideal of the individual prophet-artist standing apart from his or her culture. The adoption by many political artists of the term "community arts movement" to describe their project was an important sign of a new sensibility among artists who came of age in the 1980s and rejected the endowment's original assumptions even as they accepted its subsidies. Brenson himself adopts some of their critique in the closing pages of his book, acknowledging that the NEA "put artists on pedestals" and "ended up sustaining their marginalization" by perpetuating an image that many Americans found "arrogant and disdainful."

Brenson's second thoughts seem not to have influenced the rest of this book, which hardly registers the effect of such searching self-criticism. That is unfortunate, because his valuable questioning of the Modernist myth that originally inspired the NEA, and his closing call for an art of "connectedness"--to other citizens and to the natural world--should be the starting points for any serious reconsideration of the embattled agency's history. Especially when it comes to the arts, liberal and leftist culture-workers are too quick to attribute their current troubles to the malevolence of strangers (what will the so-called People for the American Way do when Jesse Helms dies?); too loath to acknowledge that they have achieved positions of power, wealth and influence in American society; and too devoted to their flattering self-image as, alternately, daring rebels or beleaguered victims. Such poses may absolve cultural administrators of any feeling of responsibility for their institutions' plight, but they will prove useless when it comes time to sort through the wreckage of the NEA and other liberal cultural programs in search of lessons for the future.

At one crucial moment in his book, Brenson inadvertently hints at a more critical history of the endowment that might better explain its terrible predicament. He compares the panel system to "the United States jury system" in its rock-bottom faith in humans' "need to learn, [their] belief in justice, and [their] commitment to the common good." Maybe those were the impulses that motivated the panelists as they watched hundreds of slides flash before their eyes; but in retrospect it's exactly the extent to which the NEA selection process was not like a jury that stands out as its chief political liability. Juries, after all, are not composed solely of lawyers, criminologists, psychologists and forensic experts. Nor are embezzlers, assassins and car thieves invited exclusively to judge their peers. When those people serve on juries, they do so as citizens, not in their capacity as professionals. Whatever their limitations, juries embody the civic ideal that ordinary voters--informed by the law and the testimony of relevant specialists--possess the wisdom to govern themselves and administer justice fairly. Never did the NEA's founders display a comparable faith in the ability of nonexperts to contribute to the common culture. Indeed, one reason they married a formalist aesthetic to bureaucratic proceduralism in the first place was to secure a space for creativity separate from the presumed ignorance and tastelessness of the general public.

Such a system "worked" well enough in the NEA's early years, when a New York-based art elite had an astonishing confidence about which artists deserved support. As the East Coast NEA panel met in 1966, it was easy for a few insiders to chat informally and select names. "Generally there was a consensus" about which artists deserved grants, sculptor George Segal told Brenson. "There was not too much of a discussion because it was assumed that all of us knew them." The founding director of the visual arts program, former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, was openly contemptuous of a request at a West Coast meeting that the panelists examine slides of work by the artists under consideration. As panelist and fellow museum curator Walter Hopps recalled, "The boxes were pushed into the room. Henry stood up and went over and thumped each box with his hand and said, OK, now we've seen the applications and we've seen all this." The boxes of slides were removed, unopened; the applications sat in a pile unread. "We just talked about who we wanted.... It was all over in a morning."

A small art world with a strong consensus on a Greenbergian narrative of Modernist progress could afford to behave this way, especially when it enjoyed support from a liberal majority in Congress. But even when the peer-panel process was cleaned up and made more professional, the complaints poured in that the selection system was unresponsive to the very public this public agency was meant to serve and indifferent to the growing heterogeneity of art practices that transformed visual culture in the United States after the 1960s. What at first seemed like a means of protecting the independence of cutting-edge "visionaries and outcasts" from bureaucratic interference stood condemned by the late 1970s and early 1980s as an institutionalized patronage network that favored specific aesthetic commitments and excluded the vast majority of Americans as incapable of informed artistic judgment.

Coming to terms with the political shortcomings of the peer-panel system requires that we take a more skeptical view of the idea that artists (and their liberal allies) were "outcasts" in the first place, back in 1965. Despite his trenchant critique of the heroic-individualist model of the artist during the cold war, Brenson himself slips into romantic and avant-gardist rhetoric that is long overdue for critical scrutiny. To what extent can one really speak of the modern artists the NEA supported in the 1960s and 1970s as an avant-garde? Wasn't the original mission of the NEA proof that by mid-century the avant-garde ideal had merged perfectly with the cult of expertise that so captivated elite liberals, with their dream of benevolent rule from above by "the best and the brightest"? The class and ideological biases of the cultural institutions that liberals created in that period seem to have escaped no one except liberals themselves.

A quarter-century after the collapse of the New Deal arts programs, with their organic connection to 1930s labor insurgency, the case for federal arts funding returned in a very different political guise. The NEA's original base was in the (Nelson) Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and the (John) Kennedy wing of the Democratic Party, two upper-middle-class constituencies that prided themselves on their distance from a seemingly "stodgy" labor movement and a parvenu middle class mired in the "ticky-tacky" vulgarity of the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that Nancy Hanks--once Nelson Rockefeller's personal secretary and then the NEA's chairwoman during the Nixon and Ford administrations--presided over dramatically escalating budgets for the endowment. Republicans still needed to appease the Rockefeller wing of their own party. And it should be no surprise, either, that a new right within the Republican Party succeeded in large part by pursuing a very different brand of cultural politics.

Capitalizing on popular unhappiness with the arrogance of the "New Class" at the helm of the NEA and other official cultural institutions, the Goldwater-Reagan right was able to oust the Rockefeller liberals from its own party and mount a masterful crusade against "cultural elites" in the universities, foundations, mainline Protestant churches, museums and the two endowments. Elite liberalism has not fared well in postliberal America, as conservatives have channeled popular disaffections into a pseudo-populism on cultural matters that they would never tolerate in economic affairs or foreign policy. The result has been an increasing isolation of artists, writers and intellectuals in universities and a delegitimation of the very idea of a common cultural life shared by citizens of different backgrounds.

With its original claims to aesthetic autonomy and professional expertise discredited by years of pounding from the left and the right, the endowment lacks a persuasive language to justify alternatives to the privatization of arts patronage. Its very name, the National Endowment for the Arts, speaks to an era of liberal consensus--on the nation, on the nature and desirability of national cultural standards, on what does and does not constitute art--that has disappeared. With the nation and the arts in dispute, all that remains is the program's pathetic "endowment," mere chump change in the global village overseen by the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi and the trustees of the Guggenheim Museum chain store.

In an era of market fundamentalism, the panel system that once promised artists protection from political and bureaucratic interference during the cold war deserves careful reconsideration. It is conceivable that panels might again function as "free spaces," this time offering artists a refuge from the commercial imperatives that are ruining publishing, museums and public broadcasting. But to make the case for such spaces today requires a radically different mindset from the sentimental avant-gardism and antidemocratic prejudice still current in elite art circles. It also demands a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the historical complicity of the endowment's defenders in the political logic that threatens our public schools, museums and libraries, as well as our artists.

Starting from ground zero, with the NEA in ruins, advocates of public funding for the arts need a language that recognizes the difference between the authority of collective judgments rooted in shared standards and the exercise of market power, and which assumes, furthermore, that every person has access to varieties of aesthetic experience that may contribute to the formulation of such standards. Opening panels to nonspecialists need not be a Trojan Horse for "Archie Bunkerism" or "authoritarian populism," those bugaboos of elite left-liberalism. Nor is it an affront to the credentials of artists and scholars who benefit from public subsidy (like this reviewer) to insist that they discuss their work with lay audiences in exchange for such support. These are tiny steps, of course, but the suspicion and hostility even such modest suggestions provoke in some quarters are a sign of the bleak cultural pessimism that now poisons all discussion of the civic role of the arts in the United States.

Every few months, I receive a forwarded e-mail message that recounts a reputed NPR story by Nina Totenberg about an upcoming Supreme Court ruling on funding for the NEA, warns that the Court's conservatives are about to kill off the endowment once and for all, and then asks for my name on its long list of petitioners. The petition is a classic Internet hoax, but even if it weren't, the time for forwarding such messages is long gone. The NEA was gutted several years ago, and the rebuilding of public support for publicly funded art is going to take a lot more than e-mail petitions. There are hard, unsettling questions that the people who sign such petitions need to ask about the responsibility they and their institutions bear for the ascendancy of our conservative order and about the blindness that comes with the heady self-image of artists and intellectuals as visionaries, outcasts and perpetual victims. Michael Brenson's book is a valuable starting point for a conversation, barely audible at the moment, that might finally address those questions. Until then, ignore the petition on your computer screen. That delete button is there for a reason.