The Art of Redrawing Ruin
Americans often lament that, as a young country facing the awesome
task of cultivating vast tracts of land, there was little time for
culture in the European, artistic sense. Yet, it seems that both
the time and the means were found to establish Carnegie Hall, the
Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of New York, Philadelphia,
Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and many more to be among the flagship
organizations of the world. Museums in New York, Washington, Boston,
Chicago, and in other major cities are places of international pilgrimage.
Small distinguished collections may be found at such unlikely venues
as the home of the Ringling Brothers in Sarasota, Florida.
All of the above, and much more, had come about as the result of
Americans spending their own money, refining their tastes and skills,
buying tickets, or - like Andrew Mellon who created the National
Gallery of Art - making enormous gifts to the nation. Comes now
"ARTNOW," and announces a demonstration in Washington
for April 19th, 1997. They call for "Political Action."
Their mission is "Celebration and Demonstration of the Critical
Need for ART in a Democratic Society." (You don't say!) First
among those invited to demonstrate: children.
How did we get here?
Perhaps some really smart people, somewhere around the mid-1960s,
sat down for a discussion. Let's see now, said the smart people.
What we've got here is one successful society. We've won two world
wars. We have a larger proportion of our people at a higher standard
of living and enjoying greater freedom than any society in history.
Chicken is 29¢ a pound, day in day out. Gasoline is 29¢
a gallon, day in day out. Medical insurance for a young family of
four is about $25 a month. The dollar buys the same huge amount
abroad day in day out. On average, people work for three months
to buy a good car, and a little over a year to buy their first home.
Yeah, we've got some great country here.
Let's look at countries in Europe now, continued the smart people.
In this century, they averaged 25 years between world wars. In many,
inflation had gone to the point where a loaf of bread would cost
several million. They are just emerging from the ruins, largely
because we had given them the Marshall Plan. Vast areas first ruled
by Hitler are now ruled by Stalin, except in Western Europe where
Americans bodily guarantee freedom. If food is no longer rationed,
currencies are certainly restricted. Most of them don't own an apartment,
much less a house. They are coming over here in droves.
And then the smart people decided to switch to the European model.
Let the state take over the functions private citizens and communities
have performed so successfully, they said. Let's take the people's
money and have some new federal agencies decide who gets what, they
said. Among other things, they figured, the arts would make a great
tool because of the tremendous leveraging potential: Relatively
little money is spent on high-profile people. They were not the
first to think this way. The political pay-back of the arts was
recognized and used by the best-known strategists since 1917 and
And that is how we get to ARTNOW with its blatant call for political
action. True to their models, they push the children forward. As
one who recently protested outrageous comparisons, I should be the
last person to engage in them. Yet, if Hitler-Youth and Lenin's
Pioneers were not the models, will someone please tell me where
else these people got the idea?
The politicization of the arts was the practice of the very regimes
from which we recoil. Having a National Endowment for the Arts produces
that condition automatically. Before any applicant submits to a
peer review, the "peers" have to be appointed by the state.
The state will invariably make political appointments.
True - it is Conservatives who complain that there are too many
Liberals on the committees. "Would you," Liberals say,
"would you complain as much if the tables were turned?"
The point is, the tables couldn't be turned. Liberals have decided
to import the European model. Conservatives would never have done
If ARTNOW advocated a return to universal arts education, one might
agree with their goal, if not with their method. But the organizers
don't even pretend an interest in anything other than cold cash.
As for the participating stars, their predecessors must be turning
in their graves.
Today's stars are paid millions because the greats of yesteryear
earned an exalted status for artists. They were a different breed.
They felt they owed something to this nation that accorded them
adulation and great luxury. When "Mr. Smith Went to Washington,"
he went alone, and to serve his country. Now, our millionaire artists
march on Washington behind children to demand more of the citizens'
money in their pocket. At the very least, we ought to ask them what
they are doing personally and individually to promote the cause
Not that it would make government-political art any more desirable.
But such a requirement might induce some of them to stay at home
and mind their own, lucrative business.