In an essay reporting on William Safire's speech before Americans for the Arts, Philip Kennicott observes:
Safire's speech was evidence of how thoroughly the instrumental viewpoint, and the conservative one, now dominate in public discussions of art. In a speech that pointed prominently to Richard Nixon's early support for the NEA, Safire all but said that the best hope for arts advocates is to line up behind the conservative consensus. If you want arts traction in Republican Washington, it makes sense to stick to Shakespeare and education initiatives (a path the NEA has taken, productively, and is now being followed all too predictably by the Kennedy Center, which has announced the last thing we really need: a six-month Shakespeare "festival").
Safire used the word "classic" repeatedly. He spoke of the hope that "cognitive science today can help illuminate classic art." He even referred to the creation of "new classics," an odd locution for an expert on speech.
Arts advocates are no doubt very happy to have allies such as Safire and may not notice the subtle shift in vocabulary toward the dominance of words like "classic" -- which suggests art that is widely admired, consensus-building and essentially noncontroversial. And Safire's devotion to the arts is certainly genuine. But walk outside, onto the terrace above the Potomac, and read what's written on the walls of the Kennedy Center. The president for which it is named once said, "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty."
That kind of thinking has been fundamental to the thought of arts advocates for generations now. They defined the challenge facing them as a public that fears art, or is simply ignorant of art, or can't get access to art. If only arts lovers had the right arguments in their quiver (art can improve cognition, for example), then the arts might take on a central place in American life.
And then asks:
But what if the problem is more fundamental than that? What if the real problem is that some significant portion of the U.S. population simply hates art? Not fear. Not ignorance. Not even indifference. But loathing.
What would that look like? If you don't like to listen, or observe, if you don't like ambiguity or complexity, if you prefer to shout your opinion (even if you openly acknowledge you know nothing about what you're saying), you are, perhaps, someone inclined to hate art. It's possible that for years now, arts advocates have been wasting their breath, arguing into a black hole, with opponents who will never happily yield an inch to art.
My answer: What that would "look like" is precisely the situation that already obtains in the United States, despite the efforts of the NEA and the Kennedy Center. (In my opinion, if both of these entities were to disappear tomorrow, the arts in America would not be in discernibly worse shape, and their situation might even improve to the extent that the very definition of "the arts" would be less under the control of bureaucrats.) Every proposal "to make the arts, especially the classic masterpieces, accessible and relevant to today's audience," as Safire puts it, is just another step in the process by which art will ultimately disappear, replaced by the kind of safe, bloodless diversion of which Richard Nixon would have indeed been proud.
"Arts advocates" ought simply to say "no thanks" to Safire's advice. If art needs to accept the "conservative consensus" (or the "liberal consensus," for that matter--the instrumental view is equally obnoxious whether originating on the left or the right) to receive public support, then better there be no public support. Which do we want, art that pursues its own agendas, implicit in the work itself, or art that helps out the politicians in "consensus-building"?
Although I do disagree with Kennicott that what is needed is a willingness "to confront openly what H.L. Mencken called 'the booboisie' rather than persuade soccer moms and uber-parents that art will help Junior ace his SATs." Just leave the booboisie--if that's what you want to call them--alone. They have every right to hate or ignore art. Confronting them--especially within the work of art itself in an empty gesture of "rebellion"--will accomplish nothing, since they'll never know you've done it. Kennicott is correct, however, in suggesting that the argument art is good for you--at least if it helps you pass the test--is equally useless. Perhaps Junior will come to see the value of real art on his own, but one way to insure he never will is to make it just another checked-off item on the list of things to study for the SATs.
Thanks to Kevin Holtsberry for forwarding me the essay.