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Cultural Warfare : Is support for the arts just another example of big-government excess? : ART LESSONS: The Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding, By Alice Goldfarb Marquis (Basic Books: $25; 304 pp.)

June 11, 1995|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic Christopher Knight's latest book is entitled "Last Chance for Eden: Selected Art Criticism, 1979-1994" (Art Issues Press: $29.95)

In 1983, I participated in a symposium of two dozen art critics organized by the National Endowment for the Arts to evaluate its tiny grant program in art criticism. The 10-year-old program was a mess; the meeting was meant to recommend a course of action.

In reality, the gathering turned out to be an opening salvo fired by political conservatives against the very concept of public funding for the arts.

The symposium was a setup. NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll, a non-arts bureaucrat swept into the post by the Reagan Revolution, had his staff choose the participants. Hilton Kramer, perhaps the agency's harshest antagonist, was the one critic Hodsoll insisted they invite. Former art critic for the New York Times, Kramer was (and is) editor of the neoconservative journal, the New Criterion, whose late publisher Samuel Lipman then sat on the presidentially appointed National Council for the Arts, which oversees the NEA.

The 24 writers were asked in advanced to refrain from writing articles about the symposium after it was over, in order to encourage the free flow of unencumbered argument. The meeting was lively, and overhaul suggestions ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime; but none supported maintaining the grant program in its present form.

Missing from the final discussions was Kramer. He had left early to meet his magazine deadline. A certain annoyance greeted the publication of the New Criterion not long after, with Kramer's lead essay, "Criticism Endowed: Reflections on a Debacle," and its grotesque misrepresentation of the symposium as a self-serving claque clamoring for the status quo. The article was distributed by Lipman literally hot off the presses to the National Council. The criticism grant-program was promptly abolished--the first casualty in what would later be dubbed the Culture Wars.

I recount this sorry tale of duplicity for two reasons. One is that a version of it is recounted in Alice Goldfarb Marquis' new book, "Art Lessons: Learning From the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding." The other is that Marquis' book is itself an example of how, as culture wars continue to rage, ideological manipulation is regularly passed off as high-minded analysis.

Kramer's false and malicious article is the sole source for Marquis' account of what was, in retrospect, a pivotal event in the hotly debated recent history of public arts-funding. Her reckoning is brief, erroneous and unverified by any cross-referencing of sources. I hope research is conducted with more meticulous thoroughness at the University of California, San Diego, where the author is a visiting scholar in history.

Marquis has apparently learned a lot from the rise and fall of public funding for the arts, although political lessons far outdistance art lessons. Opposition to public arts-funding has mostly come from two sources. One is political conservatives, who regard its birth in the era of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society as symptomatic of big-government excess; the other is religious conservatives, whose fundamentalism is at odds with the skepticism inherent to the arts in the modern era.

In general, the former are uneasy with the role of government in the arts, the latter uneasy with the role of the arts in government. Together they have skillfully created the pandemonium of the past six years, which has brought the NEA to the brink.

Marquis' pseudo-history pays virtually no attention to either clan. Unmentioned is the neoconservative crowd that has diddled mostly behind the scenes (William Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, among them). Of the two religious conservatives who publicly marshaled their well-organized followers to the cause, Rev. Donald E. Wildmon rates a single sentence, while Rev. Pat Robertson rates none.

Which is not to say Marquis doesn't rely on both conservative camps to construct her story. In addition to Kramer's screed, her "authoritative" sources include a tract from the conservative Heritage Foundation--written by a consultant now employed by the Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian organization, whose outlandish assertions--for instance--made the report a public laughingstock when issued in 1991.

What makes "Art Lessons" a pseudo-history is the author's unembarrassed bias against the concept of public funding. It skews her research. She lays out the mostly liberal political web within which the idea came to fruition in the 1960s; but the absence of similar analysis of the mostly conservative milieu within which it has lately unraveled falsely makes the subject appear inevitably bedeviled.

The real flaw is Marquis' cultural myopia. She repeats the common wisdom that by the 1960s a Cold War desire to demonstrate the triumph of American civilization had created unprecedented support for a federal role in culture. Ignoring post-Cold War politics, however, she leaves the bizarre impression that, since the United States won, federal patronage is now unnecessary.

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