When Peter Marzio approached me about speaking today he described the broad theme of this meeting and asked me to offer some historical perspective on the problem of the arts in a democracy. There were many options. But since the evolution of democracy in the west has been linked to political representation and control of the purse, I decided to concentrate upon a single question: how has the status of the arts in America affected their levels of public funding. And to confine my attention to graphic, sculptural, and building art, which I know better than the others.
Federal support for the arts has emerged as one of the more polemical issues of our day. For a variety of reasons, some of which I will touch on, the role or the non role of the federal government is a flash point of controversy. Proponents of federal funding argue that this country stands alone among major nation states in its meager, almost invisible levels of direct support to the visual, literary, dramatic, and musical arts; such civic indifference is said to demean not only the arts but American society itself, and to reflect narrow prejudices. Opponents of public funding respond that a flourishing system of private philanthropy and wealthy foundations, sustained by favorable tax treatment, has nurtured those art forms and institutions requiring special assistance. Other artists and arts organizations have been supported or rejected by market conditions, which is, they continue, as it should be in a democratic, capitalist society. The national government, perhaps by implication all levels of government, has no business spending tax monies on matters of taste and preference, any more than expending monies on specific religious causes. Decisions about art are best left to individuals, acting on their own best judgment and backing up such convictions by their own resources. In this view not only is private support constitutionally appropriate, it is also better for the arts themselves, which are not artificially supported within a specially constructed hothouse, made to perform without any real demand.
At times, particularly in the recent storms involving the National Endowment for the Arts, this debate has taken on the character of an ever changing sideshow, dominated by powerful rhetoric and laced by intense rancor. The emotion of the participants has little to do with the levels of direct federal support which, as everyone knows, are relatively trivial. It has everything to do with the symbolic meaning affixed to these subsidies. For artists, art lovers, constitutional critics, and politicians alike, the stakes are much higher than the monetary levels. Why are so many Americans invested emotionally in a debate about appropriations smaller than the cost of a single military aircraft? With all its special contemporary bitterness the current debate over public funding for the arts reveals a special set of tensions within our national value system that has been around, in one form or another, since the founding of the republic. And probably before. A division that has deep connections with the origins of our republicanism. Addressing the status of art within our republic means addressing issues of freedom, authority, and community. I would like to survey the evolution of this debate and assign to it several large phases which link it to the changing character of American life. Having done so, I will conclude with some brief suggestions for further discussion. I might add that for purposes of this meeting I will be speaking with a breadth that may occasionally seem unwarranted. And which I usually try to avoid. Qualifications, exceptions, and corrections are acknowledged, anticipated, and even invited.
The first broad era for the visual arts as American concerns could be said to extend from the period of our Revolution up through the Civil War. During these eighty years or so there were many shifts in opinion and values, of course, as the geography, demography, economy, and politics of society shifted. But for the arts, there were certain constants. The first of these, not universal but widespread, was an attitude of suspicion, not merely toward public support for art but for any kind of support, particularly for the visual and applied arts. The reasons are easily described. The United States, during the early republican era, was poor, thinly populated, under invested, and militarily weak. Any number of patriots argued that different needs must come first. The point was expressed most succinctly and most eloquently by John Adams, in a much quoted set of comments to his wife. "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy..navigation and commerce...in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary...and porcelain."
This, a utilitarian argument, was supplemented by a second powerful strain of thought, partly religious and partly political in origin. Protestants and republicans alike both resented the associations great art had with tyranny. Religious and historical painters and sculptors had glorified cruelty and despotism, adorning churches and palaces with propaganda. "I have no doubt that the pencil of Peter Paul Rubens has contributed to strengthen the doctrine of papal supremacy, and to lead the minds of hundreds and thousands, more deeply into the shade of bigotry and superstition," was the comment of one American visitor to Europe in the early 19th century. "Architecture, sculpture, painting and poetry have conspir'd against the rights of mankind," John Adams told painter Jonathan Trumbull. "Every one of the fine arts from the earliest times has been enlisted in the service of superstition and despotism," he wrote Jefferson. "The whole world at this day gazes with astonishment at the grossest fictions because they have been immortalized by the most exquisite artists." Artists, Adams claimed, were mercenaries available to any paying cause.
Third, and perhaps most important, some Americans feared that a taste for art was a taste for luxury, for goods that would cost so much that people would prostitute or corrupt themselves in their interest. Art consumption represented here a kind of materialism; since republican society depended on the presence of virtue, anything which encouraged the conspicuous expenditure of large sums of money was dangerous to the commonwealth. A taste for beautiful houses, fine furniture, silver, and fine clothing and jewelry existed on a continuum with a taste for art. European courts had pursued such splendor at their cost. Americans liked to visit Versailles, recount its glories, and note the relationship between such displays and the French Revolution. Nothing like this was wanted in America.
I present, of course only one side. And, if you will, a losing side. Artists and art lovers, and there were any number of them even in the decades before the Civil War, had their own arguments to mount, and did so, with increasing vigor. To charges that the country was too poor to afford art, they responded by pointing to the presence of existing wealth, to large and growing institutions, to the need to disassociate republicanism from barbarism and poverty, the connections many Europeans made. Answering those who denounced artists as mercenaries, they proposed the benefits offered by both modern religion and democratic society; both would encourage artists to delivered to deliver messages that attacked rather than supported bigotry and tyranny. And responding, above all, to those who charged the arts with being agents of corruption, such apologists insisted that this linkage was unreal. Indeed the arts could counter materialism by appealing to spiritual and moral values, and could emphasize virtue and domesticity and the heroic side of American history. Artists were allies, not enemies to the forces of decency and respectability.
Thus well before the Civil War, as after, a number of Americans proudly used their personal funds to purchase the work of their fellow citizens, sent some of them to study abroad, sponsored fairs to sell their art, socialized with them, and joined organizations which held lotteries for their paintings, prints, and statuaries. Other Americans subscribed to funds which erected public monuments like the Bunker Hill and Washington Monument Associations, and vigorously urged that money be spent on beautification programs, like city parks. Artists themselves campaigned for public commissions, and in a few specific cases, such as the great rotunda paintings in the United State Capitol in Washington, and heroic statuary, succeeded in getting the government to actually patronize their work.
But such commissions were rare before the Civil War, as were publicly decorated buildings; artists had to depend almost entirely on the interest of private patrons. Indeed, when some urged government expenditures for the arts, pointing to the state supported schools in Paris, Rome, and Berlin, along with well supported museums, defenders of the system argued that competition was better than forced growth, that artists sustained by public funds were probably unworthy of survival. Of course, this could be countered by economic arguments, which American artists and patrons were fond of making. Even at mid-century they noted that tourism was stimulated by the possession of masterpieces. The president of the Washington Art Association, a private voluntary group, pointed out that a Rubens painting, the "Descent from the Cross," had become a major source of wealth for the city of Antwerp, in Belgium. "The number of visitors that annually visit Antwerp and that picture is immense; each pays his fares to the railroads, at the hotel...and many purchase souvenirs." Individual collectors, like Thomas Jefferson Bryan in New York, whose collection was recently sold by the New-York Historical Society at Sotheby's, and James Jackson Jarves, the New Englander who gathered an amazing group of Italian renaissance paintings, now at Yale, confidently believed that visitors would flock to see significant art gathered in one place.
But before the Civil War cultural tourism was not a major element in American life. It was a hard sell to make. American cities were rough and unfinished, barely able to supply visitors and residents with basic amenities like piped water and paved streets. Major museums lay ahead. What had emerged, on the part of politicians, many clergymen, educators, and intellectuals, was a justification for the arts that emphasized their didactic character, the improvements that could be made in national character. Landscape artists, for example, could, by rendering the beauties of nature, reconcile their fellow Americans to God and deepen their attachment to nationalist sentiments. Portrait and historical painters could nurture reverence for the past and for national heroes; genre painters could sentimentalize the decencies of daily life; sculptors could increase reverence for the chaste beauty of womanhood. Art's function in an egalitarian democracy was to moralize, preaching values consonant with right living, republican citizenship, and family loyalty. While government itself could not be expected to support such activities--at this point even public libraries were contested--private citizens were now enjoined to support native artists as instruments for social cohesion.
This first period, which might be labelled the Era of Republican Austerity, witnessed a flowering of native art on an impressive scale. Colonies of painters, etchers, illustrators, sculptors, and architects formed communities in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and of course, New York. They competed vigorously for commissions, socialized with their clients, and sought, for the most part, unsuccessfully for government support. But tax revenues were still sparse, and values hostile. What partially changed matters, in my view, was the Civil War. The Civil War transformed things in various ways. First of all, it challenged Americans who had argued that citizenship and nationhood did not need the support of the arts to flourish. The War itself suggested to some critics that the sense of nationality had not been nurtured sufficiently. The hundreds of thousands of dead on the battlefield indicated that many Americans were willing to die for their principles, but the fact that so bloody a civil war could occur at all troubled those who felt that nation state needed a more powerful presence. And increased levels of foreign immigration appeared to intensify this need. How could newcomers commit themselves to a country which had so few visible and ceremonial symbols of identity? In the decades that followed, measures were taken to remedy this, measures ranging from creation of flag codes and the pledge of allegiance, to creation of new holidays, the construction of patriotic monuments, and the decoration of public buildings.
These last efforts, of course, had an intimate connection to American artists. As state after state completed extravagant new capitol buildings, as courthouses grew in number and scale, as libraries and museums began to multiply, artists found their decorating skills much in demand. Some traditions continued. Private citizens made donations to honor military heroes, political leaders, writers, composers, and artists. Their monetary support funded hundreds of arches, flagpoles, benches, obelisks, columns, and statues. While some of the most elaborate of these decorated big cities, hundreds of towns and villages sported their tributes to the Civil War dead. The Washington Monument, grandest of all, unfinished for decades, was completed. Again, public monies did not support these sculptors, although they did when it came to decorating public buildings. Government as patron emerged significantly in these years, particularly on state and county levels, because of an interest in dignifying and legitimating its own interest, and promoting the civil religion of loyalty and patriotism that was deemed essential to national survival.
A second source of support for some kind of public arts funding came from increasing cosmopolitanism in the late 19th century. More Americans now traveled to Europe. Admittedly, this was a relatively small group of the well to do, but they were influential as opinion leaders. What they found in the great cities of Europe in the late 19th century, in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, London, Brussels, Munich, and elsewhere, were elegantly adorned theaters, boulevards, parks, opera houses, galleries, and museums, paid for largely by taxes and contributing not merely to the polish of urban life, but to public coffers as well through growing tourism. This had been noted, to some extent, even in earlier years, as I pointed out, but the scale of the European efforts had increased dramatically in the later part of the century, as nation states like Germany consolidated, and as economic competition grew more intense. An awareness that taste and artistic skill contributed to a favorable trade balance was also not inconsequential at this time. An international movement which reached the United States, really, in the 1860s and 70s, emphasized the significance of trade schools for artisans in glass, silver, textiles, wood, and metal. In Europe this was accompanied by the foundation of museums of industrial art and design, again, with heavy governmental support. Central Europe--Germany and Austria-Hungary--was particularly active in this movement, and even today the museums of applied art in Prague, Vienna, Budapest, and dozens of German cities, with their wonderful collections of carpets, furniture, ironwork, tableware, posters, and similar things, are testament to this interest. In the United States during the 1870s museums like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art, reflected similar concern that unless American workers and consumers improved their knowledge and skill base, it would be difficult to defend American products against luxury exports from abroad, and even more difficult to export them. All these museums, and many others, had industrial arts departments, filled with examples dating from ancient times to the recent past. While the museums themselves were largely private matters, benefitting from the fortunes of newly rich American businessmen and professionals, they also had municipal subsidies in many instances--grants of land on which to erect their buildings, for example, sometimes even the buildings themselves, along with their maintenance. The response to this crisis of cosmopolitanism, as it might be called, was heavily private in character, but local and state education boards paid attention by creating classes for drawing and training programs for teachers of art who could work in the public school systems, and among other things, teach in the newly establish kindergartens. All this, as I say, took place in the 1860s, 70s, and 80s.
A third large impetus to American interest in supporting art achievements could be found in that impressive series of international expositions which this country hosted during the last third of the century. From Philadelphia in 1876, to Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis, in 1904, as well as other cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. These fairs were multiple sources of influence on a whole range of things in America, from city planning and transportation to amusement parks and eating habits. But they were extremely important as demonstrations of how the arts could contribute to a more livable environment. The fairground complexes, often located within large parks, were assemblies of palatial buildings, canals and lagoons, handsomely landscaped squares and boulevards, all of which were decorated by enormous quantities of sculpture and paintings. The fairs featured international art shows of immense proportions, the first art exhibitions seen by millions, but they also highlighted contemporary American artists and architects--like Daniel Chester French, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Mary Cassatt, McKim Mead and White, Daniel Burnham, a long and illustrious list, who showed what they could do provided they worked from a well financed plan. The fairs were much like the European cities that wealthy American tourists had come to enjoy, except, of course, they were temporary, lasting only six months or so, and made of perishable materials. Still they were visited by many millions of people and showed that what was done abroad could be done at home. Artists, brought together in large groups as part of the planning task, discovered a sense of unity and collective identity, which stimulated further professional development. As a result of the fairs municipal improvement societies were created all over the United States, having beautification as their goal, sponsoring competitions for improved street furniture, public buildings, and town plans. The federal and statement governments, which erected their own buildings on the fairgrounds, naturally got involved with some levels of artistic support.
Almost all of this design, to be sure, was conservative in character: academic, easily readable by the public, affirmative, generally non-critical. Painters and sculptors rarely challenged conventional wisdom or prevailing views of history, authority, class, race, and gender. Or if they did so it was in a highly coded manner. But in the very last years of the century the artist community began to show more variation. I simplify matters considerably here, but I point, for example, to the so-called Ashcan School, for example, a group of urban realists, centered on New York City, who had begun to exhibit early in the 20th century. Most of them had been trained as journalist illustrators and were heir to traditions of cartooning and caricature that targeted the privileged and powerful. Their subjects included tramps and prostitutes and shop girls and policemen and waiters and a whole variety of types previously ignored by most American artists. Some of the Ashcan artists had radical sympathies, a few were socialists. But their radicalism was almost entirely political and rather mild at that; much of the artist community mirrored the views of their clients.
This despite the fact that artists continued to feel somewhat victimized by society as a whole; they earned relatively little money, for the most part, and many affected a kind of bohemianism, a freedom of dress and behavior which was clearly established before the end of the century. They had no real demands for public support, beyond the hope that scholarships to study abroad might become available, and that public museums might be interested in purchasing their work. So far as fundamental criticism of society was concerned, few artists voiced it; there were certainly individual artists who broke fundamentally with conventions, challenged representation, traditional materials, traditional understandings. But they were a small minority.
Thus the shock of the famed 1913 Armory Show, which was not only felt by the magazine and newspaper reading public; it also startled academic artists and art teachers who found themselves confronted with an entirely new world. There had been American artists working in these modes for a decade or more, but they had gotten little attention. The furor surrounding Armory Show modernism confirmed those who felt that government should have nothing to do with supporting the arts.
But even before the Armory Show revealed that the artist community might hold strange or unexpected views, there was very little American sentiment to connect public authority and the arts. Adorning public buildings, subsidizing museums, holding expositions, making art and music available in libraries and public schools, employing artists to design flags and seals and coinage, all this seemed appropriate. But not much more. One shouldn't be surprised. After all this was an era when government was still uninvolved with pensions, with personal health care, with minimum wages or maximum hours or working conditions of any kind. Art was a commodity much like any other. Indeed to show just how powerfully ingrained American attitudes, one can point to the continuing existence, and indeed the rising rates, of the art tariff in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While rules changed from year to year, at the turn of the century imported art works could be taxed anywhere from 30 to 65% of purchased value. Supporters of the art tariff insisted that this protected American artists. In actuality, as critics of the tariff pointed out again and again (and they included, overwhelmingly, American artists), the tariff reflected a continuing suspicion of great art as a luxury of the very rich, a possible source of dissipation, a self-indulgent passion which required control. "Whatever advantages we may derive from the importation and cultivation of art," wrote one American tourist in the 1880s, "it cannot be counted a moral force." The private galleries of the new mega-millionaires--Astor, Vanderbilt, Havemeyer--increased the darker associations. Nonetheless hundreds, even thousands of newspaper and magazine editorials thundered against the art tariff in the thirty years before World War I. Many pointed out that its true victims would be, not art collectors or art dealers but the larger public. American millionaires had already begun to distribute their paintings, sculpture, and furniture to the new public collections. Congress stubbornly retained the duty until the absurdity of protecting art as an infant industry finally became transparent and the counter-pressure became overwhelming. One final blow came when the great J. P. Morgan threatened to keep his extraordinary collection abroad, in London, unless Congress repealed the duty. The repeal, and struggles about defining modernist art which erupted in court battles over customs rulings in the 1920s, may be said to have begun a new period.
Examined through institutional terms, this second era from the Civil War to World War I, which I would call an Age of Republican Ambition, was extremely productive. It gives birth to many of our most influential museums, schools, and organizations, among them, to name just a few besides those already mentioned, the American School in Rome, the Art Students League, the American Federation of the Arts, the National Handicrafts League, a host of Arts and Crafts societies, Municipal Art Leagues, and a growing number of dealers, auction houses, and private galleries. But, aside from the embellishment of public buildings, and the introduction of occasional legislation, which inevitably failed, there was little official involvement on the national level, and not a great deal more on the local. While towns and cities provided occasional subsidies for band concerts, auditoria, and museum buildings, their orchestras, opera associations, theater groups, and collections were, with a few exceptions here and there, in Los Angeles, St. Louis, later Detroit, private. The arts in America still remained securely a private matter; while their flourishing cast credit on American society, according to official boosters, there seemed little reason to get more involved with it.
There was one great exception, to be sure, and that came in the false dawn of government operations that was World War I. The unprecedented entry of this country into the European War stimulated a rush of patriotic sentiment that had not been seen for half a century, and reassured some who worried that the polyglot population of recent immigrants might fracture or qualify public support for the great military effort. The need to mobilize opinion, as well as the need to sell war bonds, encourage fuel and food conservation, and accept conscription, produced a national propaganda effort that had no parallel in our earlier history. The arts--including the newest among them, motion pictures and Hollywood's cast of film celebrities--were pressed into service, and their practitioners responded with great energy. American painters and illustrators were particularly active in forming voluntary committees to produce the vast number of posters that even today seem to epitomize the American war effort. James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy, Joseph Pennell, J. F. Leyendecker, and many others whose names are even less familiar, produced a raft of highly effective designs, and were credited with assisting the government's promotional efforts to a high degree. The War provided a moment for American artists to demonstrate their value to a national cause, and there was great eagerness to participate. It should be added that a series of other programs, including the construction of housing for shipyard workers, seizure of the railroads, and a range of medical and public health programs, demonstrated willingness to accept government intervention on a massive scale, because of the present emergency. But the end of the War in 1918 meant a return to business as usual, so far as government was concerned, and a withdrawal from active partnership with the arts. There were lingering effects. A number of communities created permanent civic auditoria and theaters as war memorials. Artists, as they had in the years after the Civil War, became involved with monuments and cemetery sculpture, and the power of visual propaganda was translated into vigorous and imaginative commercial design.
But what I think World War I inaugurated most of all, for the relationship between public support and private art making, was an age of contrasts and juxtaposition. The eras of Republican Austerity and Republican Ambition were succeeded by an era of Republican Inconsistency, a time when crisis management dictated levels of public involvement. Between World War I and the 1980s one sees four different moments of intervention, each growing a bit broader and more inclusive than its predecessor, but each retreating under fire. World War I have already discussed; the second moment, of course, came during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the federal government assumed an unprecedented set of responsibilities to meet the national crisis. Health, welfare, poverty, education, and the arts were all impacted, and in some ways the effect on the arts was especially dramatic. The reason for involvement was simply stated by the Roosevelt Administration; unemployment hit painters and sculptors and architects the same way in which it hit grocers, steel workers, secretaries, and carpenters, and their need was the same: jobs. The huge construction programs in the WPA that built schools, highways, dams, tunnels, bridges, hospitals, and city halls had as their counterparts the programs to employ writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, and playwrights. The murals, statuary, posters, screen prints, living newspapers, tour guides, art classes, concerts, and plays paid for by federal subsidies were, the government insisted, not part of a plan to improve or in any way change the character of artistic expression in America. They were simply a method of hiring those who were out of work, and giving them, temporarily, a means of support. These programs, moreover, collectively known as the Federal Arts Program, were very brief, lasting, on any scale, for fewer than half a dozen years, with cuts coming as early as 1936. And the peak number of artists on the federal relief rolls barely rose above 5,000.
Nonetheless, the controversies excited by the art were numerous and bitter. Artists were viewed suspiciously by many of the public and by many in the Congress. There were charges of subversion and corruption, of anti-catholicism and racism, of pornography and inappropriateness, and a string of bitter power struggles divided local from national authorities, artists from administrators, and artists from critics. Many of these were exaggerated out of all proportion to their influence or significance, but the pattern of caricature and over reaction, which we have witnessed in our own time, testified to deep anxieties: anxieties about central vs. local control, anxieties about artists representing marginal and minority viewpoints, anxieties about the federal government invading areas which should have been left alone, anxieties about hidden political programs using the arts for their purposes, anxieties about lazy or incompetent artists feathering their beds through public funds, anxieties about payoffs and corruption. As I argued a little earlier, some of these fears dated back to the earliest years of the republic. They had more positive elements to be sure: belief in simple and limited government, in checks and balances, in personal competition and self-reliance, in local government as the basis for political union, in personal morality as the basis for social interaction. These translated, however, into real constraints on public arts policies which were expensive, self-aggrandizing, centralized, and often controversial in those nation states which supported them. American democracy did not possess the centralizing traditions that French democracy did, nor the class hierarchy that leavened critical judgments in England. There was little in this culture to protect the authority of the artist against popular taste or market conditions. This contrasted, of course, with the authority and independence increasingly given to scientists. Artists were expected to sink or swim according to their success in attracting sales. It was only when the market itself collapsed, as it did in the 30s, that federal intervention seemed justified.
The Depression experiment in supporting artists included some innovative media. The Farm Security Administration worked with a series of photographers to promote awareness of rural poverty and ecological challenges. Several of them--Walker Evans, Arnold Rothstein, Dorothea Lange--would become celebrated for their work, and produced icons of Depression America that still resonate today. The New Deal also commissioned documentary motion pictures like The River and The Plough That Broke The Plains, both by Pere Lorentz with music by Virgil Thompson. Anyone who doubts the scale and effectiveness of federal propaganda can merely turn to the Federal Buildings at the two great world fairs in New York and San Francisco in 1939. For better or for worse the national government had now become a player in the new world of image making, arousing both intense admiration and intense resentment.
The anger at federal arts activities translated into a choking off of funds, and by 1940 the brief experiment was over. Its significance and the struggle to end it were eclipsed by the experience of war, which, as in World War I, vastly increased the role of the government in every area of economic life, and legitimated its turn to propaganda in the interests of rationing, conscription, bonds, and the larger effort. The War also intensified another legacy of the New Deal which would have enormous impact on the private sector of arts support: its progressive income tax policies. The income tax, with a brief anticipation during the Civil War, was born of a constitutional amendment passed in the teens of this century. It permitted charitable deductions from a very early date, but this effect was quite limited because of the very low scheduled rates. During the 30s there was a revolution in tax policy; some individuals and corporations complained bitterly about the new levels of support demanded of them, both in the interests of financing crisis projects and from a sense that equity demanded higher rates for the rich. This was the basis, of course, for some of the angriest reactions to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The need to pay for the war effort, which aroused less controversy, also required high levels of taxation.
Tax policies have had extraordinary consequences for many areas of our national life, but philanthropy is surely one of the most affected. It wasn't merely that giving to non-profit institutions could be deducted, but the fact that appreciated value of contributions in kind--books, paintings, prints, sculpture--could result in major tax savings. The income tax deduction remains the primary public subsidy to the arts in America, and is presented by opponents of any further support as a sufficient, even generous, instrument of public policy.
The end of World War II, and a return of economic prosperity, might have suggested an end to crises stimulating federal interest in the arts. While certain levels of government activism had now been accepted as permanent--social security, for example, minimum wages, maximum hours, certain kinds of safety standards--there was much talk of reining government in, particularly during the Eisenhower years. But, fact, it was during the 50s and 60s that new, unprecedented levels of national funding came to the arts in America, along with a series of subsidies to American scholarly activities across a broad range of fields. Many reasons can be adduced for this: prosperity, increased sophistication and cosmopolitanism, education, travel, the high cost of art activities. But, in my view, the primary impulse can be boiled down to one major experience: the Cold War. This connection would turn out to have portentous consequences. By the 1950s the United States was involved in a global military, economic, political, and ideological competition with the Soviet Union and its surrogate states like China. A series of alliances divided up those countries willing to declare for one side or another; both the Russians and the West engaged in a feverish propaganda war to shore up support and to try to gain commitments from neutral states. The forum of the United Nations, touring celebrities, world's fairs, military displays, diplomatic embarrassments, Olympic games, the building of embassies, there was hardly any international venue that was not pressed into service as a possible showcase for one side or the other. The competition between the western democracies and the socialist east was presented as a conflict between two entirely different kinds of civilizations, and the quality of life each offered to its citizens became a critical issue in the propaganda wars.
While it was easy for Americans to present their material wealth and prosperity as superior, for culture and intellectual achievement the case was not as clear. Proud of their artistic, literary, and musical accomplishments, many Americans believed nonetheless that the arts were valued less highly here than they were in Europe, and were sensitive to charges of materialism. In a way, post World War II American leaders found themselves in a position roughly analogous to that faced by their 18th century predecessors, who confronted Europeans arguing that republicanism and barbarism were synonomous, and that the arts could never be cultivated in a society without a monarch and a nobility. Now it was unrestrained capitalism and barbarism that seemed inextricably linked.
Resources were greater in the 20th century than in the 18th, however. So, in the name of fighting the Cold War Congress approved plans and appropriated moneys for the support of art and learning. The scope and magnitude of these programs has just recently begun to be appreciated, as they have started to disappear, but student loans, fellowships, foreign libraries and reading rooms, special language programs, publication and research subsidies, touring art shows, temporary exports of American orchestras and theater companies, White House conferences and programs, medals and award ceremonies, foreign exchanges and visiting professorships, the United States Information Agency, the successes of the Fulbright Program, and, above all, in the 1960s, creation of the two federal agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, were part of the overall achievement. From Truman to Reagan individual policies varied, as did motivations and goals, but through seven Presidential administrations there was powerful support to demonstrate that American accomplishments in the arts matched American industrial and economic exploits. The monies poured in were relatively small compared with the sums exported on military development and on foreign aid, but they were important in communities with much smaller budgets. The impact--on museums, orchestras, opera societies, galleries, individual artists, academics, on universities, on research institutes, and audiences--was considerable. It was particularly helpful to artistic modernism. Many, perhaps most Americans, up through the 1950s, had been resistant to trends in contemporary art and music. Public taste was proverbially conservative, preferring the narrative, the representational, the harmonic, in favor of non-objective and atonal compositions. When the first New York School art--abstract expressionism--was sent abroad under State Department sponsorship, it was ridiculed by President Truman and subjected to inquiry by Congressional critics.
However, Soviet policy was even more conservative toward the arts than the United States, and officials rigorously clamped down on signs of modernism in painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, forever on the prowl for anything that could be taken as criticism of the existing system. To promoters of the American Way of Life, this level of cultural repression represented an Achilles Heel, a clear demonstration that freedom of thought and expression were impossible under Communism. The tensions between modern art and totalitareanism had erupted decades earlier in the infamous assaults by the Nazis on what they called "degenerate art." The attacks led to a wholesale emigration of European modernists like Chagall, Ernst, Leger, Lipchitz, Ozenfant, Mondrian, and Breton. What better demonstration of American tolerance and freedom than the subsidy and export of work by modernists? And so, as several historians have pointed out, the Cold War unexpectedly benefitted a whole series of artists whose political views did not always fit very well with their backers. This anomaly, however, was accepted by some conservatives as a necessary price to demonstrate the presence of American cultural freedom, and prove that pluralism and diversity could flourish in a capitalist system.
There were many ironies and contradictions here, not the least the fact that a military industrial confrontation, which many artists and humanists found troubling and some even found unnecessary, made possible the unprecedented levels of public support. More significant, perhaps, was the failure to perceive the relationship between the Cold War and the new attention paid the arts. The arts, of course, had their champions in government who projected a positive vision for the new subsidies. But the failure to understand the origins of some of the new tolerance for the arts humanities guaranteed a high level of shock when, more recently, the very logic of the national endowments was challenged, and a series of counter-attacks launched against continuing federal involvement. The pretexts--exhibitions, publications, activities, and performances that were deemed obscene, unrepresentative, inept, disrespectful, puerile, incomprehensible--were arguments in themselves. There had always been opponents to federal support. But in my view it was our vastly changed international world, the disappearance of established enemies which accentuated the retreat from public funding. And which nurtured those angry debates which continue to embroil us, and the search for new adversaries.
The larger role of the national government, of course, is ever changing itself, for health, welfare, safety, social planning, education, as well as the arts and humanities. It is not surprising then that the present course seems unclear. Policies created to meet needs that are unstated, and changeable, are unlikely to be stable. The real ambivalencies about the arts and their role in a democratic society remain buried under a set of pieties which paper over real tensions. Even though the National Endowment for the Arts has just survived a sustained assault, it is not clear that a consensus has been reached, or that the broader debate has been advanced.
How, then, can we frame our national tradition of art support, and evaluate its relationship to democratic values and practices? Drawing this presentation to a close, I'd like to propose some options. First of all, both supporters and opponents of public subsidy need to understand its history and debate more openly its value. Ours is a mixed system, and one likely to remain so for a long time to come. Competition between public and private has often been a source of strength--witness the American university system, with its great state and private institutions matching one another in academic distinction and freedom of inquiry. It could be argued that each group has kept the other honest and accomplished; without such rivalry torpor or political intervention might have crippled each system's strength.
Secondly, we must better understand the source of anxieties about the arts. There has been, as I hope my remarks have demonstrated, a momentous shift of focus. In the early years of the republic fears about artists centered upon their history of service to authority, as propagandists who might help bolster the power of reputation, lay and clerical. This was an attack from the left. Such suspicions continued under the triumphant reign of academic painting, sculpture, and beaux-arts architecture, right through the 1920s and 30s. More recently, and certainly in our own day, with very different ideologies and structures at work, the arts seem to threaten rather than support authority, posing challenges to consensual values and to the way society is organized. Artists quarrel with long held and deeply felt historical narratives, ignore old heroes and honor new ones, defy and satirize conventional codes, question boundaries. As a result, to generalize very broadly indeed, the assault now comes from the left.
Of course neither of these sets of fears is groundless. Art can be used to lampoon, undermine, subvert, and lacerate authority, and it can be used to legitimate and dignify it. Even today some oppose public subsidy because of art's propaganda value to those in power. Others fear the impact of corporate sponsorship because the association of company logos with great art can offer unwarranted distinction to its sponsors. We must talk about, evaluate, and cope with such concerns. Americans debate the costs and benefits of free speech on a continuous basis, while retaining and continually readjusting constitutional protections. It seems to me that the issue of publicly supported art and its role alongside a system relying upon private support merits almost as much attention.
Third, we should learn more about the character of other national programs of arts support, the ways in which they have been more or less successful, their varieties of organization. Our tendency is to lump all foreign approaches together. In fact approaches have been varied, reflecting very different national experiences. And we need, simultaneously, to weigh the specific merits as well as the demerits of our own approach. The tax exemptions, for example, which play so vital a role here, are not matched so generously elsewhere. They should be acknowledged rather than dismissed by supporters of other subsidies. They are a real achievement. Proponents of flat tax no-exemption systems must consider the implications for the arts and American philanthropy in general should such a strategy be adopted.
Fourth we should recognize our healthy traditions of state and local arts funding, much of it leading to investment in land and physical facilities, but some of it supporting living artists and the purchase of rare objects of many kinds. A conviction that the arts--visual and performing--contain economic benefits and enhance community life are not discoveries of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Hundreds of arts and convention centers constructed with tax subsidies, rare book libraries, music and dance and dramatic festivals, band concerts, art fairs, mural and monuments commissions, and a host of other interventions have been supported for many decades by American towns, states, and cities. Local communities apparently believe in the arts and their social effects sufficiently to invest in them. Just how extensive all this has been, and what it has meant to artist groups, merits further research and reflection.
Finally, we must allow for imperfection in the arts as we do in science, the military, education, and engineering. Public policy does not have to be infallible to be beneficial, peer judgments are valuable despite their errors, and failures do not drive accomplishments out of existence. It may or it may not be good government policy to assign the lion's share of contemporary American art patronage to private interests, it may or may not be good government policy to rely upon private donors to supply the collective trophy rooms that constitute our museums and rare book libraries, it may or may not be good government policy to avoid defining a national cultural patrimony and protecting it from purchase abroad. But these and hundreds of other decisions deserve a more direct and more dispassionate discussion than they have gotten so far, as well as continuing evaluation. The suspicions, anxieties, and concerns that have surfaced about art in a democracy are still with us; until they are responded to, rather than merely denounced, we forgo the opportunity of developing schemes appropriate to our needs and values. I hope that meetings such as this one will help further, not only the cause of the arts in America, but the cause of self-understanding itself.