What is the art world’s state in America today? The answer depends on whom you talk to and what they do. Some of the answers I’ve heard are: rich, poor, over- and underfunded, neglected, status-laden, censored, silly, profound, personal, public, patriotic, obscene, sacrilegious, attacked, elitist, sexist, postmodern, pluralistic, and so on. And all are true. Anything and everything is sold in the American art industry.

As an artist, designer, and educator I’ve watched the art establishment grow, prosper, and become politicized over the last quarter century. This growth parallels the expansion of the National Endowment for the Arts and the various state art councils that now exist not only in every state but also in American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana, and the Virgin Islands. Then there are the city-sponsored cultural centers and regional and private arts groups that “support the arts.” What emerges is a vast and powerful culture machine employing thousands of well-paid art bureaucrats who are devoted to pointing out cultural avenues to the rest of us who presumably cannot find our own way.

Nowhere does this art bureaucracy show the relationship of art and politics better than at the state level. According to the Illinois Arts Council’s 1989 annual report, the Lyric Opera of Chicago received $25,875, and the opera’s Center for American Artists received $95,220 “for general operating support.” However worthy and fruitful the goals of the Lyric Opera may be, one wonders why this prestigious institution representing Chicago’s most socially prominent families and corporations needs over one hundred thousand dollars from the taxpayers, most of whom will never go to the opera. This pales, however, next to the $302,250 that the California Arts Council gave in 1989 to the San Francisco Opera, and the $305,000 that went for the San Francisco Symphony. The exclusivity of these groups raises questions about funding special interest constituencies that have a significant private sector funding base.

This commodification of the art world has created a lot of very well-todo artists and dealers, and new generations of young artists now aspire to the fame and riches of the art establishment with a zeal more reminiscent of avaricious actors hustling Hollywood than serious practitioners of what can be solitary and lonely crafts. The NEA stamp of approval has become a coveted status symbol; references to it are commonly made on artist, gallery, and institutional resumes; and jobs at the NEA and the various state art agencies have become the patronage turf of the privileged few and the politically well-connected. At between forty and fifty thousand dollars a year, a regional representative for the NEA may work out of his home and have a job that has to be considered one of the patronage plums of the art bureaucracy.

Founded shortly after the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council, now 25, is one of the oldest state art councils. Its present chairman, Shirley R. Madigan, was appointed by Governor James Thompson, and she is the wife of Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan. Acting Executive Director Rhoda A. Pierce makes over $57,000 a year, and in the I AC annual report for 1989 she states, “the arts must remain a significant priority on the government agenda,” and that “the Council firmly believes that no other means of support can fully meet the needs of a growing artistic constituency.” This is exactly the kind of airy grandiosity that so many of the art bureaucrats project to justify patronage of all kinds of groups that become ever more dependent upon the state for their existence.

The IAC is divided into funding areas by state senate and legislative districts. Chicago is by far the funding epicenter, but all over the state people lobby for the state’s art largesse. The Visual Arts Advisory Panel for the IAC even seats members who are requesting grants themselves. When a panel member’s application comes up for review that person is said to leave the room, and with this brief and fleeting nod in the general direction of ethics it seems clear that the establishment that promotes art for all is also adept at feeding itself at the taxpayer’s expense.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the nature of arts bureaucracy in government than California. In the early years of the California Arts Council, actor Peter Coyote and others called for the CAC to pursue this long-range goal: “To ultimately have a society so deeply dyed with art, craft, and style as to render an Arts Council unnecessary.” This goal was quickly branded as naive and unrealistic and was then dropped by a council that opted instead for self-preservation. Since its founding in 1976 the CAC’s annual budget has increased from just under two million dollars to a proposed twenty million dollars for 1990.

In a free and democratic republic the human spirit should defy even good-intentioned regimentation, and therefore the creative establishment of this country should form a new agenda that rejects the materialism that has reduced the arts in this country to one more form of pop entertainment. Artists should make their own decisions about their lives and careers, free of government intervention, and neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states should nurture their own creative environments, however banal or elevated they choose to make them.

I recently suggested to one government art manager that the chairman of the NEA be elevated to cabinet-level status with the title of Secretary of the Arts and Humanities. I argued that this would enable the President to fully develop an art policy that reflected the best interests of the United States. Somehow my sarcasm was missed, and I was both amused and appalled to hear this reply: “What a wonderful idea. What a simply wonderful idea!”