“In the background of the entire tedious debate over the NEA, the First Amendment has loomed, misunderstood and abused as usual, claimed by some as justification for their right to express a preference for causing pain to others during the sex act and asserted by others as the basis for a constitutional right to receive federal grants.”
Speaking of the subject of censorship and the arts in general, and, more specifically, the whole affair in these recent months (filling many newspaper pages) about the problem of the American taxpayer and the government’s support or nonsupport of the arts; speaking of freedom and of censorship, then, particularly, here and now, represented by the ways and means, the action and inaction of the National Endowment for the Arts, hereinafter called the NEA; speaking of these things—and why not? Everybody else is—I do, in fact, have a few things to say.
First off, I need to admit honestly to the angle from which I view things, the point of view with which I bear witness. Besides being a part-time writer and a full-time teacher, I am by now listed here and there as a Democrat and an Episcopalian. A Democrat of New Deal origins and versions. An Episcopalian who is happier with the language and theology of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, but who, for the time being, is obedient to the wit and wisdom of our bishops.
As a Democrat I can hardly pretend to argue against any and all kinds of government involvement with the arts. As a Roosevelt/Truman Democrat, however, I am inclined, indeed required to trust the people in their wisdom, to honor the thoughts and feelings of what has now come to be called “the mainstream.” That’s how Democrats used to win the big elections—by showing a serious respect for the thoughts and feelings of the American majority.
As an Episcopalian, I am somewhat more committed to the aesthetics of religion than most other sects, though, as a Christian, I still have to believe that the aesthetic experience is not essential to either faith or efficacy of religious practices. There are some people who believe Picasso was God. I can’t and don’t. Kierkegaard identified the aesthetic as the lowest level of our spiritual experience, ranking beneath the ethical and the religious. It seems to me an irrefutable argument.
For the power and glory of freedom of speech I look back to the example of the late great Justice Hugo Black, himself a model New Deal Democrat. He was a literal-minded absolutist in these First Amendment matters; though Black did not include anything except actual speech, pure and simple, under his rubric of complete freedom. That is, he did not believe in any such thing as “symbolic” speech, the language of gestures. It is clear that he would not accept the pouring of blood or public peeing or the burning of flags, etc. as forms of speech. Neither can I.
The NEA was political from the outset. Which happened to be in the early 1960’s during the Johnson administration. Kennedy, with “Camelot,” had already proved how easy it was to co-opt the artists, if not the arts. And William Faulkner, then in residence at UVa, had seen through Kennedy and very politely told him so when he allowed that a dinner for Nobel Prize winners at the White House was “too far to go for supper.”
Faulkner was right. I have seen more than one artist co-opted by a black-tie dinner. Lyndon Johnson kept most of the artists happy (at first) and paid off a bunch of political debts at the same time by creating the NEA. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in it at first, not enough honey to attract the usual crowds of flies. They came later. But there was some money and, by and large, it was handled wisely and well. Some of it was strictly political. For example, as the 60’s were just beginning to heat up, at home and abroad, the Johnson White House passed the word all around, even to the fledgling NEA, to do all that could be done to buy off Vietnam protesters and to keep minority kids off the streets. The former were handled ironically but efficiently, by supporting people, little magazines, and small presses which were most active and prominent in the anti-war movement. Dissent paid off handsomely for some.
Similarly, long before affirmative action, the word came down to create and to give as many fellowships and grants as possible to young minority artists of all kinds. This was easier said than done, because in those days the government had forbidden any racial or ethnic listings on their official forms. In order to make sure that the grants were going to black artists, white Southern artists, deemed especially sensitive to details and nuances of race, were brought in as consultants.
Is that funny? Maybe. One thing for sure, it was indisputably political.
It never occurred to the Johnson administration that anything took place that wasn’t political. It never occurred to them (him), either, that the new generation, the Baby Boomers who kicked up their heels in the late 60’s, would never feel in the least beholden to anybody for any gifts they were given. They mostly took the money and ran amok.
Truth is, though, lots of good and decent things, some of them personal and altogether honorable, happened in those first years of the NEA.
Under Nixon, and ever afterward, there was more and more and more money, never enough to suit everybody in the avid art world, but enough to arouse the interest and greed of many, and over a decade or so to cause, nationwide, the spontaneous generation of arts commissions and councils in every state in the Union and the creation of a new and quickly entrenched bureaucracy of (newly named) arts administrators. There were now, in the area of literature alone, hundreds of grants awarded annually, selected from among several thousand applicants. Conventional politics entered into the process less and less. Almost all of the members of the Literature Panels were, to one degree or another, members in good standing of the New Left. People outside of the precincts of the left had next to no chance to win themselves a grant. That much was understood.
There were some distinctly positive developments. For instance, the support of ethnic and minority writers (I am speaking of literature now as the area I know about; but literature may be taken, as typical and exemplary), who had next to no audience or opportunity, allowed for new voices of the nation to be heard. Without the NEA, that is, finally, without taxpayer support, many of these writers would never have been heard of at all.
The bloody battles for a place at the public trough became, for most of the 1970’s, matters of aesthetic and internal factional warfare. In a very real sense censorship was being exercised by the advisory panels of the NEA on both aesthetic and personal grounds. By 1978 there was a growing chorus of complaint, solidly based, against the cronyism and banal hanky-panky which had become more the rule than the exception at the NEA. The actions of the 1979-80 Literature Panel became widely known as a particularly egregious example of all this, thanks to an objective investigative study, “Go Down Dignified: The NEA Writing Fellowships,” by novelist and photographer Hilary Masters.
Originally written on assignment for New York magazine, Masters’ article finally appeared in 1981 in the Georgia Review (Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, pp. 233-245) after being accepted, then dropped, under pressure, by several prominent literary magazines, including the Massachusetts Review. Truth is the Georgia Review was sternly warned and pressured not to publish the Masters piece, the danger being that not only the magazine, but also the University of Georgia Press and the university, itself, would pay dearly for the indiscretion of allowing a forum for criticism of the NEA. Stanley Lindberg, editor of the Review, was somewhat hesitant and tentative, and he did allow David Wilk, director of the Literature Program, space and opportunity to respond to the implications of Masters’ article in the same issue; but it was and is to his credit that he allowed the piece to be published at all.
It is a devastating report, and some measure of its impact and Wilk’s failure to produce an adequate response is demonstrated by the rash of letters forming the “Readers’ Forum” in the winter 1981 issue of the Georgia Review; one of which came from Wilk, himself, and concluded: “For anyone who may wish to know, I have resigned from my position as Literature Program Director, effective 20 November 1981.”
After the shake-up, things, in the Literature Program at least, have never been quite the same. Applications for grants are now cloaked in anonymity. There are now some specific guidelines covering such routine problems as conflict of interest and cronyism. These were a long time (almost twenty years) coming and can still be deftly evaded, but they help keep the process of grants and awards—to individuals, to little magazines and small presses, involving, all in all, millions of dollars—cleaner than it used to be. There is a very serious question as to whether it is possible to embrace any more purity or to eliminate any more corruption.
I myself have been actively involved, first in the very early days of the NEA and then more recently, during the 1980’s, in the advisory Literature Panel. I can report that a lot of people work fairly hard on these matters and try to do right while doing a good job. I must also report that, in the highly politicized society we live in, various kinds of censorship, quite aside from aesthetic quality, are regularly practiced in the selection process. Most prominent ethnic and special interest groups are well represented on the panel. This allows for the establishment of a subtle kind of quota system—everybody gets a little gravy. And ideally, I suppose, they tend to cancel each other out; though I have seen any number of occasions when an application was voted down and out for the failure to demonstrate politically and socially “correct” attitudes. This kind of snap judgment is often, even in its own terms, extremely unfair, since it is based upon unacceptably crude critical assumptions and practices such as believing that the chief character or characters of a story can be taken as directly representing the social and political views of the author; unless, of course, the author steps in and boldly disassociates creator from the character. For many contemporary special interest groups the only truth is their truth and the only criteria of quality (itself an “elitist” concept) are those things which work to support the group’s goals and point of view. No big news here. Every student at UVa knows that the same kind of thing can make a serious difference in the grades he or she receives.
In sum, then, the system may be as fair as it can or ever will be. But it is, nevertheless, inherently unfair when thousands of professional artists apply for grants and support and only one in twenty, say, has any chance at all. The advisors are looking for reasons to reject people. These days those reasons are often (and automatically) political and social.
All of which means that long before something or other comes to the attention of a Jesse Helms or anybody else, all sorts of censorious forces have been at work. It also means this: what is chosen is not at all accidental. It simply follows from the process of selection that the notorious Piss Christ was deliberately chosen from among many, many competing works of art. It was chosen, then, as it had to be, deliberately to offend those sensibilities which can (still) be offended by such things in this country. To that extent it was certainly a wonderful success.
I hope you see clearly what I am saying: that once (and whenever) the government is involved in the arts, then it is bound to be a political and social business, a battle between competing factions. The NEA, by definition, supports the arts establishment and the competition and the winners.
Whether or not it is fair and just to ask the mainstream American taxpayer to support the NEA and all its offspring, through thick and thin and with no influence at all on the process or the results, remains to be seen. Meantime it is altogether appropriate for the problem to be posed, for the question to be asked.
There are, of course, all kinds of solutions. One is to do away with the personal grants altogether and for the government merely to support needy cultural institutions—theaters and dance companies, operas and orchestras, paying particular attention to equitable and geographical distribution of funds all across the country. This matter of geographical distribution is, however, a matter of debate. New York City, believing itself to be the cultural capital and headquarters of the nation, central in all the arts, except maybe clog dancing, demands the wolf’s share (the lion’s share is all there is) of cultural support. We can go to them and pay for the privilege. In terms of established accomplishments, they have a point. But so do those who believe that, with some support, this nation is large enough and various enough to need more than one cultural center.
If you have to have personal grants, a lottery, like the old draft lotteries, is probably the fairest way to do it.
I have heard a reliable rumor that a friend of mine has just turned down a $40,000 lifetime achievement grant from the NEA. Not because he doesn’t need the money—he has precious little. But because he has long been an outspoken critic of individual grants, and meant it, and did not wish to betray his principles. He also happens to come from North Carolina and had a well-founded feeling that his award was, in fact, a move in some kind of a game with Senator Helms. He didn’t want to be anybody’s pawn, not if he could help it.
Perhaps he represents the only real solution to the problem. All we need is astounding courage and integrity—courage and integrity in Congress, at the NEA, among artists of all kinds and yes, among the patient and loyal mainstream Americans who know full well, integrity or not, they will end up, as always, paying for all of it.