Saving the NEA Won’t Save Culture

We need an expansive, radical vision for art that makes it more than a plaything for the wealthy.

Jackson Pollock's Moby Dick.

On Friday, President Trump signed into law a $1.1 trillion appropriations bill, preventing a government shutdown and bringing to an end months of debate over his controversial budget, intended “to take an ax to government spending.”

Trump’s original proposal threatened dozens of federal institutions with elimination, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The new spending agreement preserves funding for these and other organizations through the end of the fiscal year.

Of the many offices on Trump’s chopping block, few attracted more attention than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The premiere federal agency for arts funding in the US, the NEA has doled out one hundred thousand grants in its fifty-year existence. It has sent the Martha Graham Dance Company on tour, paid Laurie Anderson to record “O Superman,” and assisted in the creation of the American Film Institute. It has supplied much-needed funding to K–12 arts education, supported Native American cultural exhibitions, and even helped expectant mothers compose lullabies for their babies.

Trump’s plan to take a cleaver to the beloved agency prompted a flurry of outcry. Now that the NEA has been spared, liberal commentators are touting the budget deal as a victory for culture, noting that the NEA will receive an additional $2 million in funding.

But the future of arts funding in America remains uncertain.

The budget agreement — which contains huge concessions on things like border security funding — only extends until September, when Trump is expected to renew his attacks on public funding.

More fundamentally, the NEA’s defenders failed to correct the flawed way in which arts funding is conceived of and discussed in the US.

Despite facing a brazen assault on public arts funding, nearly all of the NEA’s supporters relied on either narrow defenses or anachronistic arguments to fend off the attacks.

Many pointed to the agency’s miniscule budget; Neil deGrasse Tyson, always the logic cop, tweeted, “Cutting the NEA & NEH to save money on a $3-trillion budget is like thinking 1/4-mile is far relative to the width of the USA.”

Others focused on the man who proposed the budget cuts, repeatedly suggesting that Trump simply doesn’t appreciate the arts. Art News put it simply: “Trump has fashioned himself as a philistine par excellence.” Mark Kelly, Chicago’s cultural commissioner, made the point more bombastically, quipping in the Chicago Tribune, “instead of culture wars, it’s ‘Let’s abolish culture.’”

Kelly, of course, was referring to the infamous period in the 1980s and 1990s when conservatives and liberals sparred over what values defined the public sphere. By evoking that time period, Kelly was suggesting that Trump is merely the latest and most threatening manifestation of the conservative movement’s longstanding cultural illiteracy.

But Kelly’s characterization — and others like it — misunderstands the present. For better or worse, the culture wars ended long ago. These days, with neoliberalism’s acceleration, nearly every public institution is under assault — not just the NEA.

If we want to stop the spread of the new, disturbing brand of culture — the outgrowth of an epoch in which everything is turned into one more plaything for the wealthy — we’ll need a more expansive, more radical vision for art.

Anticommunist Expressionism

Presidents haven’t always hated the NEA.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, creating the agency Trump wants to disband. Set up alongside its partner group, the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), the NEA offered its first grant to the American Ballet Theater. Its early years saw it fund legendary figures in the dance world — not just Martha Graham, but people like Alvin Ailey and Merce Cunningham. The nascent agency also supported the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York City Opera, “Poets in the Schools” programs, and dozens of creative writers, literary organizations, media outlets, and theater projects.

The NEA’s predecessor was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the New Deal’s crown jewels, which spent millions of dollars employing artists, musicians, and actors. A product of the Popular Front period, the WPA even supported some left-wing artists such as Jackson Pollock and Marc Blitzstein before being shut down during World War II.

The NEA had decidedly different aims.

The agency’s formation culminated in a star-studded event, where art-world heroes like Gregory Peck and Ansel Adams rubbed elbows with senators and captains of industry.

The NEA’s early leaders’ unabashed intention was to press the arts into the service of American global hegemony. “A high civilization,” the agency’s founding document read, “must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity.” This put a nice spin on the views of New Deal historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who, in a 1962 memo to JFK, insisted that government support for the arts “is of obvious importance . . . in transforming the world’s impression of the United States as a nation of money-grubbing materialists.”

An ardent anticommunist, Schlesinger saw in the arts a means to combat the Soviet menace. Many of the NEA’s early congressional supporters, including Republican senator Jacob Javits, agreed. When he introduced the 1961 bill that would eventually establish the NEA, the New York senator argued, “The Russians have gotten more benefit from sending Oistrakh, their violinist, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the Moiseyev Ballet to the United States than they have from Sputnik I.”

Interestingly, between 1967 and 1975, the majority of NEA grants to individual painters and sculptors supported avant-garde art. American modernism, despite its traditional association with leftists like Pollock, proved surprisingly amenable to the interests of American power. Abstract expressionism in particular came to symbolize a commitment to laissez-faire virtues of innovation and capitalist individualism. This homegrown aesthetic appeared wholly at odds with the politicized realism so privileged in Soviet art.

High modernism’s propagandistic potential attracted many advocates, including billionaire philanthropist and art collector Nelson Rockefeller, who called abstract expressionism “Free-Enterprise painting.” The CIA also developed an appreciation, covertly funding a front organization that sent expressionist paintings and sculptures all over the world.

In 1973, Richard Nixon doubled the NEA’s funding, and when he resigned in Watergate ignominy the following year, his successor, Gerald Ford, chose Rockefeller as his vice president.

Publicly funded culture seemed secure.

Culture Wars

The 1980s changed all of that.

Over the decade, support for public spending on culture eroded significantly. Reagan offered the first hint of the NEA’s uncertain future. His transition team put together a series of proposals that would have defunded or scrapped the program altogether. (Reportedly, only the aggressive lobbying of friends like Charlton Heston and Adolph Coors saved the agency.)

Outside the White House, cultural conservatives also started to cast a suspicious eye.

There was a new morning in America, and the NEA looked less like a vehicle for civilizational progress and American capitalism than a breeding ground for countercultural obscenity. Cherrypicking from the broad field of NEA grant recipients, a group of senators led by New York’s Alfonse D’Amato and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms decried what they saw as modern art’s flagrant vulgarity.

The war’s central battle came at the end of the decade, in 1989, when controversy erupted around photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. The senators pointed to two NEA-funded projects — Serrano’s 1987 Immersion (Piss Christ), a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s own urine, and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, a touring retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s art, which included pornographic photographs. To Republican moralists, both works seemed to perfectly capture contemporary art’s decadence and anti-Christianity.

In May 1989, twenty-five senators cosigned a letter to the NEA demanding it reform its funding procedures. Two months later, Helms pushed through an amendment to the Senate appropriations bill that would require art programs to pass an obscenity test before they could receive federal funding.

While these measures were ultimately blocked, they initiated a period of NEA reform. In 1998, the agency won a decade-long court battle with a group of performance artists — the so-called NEA Four — who, despite passing the organization’s peer review process, were denied funding. They sued, but the Supreme Court sided with the increasingly conservative federal administrators.

As the country entered the new millennium, feuds over avant-garde photography and performance art receded into the background and South Park and The Sopranos took center stage. But a lasting schism — reinforced by the Soviet Union’s collapse — had been created between conservative policymakers and the arts.

As a staffer for Republican representative William Dannenmeyer remarked after the Helms amendment’s defeat, “It’s just a bunch of smug PhD types telling us what art is.”

Gilded Austerity

Nobody embodies suspicion of “PhD types” better than Donald Trump. If he recognizes the hierarchies of taste, he prefers lowbrow. Whether launching Twitter tirades at 3 AM or appearing in pay-per-view spectacles like WrestleMania 23, Trump has proven to be a virtuoso fit for an age where high art’s social role stands in question.

But while it’s easy to lambast the president’s preferences, his proposed budget was more corrosive. It would have made good on a decades-old threat to realign the public and private spheres. Trump’s budget cribbed from a 2016 report by the Heritage Foundation, the same conservative think tank that twenty years ago published “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.” Its second “good reason” echoed Dannenmeyer’s staffer: “The NEA Is Welfare for Cultural Elitists.”

The Heritage Foundation wears its free market agenda on its sleeve; its economic ideology is devoted to lifting government barriers to business-class power. Founded in 1973, the group was inspired by the Powell Memo, a confidential missive sent by Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell to the director of the Chamber of Commerce, warning that the “most disquieting voices” came from “perfectly respectable elements of society” including “the arts and sciences.”

Powell’s descendants, including the Heritage Foundation, have built what we now casually call neoliberalism, in which not merely arts funding but all non-military/ police spending is questioned. Despite his episodic breaks with free-market orthodoxy, Trump represents this era’s culmination.

Austerity swallows 1980s conservatism alongside the ambitious Cold War goals of the Rockefeller set. America’s new official enemies, al-Qaeda and ISIS, produce neither violin concertos nor space shuttles. Jesse Helms’s religious agenda holds little water in an age when the market increasingly determines what counts as right and wrong. Trump’s provocative conduct generates storms of outrage — more than Serrano and Mapplethorpe could ever imagine.

Trump is no philistine: he’s an aesthete. He reportedly passes his time picking the perfect drapes, collects paintings of himself, and adorns his home with Grecian vases and frescoes.

The oft-derided Mar-a-Lago showcases Trump’s aesthetic vision. The estate is majestic, a 1927 commission by cereal tycoon and famed arts patron Marjorie Merriweather Post. Dubbed the “Winter White House,” Trump’s resort recalls the age of kings, when aristocrats rotated through stunning palaces with the changing seasons. It is no accident Trump modeled his New York penthouse after the style of Louis XIV, the French monarch who lived in the Palace of Versailles.

Of course, Trump has no more loyalties to the ancien régime than he does to abstract expressionism. Only the gilded trim lingers.

And ultimately, his vision for the arts extends excellence and beauty only to those who can pay.

The Power of Art

The NEA’s beleaguered state should alarm anyone who believes that public rather than private interests should dictate cultural policy in the United States.

The battle over the agency’s budget is a front in a proxy war waged in the name of austerity. Threats to defund the NEA — regardless of its size, cost, or utility — signal an assault on the already fleeting cultural opportunities available to the population as a whole.

While there is much to criticize in the cultural ambitions of postwar liberalism, they have been inherited by a man who pays no attention to public standards of right and wrong simply because he dwells in a garish golden palace. The debate over whether pro wrestling or abstract painting marks the crowning achievement of our culture no longer matters, as all forms of cultural ownership are entrenched in the billionaire class.

Yet if we truly want to defend art, we shouldn’t fall back on the old goals of civilizational progress or on the value of art in a marketplace that has increasingly little need for it. With aesthetics all but privatized — and the mainstream debate on the sources and significance of cultural production mired in contradiction and cliché — art needs a new vision.

This vision must emerge alongside a larger movement that seeks an alternative to our current political-economic order, a system that cannot and will not unleash the creative potential latent in those living under its rule. So long as the vast majority of human beings toil in the service of profit, all forms of the beautiful will increasingly resemble private luxuries. Against the dictates of the market, we must reassert art as a public good.

Culture must play a role in this struggle. The great force of art has never resided in its immediate usefulness. Rather, art-making models a form of productive activity all too rare in our society. Creative work requires free determination, the ability to make and remake a better world, whether in paintings and novels or in politics and economics.

This kind of freedom is distinct from the absence of toil, pure leisure, or aimless play. In fact, art demands a truly disciplined form of labor. Marx insisted as much, writing in the Grundrisse, “really free work, e.g. composing music, is also the most damnably difficult, demanding the most intensive effort.”

Artistic production prefigures a future in which self-directed creative activity — rather than profit maximization and production for exchange — constitutes the basis for social relations. Art’s continued existence in our current society represents a kind of promise: a better world is still worth fighting for. Art cannot prevent the next financial crisis, nor provide an alternative to capitalism. But it can offer a glimpse of what a new world might look like.

The point is not to save culture, but to finally realize its ideals. The dreams of the past — whether in the twentieth century’s colonial ambitions or the attempts of academics, gallery owners, and business moguls to find spiritual refuge — are defunct. Art must truly express the shared creative goals of a more democratic order. Until then, it will remain the possession of a privileged few, a fact no federal agency can change.