Monday, October 13, 2014
Books I'm Reading: Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance
President Johnson signed the NEA into law on September 29, 1965 following a congressional act of August 1964 that had created the National Council on the Arts. The council--an impressive group that included Isaac Stern, David Brinkley, Gregory Peck, David Smith, Leonard Bernstein, and later John Steinbeck, Richard Diebenkorn, and Sidney Poitier, among others--was tasked with creating an outline of the new Endowment's mission. An advisory panel that set priorities for the Endowment's visual arts program recommended that top concerns should include providing "direct assistance to the creative artist" and recognizing "excellence in artistic achievement." The first group of NEA grantees included men and women from all over the country working in a wide range of styles of painting and sculpture. The grants were based on a combination of artistic excellence and need. In other words, the people who created the NEA saw the Endowment's role as a source of direct support for the best working artists in the country, particularly those who were struggling financially. Many of the artists chosen to receive grants had virtually no income from their art, while producing work widely recognized as superior. Gene Davis, Edward Ruscha, Donald Judd, and Mark di Suvero were among the first group of grantees.
With the election of Richard Nixon came a change of leadership at the NEA that immediately and permanently changed its tenor, propelling it in the direction of the controversy perhaps most associated with the entity today, and, ultimately, creating public skepticism about the wisdom of any kind of public arts funding, sabotaging the original intent of those who brought the NEA into existence, people who took it for granted that quality art was essential to the life of a healthy nation. At the same time, Nixon's advisors recommended vastly increasing the NEA's grants--but mostly for political reasons; they believed spending on the arts domestically would go some way toward ameliorating the increasingly negative impact at home of what was going on in Vietnam. The associated bureaucracy grew and efficiency declined. The NEA's budget was less than $10mn in 1969, but well over $60mn already in 1974, when Nixon left office. The NEA awarded $16 in grant money for every administrative dollar spent in 1967 but only $10 per administrative dollar by 1983.
When Nixon appointed Nancy Hanks to the leadership of the Endowment, a shift in emphasis away from artistic excellence and toward pluralism accelerated. Nixon wanted to expand the audience for art. Hanks wanted that and much more. With growing funding at her disposal, she oversaw a sharp shift away from supporting individual artists (which, as Munson notes, became the Endowment's lowest priority). Public outreach and support for art institutions became the priority while the scope of eligible activities was expanded to include photography, printmakers, videographers, performance artists, conceptual artists, and even art critics. Before long, virtually any kind of creative activity or arts-related entity (many highly controversial) became eligible for NEA funding and the NEA began to feed the fringes of an expanding art world rather than support traditional artists in their studios.
As Munson puts it, "This weakened standard for awardees, together with the increases in funding, encouraged a freewheeling approach to grant making. Instead of painstakingly whittling down a list of candidates to only the best and brightest, the visual arts panels were now handing out hundreds of grants." The NEA was fueling the expansion of just about every new trend that came along, creating an illusion of value where often there was none and debasing itself at the same time. Eventually, the NEA came to sponsor the radical and deliberately controversial almost exclusively, effectively censoring most serious artistic activity. To get a grant, it was more important to be different, "interesting," or shocking than to exhibit any kind of technical skill or artistic vision. The NEA came to foster exhibitionism while banishing what many would still today consider more serious art from the pool of those eligible for support. This is the exhibitionism of Munson's title. The intolerance she refers to is the entrenched institutional hostility toward traditional art forms that has come to characterize the contemporary art world. Her book goes a long way toward explaining how we got where we are now.
The story of the NEA's evolution nicely illuminates the backdrop of public confusion about the visual arts today and deep public skepticism about art and government agencies associated with the arts. It also suggests why the only people that make a living as artists today seem to be those that feed off the arts bureaucracy--the posers that create "art" for dealer and gallery leaches that foist a great deal of trash on "collectors" who have no taste and have few places to go to look for less-biased guidance. While not everyone will agree with me about the lamentable state of affairs that has resulted from trends in the last 40 years or so, Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance is well written, well argued, and hard to put down.