Can You Truly Redefine Art?

rartA CLARION call for the redefinition of art by governmental flat has just been issued by the American Assembly, an elite public-policy group headquartered at Columbia University. There may be those who might doubt that such a prestigious body as the American Assembly would get itself involved in proposing the redefinition of art, but it has, and here’s the quote: “The statutory definition of the arts must be revised, if necessary, to embrace activities, forms, and expressions that may not be eligible for assistance according to current definitions.”

This bit of cultural law-giving, intended for the guidance of government but rich in implications for the private sector as well, is contained in a pamphlet called The Arts & Government: Questions for the Nineties. The pamphlet summarizes the recommendations from a conference last November that was funded by the Rockefeller and the AT&T foundations, and attended by some 73 figures from the arts, arts institutions, government, foundations, and corporations.

Of these participants, it would appear that one person, and one person only-William Grampp, a free-market professor of economics emeritus at the University of Illinois-has a record of opposing the “politically correct” thinking that now rules the public discussion of cultural issues with an iron hand. The other 72 participants included such consenting luminaries of cultural-policy formation as John Brademas (president of New York University), Kinshasha Conwill (executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem), John E. Frohnmayer (chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts), Roy M. Goodman (Republican New York state senator and member of the National Council on the Arts), Ruth Mayleas (program officer, Education and Culture Program, at the Ford Foundation), Kathleen M. Sullivan (professor at Harvard Law School), and Barbara L. Tsumagari (executive director of the Kitchen).

While the preparatory readings assembled to inspire the conference discussion will not see the light of day until this spring (in a volume to be published by W. W. Norton and subsidized, it may be assumed, by the funders of the conference), the Assembly’s recommendations are contained in the pamphlet, and describe just where our distinguished cultural leaders wish to take us.

Accepting government funding-the more, the better-as a given, the pamphlet is both a summary and an endorsement of the now firmly established liberal line on culture and the arts. The Assembly begins by explicitly assuming the value of a flourishing artistic life, the need to rely on each culture’s and each art form’s own ideas of excellence, full freedom of expression without any governmental or private restrictions, and “the principle that no artist’s work may be compromised, suppressed, or unrecognized because of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or political or religious beliefs.”

Among its recommendations for the NEA, the Assembly lists the support of “the full range of traditions and artistic forms that comprise this country’s cultural vitality”; “greater access to the arts by new and under-served communities”; support for artists “of accomplishment and promise, whether working in traditional, non-traditional, experimental, or innovative forms”; a massive increase in the NEA budget; and NEA leadership in public and private research on and discussion of cultural policy.

The core of the Assembly’s recommendations lies in the area of what it calls cultural diversity. Here the Assembly urges that “Public arts agencies take the steps necessary to ensure recognition for every culture in our society.” And to ensure that what is implemented at home will not be ignored abroad, the pamphlet recommends an international exchange program utilizing the “abundant cultural resources” of “African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans.”

Curiously, the Assembly is quite guarded in its recommendations for changes in tax policy to aid the arts. Clearly it wished to avoid advocating tax changes that might help the arts for their own sake. Here as elsewhere, the Assembly’s purpose is to advance a socio-political agenda: “More than other forms of aid

. . tax-based assistance may set the interests of the arts against those of a larger society.” The Assembly’s final recommendations are for increased arts education, again involving “people of color” and “less privileged communities,” and always accepting that in arts education as in the arts themselves, government must accept work that is “at variance with community values.”

One is tempted to remark that what is missing in the Assembly pamphlet is any consideration of art as such. But the pamphlet makes no pretense of talking about art: for the Assembly, the nature of art is a matter of how, and especially by whom, it is defined. As with art, so with the larger civilization of which art is a part. It is remarkable that the pamphlet never mentions Europe or the West, even in derogation. It cannot be denied that those responsible for the pamphlet just don’t care one hoot about the content of art-as long as that content reflects and makes possible the transformation of society along what used to be called progressive lines.

The Assembly has a vision of a future America in which the majority is composed of today’s minorities, and today’s majority, humbled not just by inadequate numbers but by inferior moral virtue, is reduced to acquiescing in its own downfall. What in fact the American Assembly is recommending is a kind of neo-Marxist scenario, in which culture-or rather cultures-replaces economics as the engine of revolutionary social change. The new slogan is not “Power to the People,” but rather something like “Power to the Cultures.”

It remains to be explained just how the American Assembly, a group founded in 1950 by Dwight Eisenhower during his term as president of Columbia University, and with a board of trustees in the past including such national figures as George Ball and Cyrus Vance, and now including Sol Linowitz and Paul Voleker, finds itself in the position of being the vanguard agent of revolutionary social change. In the Assembly’s odyssey from the establishment to the cultural revolution is illustrated the immense abdication from traditional leadership accomplished in recent years by the most powerful political, economic, and social elements in American society. It can all be quickly summed up. From being leaders, these elements have become the willing followers of social developments profoundly inimical to their own survival. And in return for their historic shift from leadership to complaisance, our erstwhile betters ask only one thing: that they be left in power to arrange their own disappearance. This surrender sounds crass, and it is crass. It is a moral sellout, a profiting in the present at heedless cost to the future.

This may explain just why the very definition of art is a matter of such perfect indifference to the pamphlet’s authors. The inner core of civilization-not our civilization, but theirs-has ceased to exist. Starting in the 1960s from the cynical notion that hostile and destructive social forces could be neutered by the simple device of offering them representative places at the tables of the rich and powerful, the old and valetudinarian establishment has itself been vanquished by the primitive forces it had hoped to co-opt. These elites now enthusiastically believe what they have been saying for the past two decades: that the new world-any new worldi-s better than the old world-any old world; that primitive authenticity is more moral than learned sincerity; that youth, measured by its rawness, is always to be preferred to age; and that proletarian community is always to be preferred to bourgeois individualism. American Assembly indeed: perhaps it really ought to be called the American Disassembly.

Leave a Reply