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Gingrich Goes After the Arts

By Noah I. Dauber

Newt Gingrich has reared his head once more. The indebted Speaker of the House tore into federal funding of the arts on Thursday. This is barely news. The Republicans have made a habit of attacking the National Endowment for the Arts, popularly known for supporting allegedly pornographic art.

While this may seem like just another case of same-old, same-old, even lukewarm art-lovers ought to be on their guard. For Gingrich takes aim not at the art-in-itself but at the lovers of art, and the press has precious little to say in their defense. And while there are grounds for public interest in the arts, they are by no means self-evident like the freedom of religion or the freedom of the press. With the odds so stacked against them, art-lovers must take every opportunity to articulate their interests and rehearse their arguments.

The way the New York Times tells it, Gingrich decided to go after the arts in order to get in good with the Republican set. His opposition to the arts is just another ploy, a set piece, to rehabilitate his standing in the public eye after the ethics ruling. The Democratic White House seems to share this view. Indeed, White House spokesman Michael D. McMurry reduced Gingrich's attack to a "charm offensive." There is the tone throughout of "business as usual." Yet, there is something asymmetrical about the Times's coverage. While the piece seems slanted against Gingrich, it is Gingrich's arguments--not the art-lovers'--which get voiced. Author Jerry Gray quotes Gingrich: "This is not about money, this is about an elite group who wants the government to define that art is good." Even in this brief clip we get the full sense of his argument: art is undemocratic.

The defenders of the NEA are quoted poorly. There is no adequate defense of the arts, only rebuttal of Gingrich's attack. This is hardly fair. In this fashion the art-lovers are put on the defensive, and they end up sounding weak. One almost gets the sense that, while Gingrich may be a toad, he's right about art. On the contrary, art should be defended vigorously on its own terms. Otherwise, all we hear is that art is not pornography and it is not elitist.

The problem of defending art in the political arena is more complicated than just a case of accentuating the positive. Even great advocates of the arts, such as Senator Claiborne Pell, warned that one should "speak softly" in defense of the arts. The fear is that the public interest in the arts rests on very slim footing indeed, and that by arguing to vigorously, this weakness will become exposed. This is not an illfounded fear. Pell, of all people, should know.

Pell retired this January after 36 years in the Senate. He was mainly responsible for the Pell grants and the creation of the national endowments for the arts and for the humanities. In a New York Times interview in December, the Senator revealed just how slim the footing for the endowments was in 1965. Pell spoke of conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy, who thought that the United States should have a minister of culture like France. Apparently President Kennedy was agreeable, but not too concerned. Pell went on to stress the importance of specific personalities in the creation of the endowments:

"Barnaby Keeney, a medievalist and the president of Brown University, wanted a humanities foundation, and in those days the humanities had a much bigger following around the country than the arts. I wanted the endowment to be for the visual arts, and Jack Javits wanted it for the performing arts. So we compromised, and that's how we got the two endowments and later the Institute of Museum and Library Services."

There was no groundswell of opinion here. It was individuals, lovers of the arts and the humanities, who created the endowments for the arts and for the Humanities. Gingrich seems to be in the right. The art-lover is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he must speak softly or risk exposing the weakness of his support, while on the other hand, he must speak loudly enough to convince others that the arts are in the public interest. This is a tricky game to play.

To be honest, the art-lover must not misrepresent his support. He may not say in good conscience that the masses are behind him, or that art is loved by the many. Of course it is not likely that a defender of the NEA could get away with such statements. Therefore, the art-lovers must shift the debate away from a head-counting face-off. They must take to the high ground, arguing rationally for the public interest in the arts. This is done with some success in the founding legislation of 1965. Unfortunately even the best of the arguments listed there, in section two of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209), suffer from a pandering tone.

Item one runs, "The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States." The sentiment is thick here, but the content is unlikely. What is intended by "belong?" Are we to really believe that the all the people of the United States own the arts and the humanities in any real sense? Ownership of such goods is the result--as we students know--of hard work and study, not of abstract right. Item four is similarly insufficient: "Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants." This declaration borders on parody with its extravagant claims. Technology will not be mastered by the arts. It will be used by the arts, questioned by the arts, but not mastered by the arts. With arguments like these, the defenders of the NEA cannot rest easy, even if it's only business as usual.

Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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