The National Endowment for the Arts (founded in 1965) has existed for many decades now, and has spent several billion dollars (its budget is consistently over $100 million annually), but if you walked through most American streets and neighborhoods, you would think that America produces no art at all. What you would see are the publicly funded art projects which date from before the founding of the NEA. With all of its billions spent, the NEA has failed to produce a single important American icon (such as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, Grant’s Tomb, the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington Memorials, etc.), and very little of our beloved public art. Nor has it succeeded notably in art education. A new set of principles is required. The concatenation of a pair of factors – notably a new president and a new commitment to government spending – makes this a particularly good time to examine the NEA.
I recommend taking a look at the NEA’s website. Its basic commitment to performance art is obvious – jazz, dance, poetry, etc. This is precisely the problem: I propose a different set of principles.
First of all, publicly funded art should focus on public art in public spaces. Many NEA projects are for museum installations, which can be seen only by museumgoers. The focus of publicly funded art in the past has been the public square, the busy street, and the historic portions of our landscape. When public spaces are properly consecrated by artistic endeavor, the result is magical: in the weeks following the attacks on the Twin Towers people gathered not merely in Union Square (they did not in fact gather at the northern end of the square, which is a barren bit of asphalt), but at the statue of George Washington at Union Square. This statue represents Washington, approximately at the spot he stood at as he watched his army retreat before the British advance on the city. You can see him reaching out his hand back to the city he is leaving behind, and almost trying to restrain those who are fleeing. The statue’s original emotional force became the natural harnessing point for a new generation of emotions. Most American towns still do not have an emotive center of equal force. Only government funds can secure the proper sites, and remunerate properly the artists, for such monumental art.
Second, publicly funded art should focus on lasting monuments. The NEA website lists eight major national initiatives as of December 2008: the Big Read (to promote literature), poetry, jazz, Shakespeare performances, memoir-writing for Iraqi war veterans, a journalism school, opera, and “American masterpieces,” which has four subdivisions: chamber music, dance, “presenting” (education), and “visual arts touring.” Nothing is offered for lasting monuments whose expensive materials are beyond the purchasing capacities of individual artists. Sculptures in marble, granite, and bronze, the materials of choice for public art since the days of the Pharaohs, can enrich public life for thousands of years. Egypt’s tourist industry still benefits from the Sphinx, which was sculpted at least three thousand years ago, and Rome has a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (the prototype for the aforementioned statue of Washington) which has been on display for more than eighteen hundred years. This is a much sounder public investment, for a country which still has so little public art.
Third, publicly funded art should focus on historical art. Innumerable cultural commentators complain that Americans know no history, not even American history. One of the reasons for this is that the streets and shops where Americans spend their lives do not tell their stories publicly: we have relegated history to the books. I do not know of a single monument to the men and women this country held as slaves for hundreds of years. Why should they be ignored? Would not a statue of a muscular slave, his chains broken, be an admirable theme for an American artist? Can our poets not write an inscription for it, that we the free men and women of America dedicated this statue to the men and women who once were slaves, vowing that we shall fight until all men should be free from every form of tyranny? This would be a statue worth visiting, and worth paying for with our paychecks. Every town in America could have such a statue, or one of Lincoln or Washington or Martin Luther King. King is especially poorly represented in our country, having died in the era of the NEA, when public funds are no longer allocated for publicly important art.
Fourth, publicly funded art should focus on representative, democratic art. Public art should belong to the people – truly so. I would not object to having artists selected by referendum. But failing that, we can easily identify the most important subject in democratic art – the individual human figure, with an individual human identity. Our basic creed is that the individual human being is the foundation of all social good, and that all collective powers derive from the individual. Even in artwork devoted to abstractions, we relate to them best if they have the faces of men and women. The Statue of Liberty is a perfect example. Liberty is an abstract thing, but the statue would not gain in the least from abstract treatment. Abstract art is almost always elitist art and not public art. I would be perfectly willing to let a referendum prove my belief wrong, but in America no vehicle for artistic representation has greater popular strength than the human figure.
A glance around even a place like New York City – the American city richest in public art – reveals dozens of potential NEA projects. The latest historical research suggests that baseball was invented at Madison Square in New York – there should certainly be a monument there. As with so many historical spots in America, it is unmarked and in danger of being forgotten. (By the way, Major League Baseball: you could make a pot of money by opening a small museum of baseball history on the square). And for those who object to representations of athletes and who believe that they should not be taken as role models, I say: they are taken as role models, and have been since the days of the Greeks, and that is enough for me. If an artist handles his subject effectively, a representation of an athlete can mean much more than athletics.
In Central Park, the Literary Walk was begun on the Mall, intended to be an alley devoted to sculptures of writers. Statues of Burns, Scott, and Fitz-Greene Halleck (who serves as ample proof that we should wait until a hundred years after a writer’s death to judge his merits) were erected, and nothing further has been done. What about Irving, Hawthorne, Stowe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville? And (when they are eligible) Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Langston Hughes? These are only American writers. Perhaps New Yorkers may wish to honor the writers of the world (as they have already done with Burns and Scott), and not merely of America. Dostoevsky certainly deserves one, as does Dickens, for their peculiar and enduring reputation here in America. If perhaps I have moved from democratic subjects, what about a mall of statues of Yankee greats, a block or two away from the Stadium to draw the crowds a little further afield?
If you cast your eye across the entire country, you see innumerable artistic opportunities to dot the landscape with interesting monuments and give employment to our starving artists. Another possibility for NEA is to work more closely with architects and engineers, to make artistically beautiful our nation’s bridges, post offices, and other government installations, just as previous generations have. Our military bases could certainly use some improvement, and might benefit from the watchful eyes of a Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, or Dwight Eisenhower. There are literally millions upon millions of dollars spent every year. If spent on enduring public monuments, we could over time greatly enrich our public appreciation of art and our historical awareness.
I have one further idea for such a program. It might be possible to raise further money for artistic projects, as well as diffuse art throughout the nation, by selling plaster casts of public works. Life-size bronze busts, for instance, of Martin Luther King or George Washington or Abraham Lincoln could also produce innumerable plaster casts, which could end up in every school in America, as well as many a businessman’s office or citizen’s home. Once a cast is made, the only cost is the cost of the plaster, which could be sold at a very handsome profit. Busts would be cheaper in direct proportion to demand, meaning that representations of important public figures could be had quite cheaply, considering the usual price for such casts. It would be yet another public service provided by the NEA.