The Art of Redrawing Ruin

Washington Times  4.08.97
Balint Vazsonyi

Americans often lament that, as a young country facing the awesome task of cultivating vast tracts of land, there was little time for culture in the European, artistic sense. Yet, it seems that both the time and the means were found to establish Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the symphony orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, and many more to be among the flagship organizations of the world. Museums in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and in other major cities are places of international pilgrimage. Small distinguished collections may be found at such unlikely venues as the home of the Ringling Brothers in Sarasota, Florida.

All of the above, and much more, had come about as the result of Americans spending their own money, refining their tastes and skills, buying tickets, or - like Andrew Mellon who created the National Gallery of Art - making enormous gifts to the nation. Comes now "ARTNOW," and announces a demonstration in Washington for April 19th, 1997. They call for "Political Action." Their mission is "Celebration and Demonstration of the Critical Need for ART in a Democratic Society." (You don't say!) First among those invited to demonstrate: children.

How did we get here?

Perhaps some really smart people, somewhere around the mid-1960s, sat down for a discussion. Let's see now, said the smart people. What we've got here is one successful society. We've won two world wars. We have a larger proportion of our people at a higher standard of living and enjoying greater freedom than any society in history. Chicken is 29¢ a pound, day in day out. Gasoline is 29¢ a gallon, day in day out. Medical insurance for a young family of four is about $25 a month. The dollar buys the same huge amount abroad day in day out. On average, people work for three months to buy a good car, and a little over a year to buy their first home. Yeah, we've got some great country here.

Let's look at countries in Europe now, continued the smart people. In this century, they averaged 25 years between world wars. In many, inflation had gone to the point where a loaf of bread would cost several million. They are just emerging from the ruins, largely because we had given them the Marshall Plan. Vast areas first ruled by Hitler are now ruled by Stalin, except in Western Europe where Americans bodily guarantee freedom. If food is no longer rationed, currencies are certainly restricted. Most of them don't own an apartment, much less a house. They are coming over here in droves.

And then the smart people decided to switch to the European model. Let the state take over the functions private citizens and communities have performed so successfully, they said. Let's take the people's money and have some new federal agencies decide who gets what, they said. Among other things, they figured, the arts would make a great tool because of the tremendous leveraging potential: Relatively little money is spent on high-profile people. They were not the first to think this way. The political pay-back of the arts was recognized and used by the best-known strategists since 1917 and 1933 respectively.

And that is how we get to ARTNOW with its blatant call for political action. True to their models, they push the children forward. As one who recently protested outrageous comparisons, I should be the last person to engage in them. Yet, if Hitler-Youth and Lenin's Pioneers were not the models, will someone please tell me where else these people got the idea?

The politicization of the arts was the practice of the very regimes from which we recoil. Having a National Endowment for the Arts produces that condition automatically. Before any applicant submits to a peer review, the "peers" have to be appointed by the state. The state will invariably make political appointments.

True - it is Conservatives who complain that there are too many Liberals on the committees. "Would you," Liberals say, "would you complain as much if the tables were turned?" The point is, the tables couldn't be turned. Liberals have decided to import the European model. Conservatives would never have done that.

If ARTNOW advocated a return to universal arts education, one might agree with their goal, if not with their method. But the organizers don't even pretend an interest in anything other than cold cash. As for the participating stars, their predecessors must be turning in their graves.

Today's stars are paid millions because the greats of yesteryear earned an exalted status for artists. They were a different breed. They felt they owed something to this nation that accorded them adulation and great luxury. When "Mr. Smith Went to Washington," he went alone, and to serve his country. Now, our millionaire artists march on Washington behind children to demand more of the citizens' money in their pocket. At the very least, we ought to ask them what they are doing personally and individually to promote the cause of art.

Not that it would make government-political art any more desirable. But such a requirement might induce some of them to stay at home and mind their own, lucrative business.