THE National Endowment for the Arts is up for congressional reauthorization. This turns our attention to the always amusing and sometimes outrageous spectacle of our innocent government spending hard cash on ugly art, vapid literature, and grating music. Predictably, the discussion focuses not on quality, but on obscenity and censorship. These questions, however, deflect concern from what should be the prior issues in reauthorization: whether we need a national arts endowment at all, and, if we do, what its budget should be.
The arguments for a government program have never been convincing. Is there a shortage of artists? On the contrary. Universities abound with artists' studios and potter's wheels, theater companies and resident composers. It is in fact easier to make a living in the arts than it ever used to be. The problem for artists is not that there are too few of them, but too many, crowding each other for ink, recitals, and exhibitions.
Is there a shortage of good art? Manifestly. But how does the endowment advance the cause of quality? Its standards are nebulous. Everything depends on the selection panels and the staff. Where is the evidence that their efforts have helped raise the level of American literature or composition? Assume that the Endowment could point to 50 excellent new works created in each of the past 25 years, which is doubtful enough. Was its support essential to even half of them? To any of them? It certainly has never enunciated standards that distinguish high from low.
Although the endowment cannot make a persuasive case that it contributes enough to the public good to be worth $175 million per year, Congress is more likely to fiddle with its structure than to drastically cut or eliminate it. So, if the endowment is here to stay, what should its purpose be, and how should it be managed?
Its chief goal should be to separate the better from the worse. This suggests that decisions be left to experts. But the experts turn out to be artists and arts bureaucrats who are disappointingly subject to fashion and jealousy. Even when they agree on something for a reason, it is hard for thoughtful citizens to replicate that reason and apply it for themselves.
To a man, every ``expert'' agreed that Robert Mapplethorpe was gifted and Andres Serrano merely a sensationalist. But how could the rest of us tell? Hypocrisy, smugness, and favoritism make it difficult to distinguish cases decided on genuine standards, thoughtfully applied, from cases decided by mere fiat.
Yet, one would hardly want to leave things to ordinary citizens who happen to be ``interested'' in theater or painting. No combination of untrained tastes should control $175 million for the arts. So we usually wind up deferring to experts, even though we do not trust them.
The closest any administration can come to a solution is to give power to people with educated taste who do not make their living from the arts, and to those in the arts whose judgment one respects - experts who can explain intelligibly why they judge as they do.
Appoint them, and tell them four things: put decent people on peer review panels; reassign civil servants until you have in place the staff you want; demand clear reasons to support the decisions of panels and staff; and, above all, use your own intelligence.
The administration, together with Congress, should also consciously adjust spending among disciplines and approaches. If it seems especially difficult to articulate what quality means in the visual arts or musical composition, do less of it. If some area of fine arts truly has artificially limited opportunities, expand funding.
Furthermore, the endowment should ask its panels and grantees to reflect with special care when they plan to support works that would strike the educated citizen as scatological or blasphemous. The question is this: when does the artist's style, intention, and execution elevate his work beyond that first shocking impression? Citizens should not be forced to spend money on works whose chief or sole purpose is to annoy or mock them. If selection committees and grantees cannot make and defend qualitative distinctions, they have no grounds for choosing one artist over another in the first place, and they should not be asked to disburse money a second time.