Add art to the three R's

The legislation which creates the National Endowment for the Arts neatly sidesteps the great philosophical issue: What is art?

The law formally recognizes that ''no government can call a great artist into existence.'' While modest in its deference to divine prerogative, our statute goes on to assert a federal responsibility ''to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.''

How does one go about fulfilling this responsibility? What kind of a climate? What material conditions? Can one draw from factors or conditions which accompanied or influenced the flowering of other cultures now widely recognized for their lasting artistic contributions to civilization?

If one looks at Western periods of artistic efflorescence, it seems to me that one can discern at least some of the following elements:

1. A society which is, as Dan Boorstin would put it, ''on the verge'' between ''something and something else.''

2. An evolution of symbols to reflect the ''verge.''

3. A degree of prosperity.

4. Public and/or private patronage of art and artists - both through their support and their honor.

5. An educated audience.

6. A degree of political stability.

It is interesting to note the presence of many of these factors in Periclean Athens, the High Gothic period in France, the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, late 19th-century France and Russia, and the post-World War I period in America.

At bottom, I suppose artistic creativity is unpredictable. How can we nurture the unpredictable? How can we assure the asking of questions even when the answers are not apparent? How can we balance tradition and innovation, community and individuality? How can we improve the connection between the arts, humanities and science, and the world? What is the role of the university, and what is the role of the federal government, in this?

Those who framed the endowment's legislation recognized that one of the great strengths of the American system of support for the arts is its plurality - with no one source dominating.

There is precedent for this mixed approach, as far back as Periclean Athens. There, authors wishing to have their plays produced applied to the archon or magistrate for a chorus. Selections of plays for the next year's festival were made about 11 months ahead. The state bore responsibility for the theater building, prizes, payments to actors and (possibly) dramatists. The archon appointed wealthy citizens (or choregoi) who underwrote the training and costuming of the chorus and probably paid the musicians. Because the choregus was a major financial supporter, he had a great influence. Most choregoi were generous since prizes for plays were awarded to them and the authors jointly. Leading citizens performed this function in rotation as a part of their civic and religious duty.

The role of patronage in fostering the development of the arts can hardly be overestimated. One must only recall the sponsorship (by a succession of private patrons) of theater companies in Shakespeare's time or the role of court and aristocratic support in the development of instrumental forms and styles during the 17th and 18th centuries. As we know, the character of patronage (and, indeed , of the audience and its education) changed drastically in the 19th century. With the rise of a middle class able to pay for performances and wishing to educate a broader public came the development of concert halls, theaters, opera houses, and museums. The often humiliating dependence of artists on royal patrons was diminished.

At the same time, the artist no longer ''taken care of'' by church or princes became increasingly isolated. The Romantic cult of genius had something to do with that - but the reality more often was that the artist was more and more put in the position of someone who had to sell something to a general audience, not just a single patron or elite.

The development of a general audience has the benefit of allowing art to reach more people. At the same time, appreciation of quality art depends more upon the level of education of that audience. This accounts for the perhaps not astonishing priority accorded to arts education in the three seminars on the arts we have recently conducted at the Endowment - in design, music and in connection with state and local arts agencies. Maximum artistic enrichment of the society depends on making art a part of everyone's life - not just entertainment, an elective at school - but one of the basics (like reading, writing and arithmetic).

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