THE National Endowment for the Arts, the government organization that provides financial assistance for writers, painters, poets, playwrights, musicians, and composers, has come under fire. Some works by funded artists have been denounced as obscene or incomprehensible. I don't question the sincerity or concern of those people who say that taxpayers should not be expected to underwrite ``bad'' art, but experience demonstrates that, even if everyone could agree on a definition of ``bad'' taste in the arts, it is inevitable that some people will be offended or even outraged.
Moreover, it is unreasonable to fear that ``objectionable'' works of art will contaminate the works we like. Unlike Gresham's Law, in which the bad drives out the good, works of merit in the arts have a way of growing and flourishing in competition with works that are brash or noisy or employ shock tactics. Many books or poems or paintings that touched off severe controversy when they first appeared did not last very long. True, a few of those works did win lasting recognition - not so much because they were acclaimed by critics but because the public recognized their intrinsic merit.
Ultimately, the public is the final arbiter in the arts. It is the public that makes the decisions about enduring quality. The cultural marketplace, therefore, is a great leveler; in fact, it is the only long-term workable corrective to inferior merchandise in the arts or anywhere else.
The taste of the public over the long run is the best protection any society has against inferior products in the arts. So long as the public has an open opportunity to choose, whether with respect to candidates for public office or books or plays or paintings or any form of creativity, we have a healthy environment not just for politics but for the culture as a whole.
I am old enough to remember one of the most ambitious undertakings in the arts known to history. It went by the name of the WPA Arts Project. Thousands of writers, painters, and musicians were involved. Some of the paintings produced under the project showed human beings in their natural state, producing a clamor in the Congress and elsewhere, and leading commentator Heywood Broun to observe that some people would put pants on a horse. Other painters produced canvases that were incomprehensible to most people, stirring up additional protests.
But there were other artists who received government support, artists with names like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, John Stuart Curry. These artists either got their start through the WPA or were able to keep going through federal support. The American people have been profoundly enriched culturally, and the nation's standing in the world cultural community has been bolstered as the result of that project a half-century ago.
What is most important about art is not the finished product but the energy imparted to a society through the full functioning of the creative process. The benefits of creativity in any one sector have a way of spilling over all others. The one thing we should have learned from Japan these postwar years is that the most valuable resource on earth is the creative mind. Creativity and conformity don't go together. The greatest danger we face is to think that anyone knows enough to tell an author what to write, an artist what to paint, or a composer what music to create.
It wasn't so long ago that the Communist Party in the Soviet Union was still the ultimate arbiter in the arts. The bureaucrats and functionaries were opposed to ``experimentation'' in the arts. What they got was not art but sterile blurbs and travel posters.
The Soviet Union is discovering today that the most important characteristic of any society is the freedom to make mistakes - and that there can be no great advances without daring and risk-taking. Society becomes productive only in an environment of creativity. Mr. Gorbachev was wise enough to recognize that essential productivity cannot be achieved if people are afraid to come up with new ideas, or to stand out against government itself, or to pursue experiments without fear of arbitrary punishment if those experiments should fail or be distasteful to the bureaucracy.
Freedom in the arts gives substance to freedom in the society. Creativity is the way a society renews itself and develops an ever-larger awareness of its own potentialities. Art is a form of wealth in which all may share, a form of currency convertible into golden moments. It is a way of reminding ourselves that life is infinitely fragile and infinitely precious, a way of breaking apart the seeds of time and opening ourselves to the enchantment and exuberance offered up by human genius.
It is not sensible to permit government to define standards in art. It is the shortest of all steps from telling a writer what not to write or a painter what not to paint to telling a citizen what not to think.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a natural function of a free society. But it is also a complex and difficult enterprise. It deals with unpredictables, which is in the nature of cultural undertakings or creativity in general. We should not be dismayed or surprised that there should be crosscurrents or flurries in such a program. The very fact of controversy may be proof of the fact that the NEA is doing what it should be doing.