Art in America: Does a great nation deserve great art?

The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts raises questions about how we as Americans define great art – and greatness itself.

“A great nation deserves great art” proclaims the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a slogan warranting scrutiny despite the appeal to greatness.

Its undertones hint at the bleaker possibilities of a purely market-driven arts environment, sans government funding. We might imagine a glut of “reality” TV shows, advertisements, and other overly-hyped entertainments many wouldn’t define as “art.” Yet defining art is not the critical issue, but rather: What are the sounds and images dominating media? Wouldn’t they have to stand as our national self-expression, since majority-rule, including popularity, matters in a democracy?

Junk vs. nutritious consumption

Worthy arts that are the purview of a small “in-crowd” are not serving the central, democratic role of guidance that art could. With food, we distinguish “junk” and nourishment, and understand the effects of wrong choices. Doesn’t this principle also apply to the arts we “consume”? So ideally, the NEA’s role would be to foster beneficial work not liable to survive the marketplace.

Like health care, finance, or the environment, we might once again ask: Do we need encroaching government agencies overriding free-market choices, including the NEA’s “affirmative action” for the arts? Maybe that depends on us, on our actual greatness as a people.

If “great nation” and “great art” are welcome assessments, then what about the word connecting all that greatness, “deserves”? Is that the right verb? It suggests passive entitlement, or maybe a reward earned for being great. Either way, it seems to assume that great art doesn't rank among the prerequisites determining national greatness. Politicians incessantly remind us of all that we deserve, but that preoccupation doesn’t fit the profile of greatness.

Could we say that a great nation “needs” great art? No more than a not-so-great nation, and maybe, by virtue of its greatness, a lot less.

How do we define “great nation”? If it’s economic, technological and/or military power, nothing in that picture emphasizes a connection to art. Were that connection more central to the definition, greatness would be evident by what a people consider worthy of expression, distribution, and attention, a telling indicator regardless.

Art's rightful function

Would that connection then help define “great art”? There’s an ever-recurring school of thought that art’s rightful function is as a marker or beacon, that a work of art should be a source of knowledge and healing, refine feeling and desire, develop critical thinking, and generally waken and strengthen what is best in us.

This would not just describe works sequestered in climate-controlled museums or posh concert halls, but also common, even utilitarian objects – everyday things offering valuable reminders via balance, beauty, harmony, order, symbolism, and craftsmanship.

By contrast, a “throw-away” economy stimulates consumption, but on many levels – from environmental to spiritual – falls short.

Artists would then assume duties as workers and custodians of timeless, universal truths, even if anonymously. Relegated to insignificance would be an artist’s idiosyncrasy, novelty, trendiness, sensationalism, political correctness, quirkiness, self-absorption, or self-aggrandizement – qualities often equated with being an artist. On these contrasting paths – “timeless” versus “15 minutes of fame” – are found opposing meanings of the word “original.”

The division between “popular” and “fine” art is not necessarily a reliable indicator of enduring value, a concern often falling through the cracks between street indifference and academic fashions.

Establishing an interceding government agency is understandable. The question is not one of need, but whether any such institution is qualified with the requisite vision.

Government's role

Are freedoms curbed with increasing government intervention? Yes. But laws are not written to prevent things no one would ever dream of doing, or to get people to do something they are already doing. It is precisely the preceding, lingering transgressions and misguided choices that inspire and shape the rules, however inept, unfair, or oppressive their implementation. Government programs often bespeak our failure, corporately or individually, to govern ourselves. There are plenty of reasons to protest them – bureaucracy, cost, inefficiency, politics, waste – but the frustration borne of an inability to persistently abuse freedoms is only a comeuppance.

Others crusade for more government regulations, but shouldn’t we all feel the lost learning opportunity to make free-will choices, to hazard the mistakes to get to the right, rather than being compelled by legislation’s imperfect substitute?

In the final analysis, a great nation inevitably expresses greatness as the fruit of its core identity, like apple trees giving apples – “deserves” has nothing to do with it.

A people consuming a steady diet of base, frivolous, or petty sounds and images risk an erosion of their greatness, the memory or mythology of which provides easy means for those who would manipulate us through flattery. We can debate the relative merits of free markets and government programs, but the determining factor in either case is plainly stated in the slogan for the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Because Democracy Demands Wisdom.”

David Arzouman is an artist, composer, writer, and educator developing a new art school in Tokyo.

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