Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Arts in America, by Michael Brenson. The New Press, 157 pages, $25.00.
In the United States, we like our artists nobly bereft, taking literally
Percy Bysshe Shelley's description of poets as "the unacknowledged legislators of
the world." When artists stoop to seek acknowledgment, the priestly skullcaps
fall off. Yikes! These are just people who--like us--want to be famous, or at
least pay for mammograms and send the kids to college. We'd like to see artists
go on working--but won't subsidy, especially from prosaic, real-life legislators,
The title of Michael Brenson's Visionaries and Outcasts spells out the
holy and lonely requirements we have set for artists. His book, which tends to
echo these Romantic expectations, describes how such ideals fared under 35 years
of federal arts administration. Brenson is looking back at the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA)--specifically, its embattled, and now defunct, fellowships for
individual artists, a program that from 1967 until 1995 handed money outright to
thousands of working authors, critics, composers, performers, and visual
Retracing the contortions of this program's history and the controversies that
swirled around it, the author opens a window onto American art in the late
twentieth century, a period of splintering expansion and commercialization. The
NEA helped unleash these developments, but, as the demise of the fellowship
program proves, the agency has not yet found either a stable role or--more
fundamentally --an entirely convincing argument for its own legitimacy. How can
we allow howling and splattering prophets to traffic with the state? The Greeks
did it, the Florentines did it, but Americans, much as we enjoy the benefits of
public funding for the arts, continue to find such expenditures--and the artists
who accept them--suspect.
Brenson rightly calls the individual-artist fellowship program--with its
no-strings stipends of up to $20,000--"one of the crown jewels" of the NEA. As
gems go, however, this one was weirdly perishable. In 1968, just the second year
that the fellowships were awarded, the money was almost cut off. "Aid to
individuals is liable to turn out to be nothing more than a subsidy for hippies,
beatniks, junkies, and Vietniks," charged Representative Paul Fino of New York.
With the kind of rhetoric we've heard many times since, Fino roared that tax
dollars had been squandered "to subsidize anti-Vietnam movies made by European
Communists [and] antiwhite plays written by black nationalists like LeRoi Jones."
The U.S. House voted that year to stop all direct grants to artists. Though the
Senate reversed course, the fellowship program would twist and shudder with each
new political wind for nearly three more decades. After the Republican sweeps of
1994, with memories of Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres
Serrano's Piss Christ (depicting a crucifix submerged in the artist's
urine) still tingling, Congress did dismantle the grants program. Today only
writers (presumably so ineffectual that they can't cause offense) need apply.
The rules of contemporary art have for at least a century demanded innovation and
welcomed outrage: Duchamp unveiling a bicycle wheel, Pollock oozing webs of
paint, Picasso lounging in his underpants and surrounded by assorted children. We
expect "serious" artists to be bright, fast-moving targets. During the 1950s, the
CIA even deployed American painting as a weapon in the Cold War by arranging
exhibitions overseas, in Brenson's words, "to flaunt the freedom in the West."
Proclaiming, "Art is not a form of propaganda," John Kennedy deftly used it as
such, asserting the idealism, nerve, and glamour of his presidency by drawing
artists near. A hollow-eyed Robert Frost read poetry at JFK's inauguration, and
later that year Jackie welcomed cellist Pablo Casals to the White House as a
cherished friend, his concert broadcast on network television.
"The NEA," Brenson writes, was "conceived at a historical moment when it was
considered essential by government to show the world America's capacity for
inventiveness, adventurousness, and self-examination." The American
artist--brash and experimental--might serve as a kind of cultural astronaut,
inscrutable perhaps but so much better than those docile and leaden realists of
the Soviet Union.
In 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the NEA into law, the nation's art world
was small and concentrated in Manhattan, and the agency's first visual arts
director, Henry Geldzahler, was a suitably dazzling reflection of New York's
presumptuousness. With chutzpah unthinkable in today's specialized and
bureaucratic art world, Geldzahler, once appointed, held on to his main job at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art and periodically flew to Washington, D.C., to
dictate orders at the new arts agency.
Nodding to the rest of the nation (and widening his sphere of personal
influence, too), Geldzahler appointed panels of visual-arts experts across the
nation, from whom he solicited nominations for the individual artist grants.
Handpicked panelists took turns handpicking their favorite painters and
sculptors. "Fairness in art," Geldzahler once said, "is not nearly so interesting
as quality." Maybe so, but when democratic governments spend money on art,
fairness becomes an issue faster than you can say "philistine."
Brenson spends considerable time describing how Geldzahler and his successors
ran the NEA's visual-arts programs; and though a rundown of arts administrators
may sound less than scintillating, in fact these changes in leadership and
procedure illuminate the pressures and fads that shaped U.S. culture for all of
us during these years. In the early 1970s, for example, the NEA began
deliberately distributing its visual-arts fellowships among artists of many
media, responding both to rising interest in art photography and crafts and to
the general expansion of art production. From 1965 to 1974, the number of
master-of-fine-arts programs in studio art nearly doubled. The Abstract
Expressionists hadn't given a damn about university credentials, but by the
mid-1970s aspiring trained artists were stampeding from graduate schools by the
thousands, most of them grasping for fellowships as income and public
The art world was changing, and the NEA's visual-arts administrators struggled to
keep pace. Brenson recounts how the agency abandoned its process of fellowship
nominations, partly in the name of fairness but more practically because a
handful of tastemakers could no longer track all the newcomers crowding onto the
scene. Art had become a career, albeit a tenuous one, and the NEA fellowships,
which could so effectively advance such careers, would be managed more
rationally: Artists were required to submit their own applications and slides,
peer panels followed strict procedures, and fellowship winners would be chosen by
consensus. No longer "unacknowledged legislators," U.S. artists had become
professional outcasts. This paradox of expectations continues to bind artists and
to alienate their audiences.
A New York art critic and professor of curatorial studies at Bard College,
Brenson was originally commissioned to study the fellowship program by the NEA's
visual-arts director just before the ax fell, and some of his book reads like an
intra-office report (inexcusably, without an index). Too often Brenson lapses
into preachiness and bathetic praise: "The peer panel system embodied the
idealism and nobility of the NEA." Obliged to defend the agency's work, his
account is understandably but unfortunately lopsided and would have profited
enormously from interviews with detractors, particularly artists who failed to
win grants and congressional leaders like Jesse Helms, who managed to grandstand
and gay-bait the fellowships out of existence. Presumably, they have lots to say.
And for all his chronicling of changes in program guidelines, Brenson fails to
examine the effects of these changes on art. How, for instance, did the art and
artists selected by nomination differ from winners chosen by consensus? Do
different systems of reward foster different sorts of art?
Only toward the end of Visionaries and Outcasts does Brenson draw on his
skills as a critic. He argues that the NEA gradually traded its Sputnik-era faith
in artistic innovation for a more static model of "excellence." Brenson warns:
"An agency whose language of authority is a museum language will not easily be
able to make an effective argument for artists reaching for what society does not
yet want to see or hear." Brenson concludes that the fellowship program, which
boosted so many U.S. artists for a time, failed to organize its participants in
lasting ways, to link them with local communities, or to help them voice an
alternative to the market's definition of "quality." He also faults contemporary
artists themselves, finding more and more of them "in love with science, equipped
with state-of-the-art technology, and interested in joining rather than resisting
the entertainment industry." Painter Julian Schnabel's switch to moviemaking
comes to mind.
How curious it is, though, that just as artists may have been co-opted by the
market, the old virtues once ascribed to modern painters and sculptors--risk
taking, innovation, rebelliousness--became the language of U.S. business: all
those high-tech entrepreneurs exercising "vision" and enacting their "passion,"
playing Nerf basketball at the office--the asexual, workplace equivalent of
Picasso in his skivvies. As any artist will tell you, this tattered Romantic
banner becomes heavy lifting after a while. We'll see how long those on the
business side can carry it.