How America Does Art

Visual Shock: A History of Controversies in American Culture by Michael Kammen (Alfred A. Knopf, 450 pages, $35.00)

Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding by Tyler Cowen (Princeton University Press, 196 pages, $27.95)

Like almost everything else about democracy, there is little agreement about what it means for the arts. Is democracy a matter of providing access to the best or about recognizing the value of diverse cultural traditions? Does it mean giving the public a say about public monuments and outdoor sculpture or letting the market decide (one dollar, one vote) which arts will prosper? As these new books by Michael Kammen and Tyler Cowen show, democracy can mean all of those things. Americans disagree not only about the arts, but also about what role they ought to play in our public life and what role our public life ought to play in them.

Of the two books, Kammen's is the better read. Visual Shock leads us through debates about public monuments in the 19th century, contention over artistic modernism in the 20th century, arguments about murals and other public art from the Depression through the 1990s, and struggles during the long 1960s over political art, the commercialization of the art museum, and the impact of identity politics on visual culture.

Some tensions -- concreteness versus abstraction, Americanism versus Europeanism, the beautiful versus the realistic -- are persistent. Others reflect such recent trends as art museums' drive to fill galleries, the increasing value of scandal for marketing in a crowded art world, and the difficulty of sequestering potentially offensive artworks from the potentially offended.

Yet for all the disputation, Kammen notes how often Americans take provocations in stride. Even at the height of the "culture wars," Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs aroused Cincinnati's county prosecutor only after being displayed without incident in Philadelphia and Boston. An exhibit of flag art failed to inflame conservative Colorado Springs before raising hell in Phoenix.

The real mystery may be why dust-ups are not more common. Brawls over art offer such high payoff to base-rallying politicians, artists seeking name recognition, museum directors eager to boost attendance, and movement groups for whom one direct-mailed picture is worth more than a thousand words that virtually all the relevant parties have an incentive to instigate conflicts even when they don't have their hearts in it.

In early years, professional groups of artists or architects were at the center of many controversies. Since the 1930s, conservative social movement organizations such as the American Legion and the American Family Association have been more prominent. A drawback of Kammen's focus on cases is his neglect of the substructure out of which multiple controversies sprout. Kammen quotes Hilton Kramer frequently but doesn't mention that Kramer's journal, The New Criterion, owes its survival to more than $8 million in funding from conservative foundations. Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney's regimes at the National Endowment for the Humanities gave institutional ballast to conservatives' "march through the institutions." And the Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano scandals erupted when they did because the Republican Party's ascendant right wing used the National Endowment for the Arts to embarrass the first President Bush.

A central theme of Visual Shock is that patterns of struggle reflect cultural democratization -- of subject matter, of artists' access to the public, and of the public's access to artists. I am not so sure. Classicism's surrender to aesthetic realism represented progress toward Walt Whitman's "Democratic Vistas," to be sure. But was pop art's move from abstraction to representation democratic? Kammen suggests that it was. But as long as soup cans were more about flatness and theory than about lunch, the artistically uninitiated were liable to feel more mystified than empowered.

Although Kammen treats identity politics masterfully, he gives short shrift to battles over class. His chapter on art museums says nothing about the debate over the Metropolitan Museum of Art's dress code, the Boston Museum's flight to the suburbs, or the struggle over the proper role of educational casts (and of interpretation more generally) in the early 1900s. We also do not hear the voice of John Cotton Dana, who castigated his art-museum peers in the 1920s for their "undue reverence for oil paint," or that of the Brooklyn Museum's Philip Youtz, whose first act as director in 1934 was to remove the building's classical stairs. Indeed, in an otherwise superb chapter on public sculpture, there is no mention of Philadelphia's quarter-century-old controversy over the disposition of a statue of Rocky donated to the city, evidence that class conflict persists in the politics of art.

Tyler Cowen's Good and Plenty focuses on the bright side of a system that he believes "encourages artistic creativity" and "keeps the politicization of art to a minimum." (Kammen's readers may wonder about the latter assertion.) Cowen argues that government support for the arts should, first of all, decentralize creativity and enhance diversity and, second, satisfy the demands of the public for prestige. The American system, he argues, accomplishes both by directly supporting the consensually excellent but targeting the bulk of its efforts toward indirect and decentralized forms of assistance.

Good and Plenty has some significant virtues. Cowen takes a broad view of arts policy, pointing out that the official U.S. system of arts support -- the federal, state, and local agencies that make grants to nonprofit cultural organizations -- is but the tip of a much larger iceberg, which includes tax expenditures (revenue foregone due to the deductibility of charitable contributions), support for higher education, and intellectual property rights. He also takes a broad view of the arts and culture, including within his compass the media, Hollywood, and the recording industry. The book provides serviceable accounts of government arts programs, indirect arts support, and copyright in the digital age that readers unfamiliar with these topics will find informative. Perhaps most important, Cowen's instincts are good. He recognizes that all funds have strings attached and that the healthiest systems are not those without constraint, but those in which artists can choose the most congenial from among a variety of constraints.

But if Cowen ends up in more or less the right place, the route is circuitous. The analytic argument is flawed by a chronic tendency to conflate key concepts (for example, decentralization with diversity, prestige with legitimacy). Some assertions -- that the NEA supports jazz just to be politically correct, and that live theater is more popular today than it was two decades ago -- are neither plausible nor defended with evidence.

Cowen fails to confront the principal dilemma of decentralization. Support through the tax system is politically palatable but profoundly regressive because government matches gifts from the tax-paying wealthy at a higher rate than it subsidizes donations from those of little means. The progressive solution, providing the charitable poor with compensatory subsidy, would level the playing field. But this proposal has never received much support because few progressives would like the kind of culture that such democratization would foster. Reading Cowen and Kammen together, one may conclude that, where cultural policy is concerned, a limited and contentious democracy is the worst of systems, except for all the others.

Paul DiMaggio is professor of sociology at Princeton University and research director of its Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.