Last December, soon after the Supreme Court had pulled the chain on Florida's chad fest, Bill Ivey, the Clinton-appointed director of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke to the National Press Club. American culture had flourished under the Clinton-Gore Administration, he said. Congress had approved the agency's first budget increase since 1992. The country had seen a growing access to "quality art and design" as evidenced by such things as Michael Graves and Martha Stewart designing stuff for Target and Kmart. Ivey noted that even the construction workers in his building were ordering double lattes. America, in his description, seemed poised at the threshold of a cultural golden age.
But there was a hint of alarm. There were still those who opposed the NEA's work. As a preemptive strike against them (and their possible allies in a Bush Administration) Ivey presented "An American Bill of Rights for Culture." They are (summarized):
1) the right to "fully explore America's overarching collective experience as it is embodied in music, literature, theater, painting, and dance"; 2) the right to "make art, to become artist-citizens"; 3) the right to "engage a healthy and valued community of creative artists"; 4) the right "to choose among a broad range of experiences and services ... provided by a community of cultural organizations"; 5) the right "to an external representation of our nation's expressive life that accurately conveys the complexity and diversity of America's human and material artistic resources to the world"; 6) the right "to engage in art and art-making of the highest aesthetic quality ... that embodies universal truths or art of quality that auditions the unique character of diverse nations and communities."
In a column reacting to Ivey's speech, George Will complained that Ivey's NEA had promoted an egalitarianism that conflated handicraft with art, the trivial with the significant. Noting that the NEA had gone so far as to include dinner-table arrangements and "playtime activities" as kinds of art (and thus eligible for grants), Will thought that one of the Bush Administration’s first tasks was not to establish Ivey’s six rights but instead to define just what “culture” was and was not, and thus what was appropriate for government support.
Certainly there is much to criticize in Ivey’s remarks, but there is much to affirm also. Who can be against people coming to know the elements of their culture? And isn’t anything of the highest quality of inherent value? On the other hand, the notion of someone being an apparently privileged “artist-citizen” worthy of his own set of “rights” is bizarre (are we to have corresponding rights for “plumber-citizens” or “rancher-citizens”?). Ivey claims these rights are “moral claims on the public conscience.” The federal government must promote “art, art making, heritage, and creativity,” because it has to recognize “a moral claim to a cultural agenda in order to enhance the lives of young citizens, strengthen communities, [and] bridge the spiritual divide.”
Ah, there’s the rub. If a “moral claim” is to be made on behalf of a cultural agenda, whose culture, and whose morality, and whose claim is it to be? Let me give you a specific example.
I am a composer. I make my living teaching people about the mechanics of music. And as is the case with every artist, the portrait of who and what I am is presented most directly and intimately in the particular music I write myself, in my art. My art---or certainly my most important art---is about Jesus. This is not to say that my music is anything quite like what my fellow evangelicals would expect “Christian music” to be. It isn’t. It is offensive. It is highly dissonant and rhythmically disjointed. It is sometimes bizarre and often uncomfortable. If it does not quite shock, it unsettles. It is often frightening. It is sometimes angry. It is desperate. But my music is this way because I find the Gospels compel me to write it this way: bizarre (as the kindness of a Samaritan is bizarre), uncomfortable (as an answer to a rich young man is uncomfortable), unsettling (as an empty tomb is unsettling), and frightening (as the presence of an angel is frightening). It is angry because I am angry at not being a better person than I am and angry because believers are so prone to waste the gifts given to us. It is desperate because my only hope lies in touching the hem of his garment. It is offensive because the whole Gospel is offensive to those who believe themselves well.
David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voh-nah-ROH-vitch) was born in 1954 in Redbank, New Jersey. He died from complications from AIDS in 1992. He was an essayist and artist whose art was about being gay. For him, homosexuality was not an orientation but a way in which he was obliged to see the world. As one critic put it, for Wojnarowicz being gay was “an existential condition, a state of mind . . . a kind of moral insomnia that dictated how one lived a life.”
His 1989 Sex Series (House) is typical of his work. The roughly nine square foot silver print shows a house and a water tower apparently assaulted by the winds of a tornado. Hanging above the house like a huge full moon is a bit of commercial pornography of two young men having sex. The same year as Sex Series he wrote an essay called “Postcards from America: X-Rays from Hell.” Angry over John Cardinal O’Connor’s resistance to teaching safe sex in New York’s public schools, Wojnarowicz called O’Connor a “fat cannibal.” St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a fascist house of “walking swastikas,” and the Cardinal, like all people in power who committed crimes against the people, worthy of the death penalty. Wojnarowicz repeated his accusations against the Cardinal in the catalogue for an AIDS-related exhibition, “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” Because of political pressure from conservatives, John Frohnmayer, then chairman of the NEA, revoked a $10,000 grant that the agency had given the project, but restored the grant after the New York art community protested his decision. When the American Family Association attacked Wojnarowicz’s exhibition “Tongues of Flame,” the artist took it to court, seeking damages for copyright violation, defamation of character, and violation of New York’s law prohibiting unauthorized alteration and dissemination of an artist’s work. Wojnarowicz won the case and a symbolic one dollar in damages.
Two artists. Two cultures. My viewpoint is Christian. Wojnarowicz’s was queer. I am a part of a community of Christian artists who are themselves part of a segment of American society for which traditional religion forms the core of their identity. Wojnarowicz was part of a community of gay artists who are part of a community for whom sexuality is the core of their existence and AIDS their defining holocaust. My models are writers: O’Connor, Lewis, Buechner, Percy. His models were writers: Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet. I am an obscure artist. Wojnarowicz was obscure (his first paintings were graffiti on the Hudson docks west of Greenwich Village), but he became a recognized figure in the New York art scene and since his death has been elevated into something of a cultural icon. In 1999, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York staged a major retrospective of his works and the New York Times bestowed its imprimatur upon the event by publishing a major review of the artist. Even the design house Versace got on board, choosing works by Wojnarowicz to highlight their spring collection---displayed in huge windows down the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue.
Which of us, Linton or Wojnarowicz, represents a legitimate national culture? Which of our works should receive support at taxpayer expense? When gay artists such as Wojnarowicz seek to have their art supported by government funds, putting together gallery exhibitions and concert performances of art that speaks of to them, Christian conservatives typically cry foul, asking why they should be required to support art that they find profoundly objectionable. Yet should the NEA be approached to support my art, or the art of a Christian like me---say, the composition of a cantata honoring the poverty and chastity of St. Theresa, intended to be performed where Christians have always thought their art best belonged, in church as part of the liturgy---would not the left be within their rights to voice the same objections? Why should New York’s virulently anti-Christian gay community see any of their tax money spent on a project that would be so potentially objectionable to them? Certainly there can be no more justification for Barney Frank and Americans for whom he speaks to be required to support my artistic expression (and the expression of my culture) than there can be for Jesse Helms and those for whom he speaks to underwrite a Wojnarowicz catalogue.
Ivey is right to mention a “spiritual divide” in conjunction with the arts. There is a chasm between my world and Wojnarowicz’s. But art does not bridge that chasm, it defines it. Art marks its boundaries. By declaring who he is, the artist simultaneously declares who he is not. Communities find an artist’s work meaningful because they find elements of themselves and what matters to them expressed there more eloquently than anywhere else. Communities cohere around kind of artistic expression because those clusters help them separate themselves from others. When the folks at Versace put up Wojnarowicz’s work in their windows they were in effect marking boundaries. We are here. You are there. And here is the divide.
Our positions are extreme, Wojnarowicz’s and mine. There are gay artists for whom homosexuality is of little significance in their work (Ned Rorem, for example), and Christians whose work is more conventional than mine. Yet the breadth of our differences does testify to the very real divisions in American culture. That now-famous USA Today county-by-county map of the United States split into Bush reds and Gore blues dramatically showed one way in which the country is split.
There are other divisions too. There is no one American culture. Instead there coexist several national cultures that are increasingly antithetical to each other and between which there seems to be dwindling common ground. There is my culture and Wojnarowicz’s. There is the culture of the folklorist who argues that the Tennessee basket weaver is as significant an artist as the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and the culture of the trustees of Julliard, who might dispute that claim. There is the culture of the academic deconstructionist who writes that all art is just a grab for power and that demands for “excellence” (whether made by a folklorist, or a basket weaver, or the NEA itself) are really simply coded expressions of oppression based upon race, class, or sexual orientation. And then there is the culture of money. Things are good if they sell. Things that do not are not so much bad as they are irrelevant.
The Blues and the Reds. And hundreds of shades of violets and purples in between. Contrary to Will’s advice, the Bush Administration cannot define culture. It can only choose sides. By granting support to one group, the NEA simultaneously denies support to another, and by granting support the NEA in effect establishes that culture, if only for a moment, as the legitimate expression of America. Thus the only thing we can be confident of the NEA doing is defining divisions in our country and thereby exacerbating them. While it can be argued that the agency might try to balance its grants, carefully giving equal amounts of support to opposing groups, such a policy would be an administrative nightmare, guaranteed only to swamp the government in a mire of contention.
When Lyndon Johnson proposed the legislation that established the NEA in 1965, the then---and present---Senator from South Carolina Strom Thurmond rose to challenge the bill. It was not within the prerogatives of Congress to enact such legislation, he argued, and in any case the government subsidy would lead to the stifling of creativity and the institutionalization of mediocrity. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in Clinton’s first mid-term election, the right wing of the party vowed to close the NEA’s shop in revenge for the agency’s support of left-wing projects. But Strom Thurmond lost the vote in 1965 and in 1995 the Republicans lost their nerve.
Now it is time. The Bush Administration should introduce legislation to close the NEA. This is not some Taliban-like assault on culture. It is instead a move to preserve and protect cultures. No member of the radical queer left should find his taxes used to support a work of art that attacks his chosen---and legal---lifestyle. No Christian fundamentalist should be so discomfited as to find that his government has supported a project that ridiculed the objects of his faith. No artist, neither Wojnarowicz nor me nor anyone else, should be made to feel disenfranchised and marginalized by the establishment of a court patronage system and potentially be forced to misrepresent his art in order to curry governmental favor. And no government bureaucrat should be given the power of choosing for Americans what the nature of “American culture” is or is not going to be.
Let us choose for ourselves. And let the country’s various societies support the arts that are most important to them. If, after debate, we still believe that the federal government should have some mechanism for encouraging the arts, then let it be through reduced taxation. In particular let the wealthiest among us, traditionally the most generous to the arts, keep much more of their wealth so that they may be generous to whom they choose. Let private foundations such as the short-lived ART MATTERS (which supported significant leftist and gay artists and projects) and Soli Deo Gloria (the Wheaton, Illinois based foundation which funds the performance of religious concert works) be the patrons of our country’s artists and arts organizations. But keep Washington out of the business of supervising culture and going to the ridiculous extreme of lecturing us on what our “cultural rights” are.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.