Bruce Cole died on January 8. He was 79 years old.
People know of Bruce because he led the National Endowment for the Humanities during the George W. Bush administration, the longest tenure of any chairman of that agency. How he got there is a study in why he is worth remembering.
Cole was a successful art historian at Indiana University, building an exemplary academic career as professor and researcher in the 1970s and 1980s. He was tenured, he was respected in his field (Renaissance painting), and he had all summer long to tour the museums and archives of Europe.
A few of his books:
Masaccio and the Art of Early Renaissance Florence (1980)
Sienese Painting from Its Origin to the Fifteenth Century (1980)
The Renaissance Artist at Work: From Pisano to Titian (1983)
Sienese Paining in the Age of the Renaissance (1985)
Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society (1987)
There’s a lot more to read, and it runs all the way up to 2001, when he joined the federal government. Some of his work was used by PBS for a series. Cole was living an academic dream life, at least in professional and material terms. Indiana had a relatively large graduate program, which provided him with interesting and interested students. Obviously, he loved his material. He was at the point in his career when he could work on anything he wanted to, and teach only courses that inspired him.
Why leave that ideal existence for a post in the Bush administration?
Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities is, indeed, a distinguished position. It is the top humanities spot in the federal government, and it directs many millions of dollars to scholars and teachers and institutions across the country.
But it’s a nonstop headache, too. The chairman works long hours and travels all the time. When I worked in the National Endowment for the Arts under Dana Gioia and passed by the NEH chairman’s office on my way home, the lights were always on, unless Cole was out of town. When Cole arrived, just after Bush’s election, the NEH was still living in the shadow of the culture wars of the 1990s, which had almost led to the elimination of the agency. People had been laid off, the budget had been cut, and the general atmosphere in the halls was one of disaffection. Republican members of Congress still wanted to zero out the Endowment, and conservatives and libertarians were ever watchful for a grant that the NEH had given that could make the agency look ridiculous. (Trump’s decision to defund the NEH and NEA in his first budget was no surprise, following as it did advice from the long hostile Heritage Foundation.)
At the same time, scholarly organizations are always pressing the head of the NEH to use the bully pulpit to support the work and outlook of their members. That put the NEH chairman in a tricky position, since much of the work of humanities scholars has for decades adopted an “adversarial culture” posture that regards the traditional subjects of God, country, family, and home as objects of critique and worse. The last thing a chairman wanted to do during the 1990s culture wars was have a professor give a public lecture on the insights of Queer Theory.
So why become the chairman?
Because Cole had seen the steady politicization of his field during the 1980s and 1990s, and he wanted to stop it. Art history was succumbing to the same pressures of identity politics and political correctness that English and history had endured and that a previous chairman, Bill Bennett (under Reagan), had challenged. Cole wanted to continue to battle over the humanities through public service, even if it meant halting his academic career and all the perks and comforts that went with it.
Giving up his research path was, in fact, an expression of devotion to the material. When I crossed paths with him during those years, he often seemed more or less unhappy and worn out. I’m sure he was, now and then, because the battle often seemed lost. But that only made his public service more honorable.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.