Thursday, January 17, 2008

After the Art Wars

To be sure, the NEA no longer provides direct grants to contemporary artists, and now supports them only indirectly, insulated by several layers of bureaucracy. But this further increases administrative costs and diminishes the percentage of the NEA budget that actually reaches performers and artists. A better solution would be a blanket decision to support no contemporary work whatsoever. Something like that was behind William F. Buckley, Jr.’s proposal in 1989 that no NEA funds go toward subsidizing “any putative work of art under 50 years old.” This, Buckley explained, “would distinguish the Rodins from the Mapplethorpes.”

Perhaps in 50 years we will come to recognize Mapplethorpe as a Rodin; perhaps not. In either case, the 50-year rule would permit the dust and clutter of current events to settle, and in the meantime enable the NEA better to steward America’s artistic patrimony by supporting museums, exhibitions, and performances of works validated by the cumulative consensus of time. This alone could help mend the breach between the American public and its arts community, not to mention the tragic and unnecessary division of Right and Left over what should properly be the legacy of us all.

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