Art in America: Does a Great Nation Deserve Great Art?

Article excerpt

The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts raises questions about how we as Americans define great art - and greatness itself.

"A great nation deserves great art" proclaims the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a slogan warranting scrutiny despite the appeal to greatness.

Its undertones hint at the bleaker possibilities of a purely market-driven arts environment, sans government funding. We might imagine a glut of "reality" TV shows, advertisements, and other overly-hyped entertainments many wouldn't define as "art." Yet defining art is not the critical issue, but rather: What are the sounds and images dominating media? Wouldn't they have to stand as our national self-expression, since majority-rule, including popularity, matters in a democracy?

Junk vs. nutritious consumption

Worthy arts that are the purview of a small "in-crowd" are not serving the central, democratic role of guidance that art could. With food, we distinguish "junk" and nourishment, and understand the effects of wrong choices. Doesn't this principle also apply to the arts we "consume"? So ideally, the NEA's role would be to foster beneficial work not liable to survive the marketplace.

Like health care, finance, or the environment, we might once again ask: Do we need encroaching government agencies overriding free-market choices, including the NEA's "affirmative action" for the arts? Maybe that depends on us, on our actual greatness as a people.

If "great nation" and "great art" are welcome assessments, then what about the word connecting all that greatness, "deserves"? Is that the right verb? It suggests passive entitlement, or maybe a reward earned for being great. Either way, it seems to assume that great art doesn't rank among the prerequisites determining national greatness. Politicians incessantly remind us of all that we deserve, but that preoccupation doesn't fit the profile of greatness.

Could we say that a great nation "needs" great art? No more than a not-so-great nation, and maybe, by virtue of its greatness, a lot less.

How do we define "great nation"? If it's economic, technological and/or military power, nothing in that picture emphasizes a connection to art. Were that connection more central to the definition, greatness would be evident by what a people consider worthy of expression, distribution, and attention, a telling indicator regardless.

Art's rightful function

Would that connection then help define "great art"? There's an ever-recurring school of thought that art's rightful function is as a marker or beacon, that a work of art should be a source of knowledge and healing, refine feeling and desire, develop critical thinking, and generally waken and strengthen what is best in us.

This would not just describe works sequestered in climate- controlled museums or posh concert halls, but also common, even utilitarian objects - everyday things offering valuable reminders via balance, beauty, harmony, order, symbolism, and craftsmanship. …