The Culture Wars, 1965-1995: A Historian's Map

Article excerpt

1. Political History

The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were twin agencies created in 1965 by liberal Democrats to fund vocal constituencies. At the time the Great Society was simultaneously setting up expensive new poverty and education programs, racing to the moon, and building up in Vietnam. Humanities faculties (which strongly supported LBJ in 1964) were worried about too heavy a national emphasis on science and engineering. Led by the American Council on Learned Societies, the humanities organizations made sure they got their own agency. The very first thing the new beneficiaries did was to bite the hand that fed them. By summer 1965, leading artists and intellectuals had started turning against Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, and their loud protests escalated to the point where the President and his top advisors were no longer welcome on any major campus.(2) The New Deal had a well-known arts program as part of the WPA - an agency Johnson knew well, since he headed the youth part of its Texas program. However, the WPA was a poverty program whose primary mission was to help the poorest artists - poor in money and usually in talent as well. The Endowments, by contrast, boasted that they disregarded "need" and made "highest artistic talent" a key criterion. Artists who were successful in the private sector rarely applied to NEA. In the humanities, major universities did not treat NEH grants as especially useful, except that NEH fellowships were prestigious awards sought by the most talented scholars. Secondly, the WPA was a national program that operated arts programs at the state and local level in every state. Instead of encouraging local arts institutions, it rivaled and preempted them, and perhaps delayed the formation of local arts funding programs. Thus NEA and NEH were new creatures, not reborn New Deal agencies.(3)

Interest in the fine arts grew exponentially after World War II. The NEA claimed credit, but the true reason was the remarkable growth in the potential audience - the number of adults with a college degree doubled and redoubled from 8 million in 1960, to 16 million in 1975, and 33 million in 1990. Arts and museums programs flourished as an affluent and increasingly well-educated public consumed more and more sophisticated arts. As demand for local arts performances soared, communities began establishing local arts councils. The NEA probably did help stimulate the expansion of state and local arts agencies, but it no more created them in the first place than NEH created history museums or literature departments. Thus NEA claimed that its small planning grant to Winston-Salem North Carolina started a veritable urban renaissance. In fact Salem was a Moravian community famed for its music for two centuries, and the city had been one of the first to set up a community arts council in 1949.(4)

The model for NEA was the arts program that Nelson Rockefeller built in New York State as governor from 1959 to 1973. Rockefeller was himself a noted arts connoisseur, and the various family foundations played a major role in supporting the arts and especially in setting arts policy. In 1954 there were 15 local arts councils; thanks to support from the Rockefeller Foundation there were 60 by 1959.(5) The Ford Foundation, in the 1950s and 1960s, pumped tens of millions a year into the performing arts, which started a unending spiral of rising salaries for performers. Artists will work for peanuts or for caviar, whichever is offered. Strikes by symphony orchestras for even higher salaries underscored the urgent need for new funding. A glance at the total budgets in Table 1 will show that federal funding (in constant 1995 dollars) peaked during the Carter years, while state funding matched and then surpassed the federal budget during Reagan's term. Most cities started assigning some hotel taxes to arts agencies, generating over $500 million a year for local arts agencies by 1993. …