Art Survives in Spite of It All

Article excerpt

As Jane Alexander bids fond farewell to the National Endowment for the Arts, she leaves her swan song in a thick report blaming the poor state of the arts on just about everybody.

The chairman's report called "American Canvas," is refreshing because it doesn't simply reprise the liberal lament that conservative politicians are to blame. Nor does it attribute failure to the cutback of government money at federal, state and local levels. She blames the private patrician patrons who support art and those administrators who run the "non-profit" art institutions, who set themselves up as arbiters of taste and "neglected those aspects of participation, democratization and popularization that might have helped sustain the arts when the political climate turned." She blames the commercialization of culture, too.

While there's some unavoidable truth in these perceptions, a larger question remains: What kind of art can we expect from the fragmented world of post-modern democracy?

Certainly not government-sponsored art. We learned that the hard way. All art reflects and is dependent on the central cultural perceptions of the community. Participation in art can be coaxed, but never force-fed. That's a lesson the "nonprofit" art institutions failed to learn as they offered a narrow bias toward art running the gamut from art-as-political to art-as-elitist.

The vitality of Elizabethan drama, which gave birth to Shakespeare, appealed to the common truths and common sense of a cohesive community. Audiences were made up of all levels of society, from the most vulgar bawds to the royal and rarified elite. The unity found even in the stratification of classes could be tapped by talented artists and the participating audiences of the time.

The realm of everyday experience may be extraordinarily different for different social and economic classes, but in art the underlying verities remain the same. The intellectual and emotional depth of art requires a breadth of appreciation.

We don't have such breadth today in any of our arts. Or, rarely such depth, either. In fact, the call for aesthetic variety in multiculturalism undercuts the genius of the artist, who does what he does because he must, not because he serves or reflects a group sensibility. …