Magazine article The American Conservative

The Artist as a Kept Man

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Artist as a Kept Man

Article excerpt

Quincy Jones, not content with having inflicted "We are the World" upon we of the world and withdrawing Peggy Lipton from circulation, has inspired a petition campaign begging President Obama to hatch a Secretary of the Arts, presumably to oversee a U.S. Department of Culture.

The quick answer to this was provided by the painter John Sloan in 1944: "Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of the Fine Arts in this country. Then we'd know where the enemy is."

We are in for at least four years of earnest middlebrow culture-vultures sucking up to the new president, whose reported tastes run from the exemplary (Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan) to the execrable (Toni Morrison, Philip Roth) and include, as far as I can tell, not a single writer or musician from his native Hawaii. For shame, oh rootless one!

"A good writer," said Ernest Hemingway, "will never like any government he lives under. His hand should be against it and its hand will always be against him." His hand should not be extended state-ward reaching for alms. The Armenian-American writer and pacifist William Saroyan, who refused to shake FDR's hand at a reception, had the right idea. So did William Faulkner, who turned down a gala at which President Kennedy was honoring Nobel Prize winners, explaining that the White House was "too far to go for dinner."

It still is.

I wrote a good deal about government subsidy of the arts back in the early '90s, when the National Endowment for the Arts was marinating in Andres Serrano's urine. I did enjoy debating the subject: on my side were Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Edward Hopper, Ed Abbey, and Charles Bukowski; for the NEA were the listless ghosts of Archibald MacLeish, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Kitty Carlisle, who, to tell the truth, was the last lass to feel the lash of Thomas E. Dewey's 'stache.

The dirty little secret of the NEA--and the reason I fully expect the neoconservatives to embrace a Department of Culture and fill it with moles--is that it was sold as a Cold War propaganda agency. Endowment godfather Frank Thompson, the New Jersey congressman later imprisoned for his role in the Abscam sting, called it "a program of selling our culture to the uncommitted people of the world," while President Kennedy lauded music as "part of our arsenal in the Cold War. …

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