A review of The Democratic Muse: Visual Arts and the Public Interest, by Edward C. Banfield

Some years ago the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded a grant to an American "artist" who had proposed to use the stipend for producing "art" of the following kind:

I will rent a ground level studio with high ceilings and a cement floor, adjacent to a lush meadow. And to this place I will bring Pigme, a full-grown sow (whom I have known since her ninth day), two female rabbits (who know each other and me), a buck (stranger), two ring-necked doves (strangers), a wooley monkey, Georgina (who knows me slightly). . . . We will all move together. I will also bring those things necessary for a comfortable survival, including food and materials to use for building and maintaining nests. All of us will contribute to the creation, maintenance and change of such an environment. Once settled, we may discover that there are others who would like to join us even if just for a short time (birds, mice, people, etc.). I will record our activities so that those unable to visit and experience our situation directly will know something of what it is like. This will best be done by using portable video equipment. Sometimes, we will leave our place and go together to another, or bring others to us. For these events, we will need a vehicle, preferably a motorbike with a large sidecar. Perhaps this communal way of life will be quite difficult. However, the educational value,for all of us will be extraordinary.

During fiscal 1984, Congress appropriated $162 million for the NEA. (In both fiscal 1982 and 1983, the appropriations were $143 million.) The NEA supports the arts by using taxpayer dollars. In other words, some part of the wealth created by the productive labor of some Americans was used to finance that communal life of a sow, two rabbits, a buck, two doves, a monkey, and an "artist" which the NEA thought would be a work of "art."

To be sure, most projects sponsored by the NEA are quite conventional. But it has also supported a sizeable number of extremely dubious proposals. Yet the NEA is not entirely to blame for these decisions. Some indeed were reached only after considerable controversy within the NEA. The NEA is merely the institutional expres­sion of a "national arts policy." The problem is that the federal government has assumed the role which the Emperor Augustus gave to Maece­nas: It presides over the production of the beautiful.

When and where did the American people decide that supporting the arts is a proper func­tion of the federal government? What is meant by "the arts" if they are made the matter of a national policy? Can "art" be defined? And, if so, what are the implications of officially defining the relationship between the arts and society? Again, do not the arts, as a matter of public policy, become pawns of the interest groups that benefit from the largesse of the Great Maecenas in Washington, D.C.?

In pursuing these questions, Edward C. Banfield has produced a most admirable book. Written in elegant prose, The Democratic Muse unfolds a captivating story while it scrutinizes a public policy. Although Banfield shows great sympathy for the activity of the true artists, he does not condone the treacherous bizarrerie of a certain contemporary art such as Vito Acconci's regular calls to the New York Times announcing that his "breathing is art." His study is a straightforward account, a story of politics that hardly any other author could have told as uncompromisingly and yet as dispassionately as Banfield.

Public support of the arts in a democratic society is, in principle, an incongruous under­taking. Since a democracy proves itself by a pluralism in tastes and manners, one cannot assume a general agreement on the nature of art. Nor can one presume that art is a constituent of the public good. In our age, art is essentially subjective.

Banfield brings this incongruity to the fore as he surveys the history of arts policy in the United States. From the beginnings of the Amer­ican republic to the present, a body of citizens has favored public support of the arts. In pursuing their objective, they could adopt two possible strategies: to strive for their goal and to accept nevertheless the constitutional idea that the federal government serves only certain purposes, none pertinent to the patronage of the arts; or to ignore the constitutional limitations and force the federal government into the new role of initiating, enacting, and financing a national arts policy.

During the time between the founding of the republic and the New Deal, the arts lobby either did not succeed at putting support of the arts on the national agenda or did not seriously try. Beginning with F.D.R., however, the lobby became increasingly influential, and its influence grew apace during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It was under President Johnson that the lobby finally prevailed over any doubts concerning the role of the federal government in the field of artistic creativity. In 1965 the support of the arts had become, by legislative acts, a function of the American gov­ernment. The National Endowment for the Arts was created as the agency empowered to promote, and subsidize, the arts.

Three aspects of this story are particularly remarkable. First, the drive for federal support of the arts was masterminded by those who stood to gain from a national arts policy; the American public at large was mostly indifferent. Secondly, even though the influence of the arts lobby has eclipsed the "proper sphere of government" pre­scribed by the Constitution, the Reagan Adminis­tration thus far has shown little willingness to challenge its ascendancy, other than through bud­get cuts. A Task Force on the Arts and Humanities appointed by President Reagan in May 1981, Banfield notes, "wasted no time asking what was meant by 'the arts' or why government should subsidize them" (p. 91). Thirdly, public support of the arts was not proposed and enacted, as one might suppose, for the sake of art. Instead, justifications quite extraneous to the arts were advanced: Support of the arts, it was said, would contribute to the public welfare, alleviate the crisis of the cities, prevent vandalism, better the lot of the poor, increase the national prestige of the United States, and finally, offer the artist public recognition as "a first-class citizen . . . worthy of being taken as seriously as the scientist, the businessman or even the economist" (J. K. Galbraith, as quoted by Banfield, p. 55). If these are the reasons he should seek public funds, any artist attaching a certain dignity to his work might well prefer to decline public support.

"Art," as it is known since the Age of Enlight­enment, is "private" art, rooted in an "aesthetic" experience which is not a universal but a radically "subjective" experience. Being a "modern artist" means to disassociate oneself from the community of men, to oppose and shock society by one's "originality." Hence, contemporary art, by its very nature, negates any "public" notion of art. Or, in other words, there is no art that could be associated with the public interest; there are only as many "arts" as there are artists.

In a very subtle and stimulating chapter, Banfield discusses art in our age. He differentiates four principal modes of aesthetic experience: the ideational, the romantic, the transcendental, and the nihilist. He then examines the implications of these modes under several criteria: beauty, cognitive content, moral and political significance, art as play, fine and applied arts, nature of appeal, originality, and technical skill. Throughout the discussion he applies this framework of modes and criteria with great fairness, contemplating nihilistic art as seriously as the ideational, while attaching the highest degree of morality and public relevance to the latter. Yet Banfield must acknowledge that a great amount of what is presented as art today tends to provoke the question: But is it art? Thus, the next question arises: How can there be a national arts policy if no one can really know what its object is, given the largely idiosyncratic nature of contemporary art?

In the United States and other contemporary societies, "art" and "the public" meet under vari­ous institutional, economic, and social settings. The "art museum" is the most notable of these settings. Banfield does not go as far as George Santayana who described them as "mausoleums" where only "dead art" could be found. Yet, with a mixture of precise documentation and disarming irony, he demonstrates the astonishing evolution of museums into business enterprises that use the public interest in the arts as the source of their self-perpetuation.

Public schools, another setting where art and society are supposed to interpenetrate, are studied by Banfield with equal accuracy and disillusioning consequence. He concludes that public schools try to do what they cannot; namely, transform young people into "artists." At the same time, they fail to do what they should, transmitting a knowledge about the arts to their pupils.

Banfield also examines a contradiction between the public interest and private interests in discuss­ing the subject of "collecting" art. He emphasizes his intention not to criticize "those who collect art or anything else, whether for pleasure or profit. The point is that these nonaesthetic interests in the art market compete with the public interest in making the aesthetic experience of art more widely available and more frequent" (p. 143). The art world has succeeded in persuad­ing the rest of society to believe that only "original" art is truly art (although this idea of an "original" art is itself, as the history of forgeries shows, an illusion). Hence the average citizen has two choices: He can either buy "original" art (which he is usually incapable of doing or unwill­ing to do), or he can visit museums (where his enjoyment of art is considerably restricted). If he turns to "copies" or "imitations," he exposes himself to the ridicule of "art connoisseurs" and can, in addition, hardly expect to find any support on the part of the public. Banfield astutely criticizes what he calls "the double standard for music and the visual arts": "Many people would never dream of having a 'fake' Rembrandt on their walls, however high its quality, yet own and enjoy record sets of the Beethoven sympho­nies" (p. 151).

Banfield implicitly recognizes that in older, pre-modern societies the public interest (or the common good) and the "artistic" representation of the Social world were in greater harmony than in America today. He is well aware, that the people in medieval Europe, for instance, perceived the Gothic cathedrals as something quite different from modern, idiosyncratic art. They beheld the cathedrals as symbolic representations of their existence in a social cosmos that reflected the cosmos of the world. This coherence is gone, as we know all too well.

Even if the question-But is it art?-destroys any illusions about a national arts policy, the question-What is it that symbolically represents the American republic?-is still valid. Given the democratic nature of the American republic, any attempt to approach this question by a "policy" must necessarily fail. What represents America in the mode of "art" can only be known "histor­ically": by perceiving a work of art from the "past" and recognizing that it has acquired the status of an American symbol.