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Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2001 / 3 Shevat, 5761

George Will

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'Art' Unburdened by Excellence -- BILL IVEY, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently looked upon the cultural scene and found it wonderful. In a December speech calling for "an American Cultural Bill of Rights, " he said:

"Signs of increased access to quality art and design are all around us. Michael Graves designs dishware for Target Stores. Martha Stewart crafts designer elements for Kmart. Hard-hatted workers in the Endowment's office building order double lattes."

Well. Working backward through that remarkable thought, note that the argument about government's cultural responsibilities has come to this: A double latte -- surely a single, too -- is an example of "quality art and design," on a par, presumably, with those Kmart "designer elements" and the Target dishware.

Given Ivey's eagerness to be egalitarian, it would be churlish to dwell on the patronizing tone of the government's leading patron of the arts as he congratulates hard hats for their upscale coffee choices. In his speech Ivey praises the "uncoupling of culture and social class" and "the unbundling of taste and class" and "art, art making and cultural heritage less burdened by associations of social class." Which is all very well, unless this uncoupling, unbundling and unburdening is achieved merely by condescension -- by praising the lower orders for ordering a double latte. That is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Ivey establishes his egalitarian credentials by stressing the word that denotes a "democratic" sensibility regarding cultural policy: "access." One way to make art accessible to all is to conflate "art" and "design" and almost any other expressive activity. This semantic sleight-of-hand guarantees that access to "art" will be no more exclusive or demanding than is ordering at Starbucks or shopping at Target.

It is not mere coincidence that both Ivey, former head of the Country Music Foundation, and the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Ferris, are folklorists. Talk about a capacious category -- what cannot be swept into the domain of "folklore"? Three years ago the NEA endorsed the idea that "art includes the expressive behaviors of ordinary people," including "dinner-table arrangements" and "playtime activities" and "work practices." That is, everything.

This, and the consequent policy of spreading funding far and wide, resonates with Congress, which last year rewarded the NEA with its first increase in appropriations since 1992. Legislators are utilitarians, and in his speech Ivey gave art, very broadly defined, a comparably broad range of utilitarian justifications. He said "evidence has accumulated," in "education, juvenile justice and brain research," of the "importance" of art to "early childhood education," to the "economic strength" of "a high-tech economy" and to "civically valuable dispositions" and "rebuilding America's sense of community and connectedness." And, of course, to "diversity" and "self-esteem."

Indulging in rights-talk, the vernacular of contemporary Washington, Ivey says a "cultural bill of rights" should include, among much else, "the right of Americans to make art, to become artist citizens." No problem: The "democratic" spirit, full of animus against "elitism," produces this exquisitely circular reasoning: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is anyone who produces art. So the word "art" has become a classification that no longer classifies, there being nothing it excludes. How perfect, now that "inclusive" is the day's ultimate accolade because it is an antonym of "judgmental."

With the jargon-clotted prose of the auto-intoxicated faux-intellectual, Ivey asks, "Do we want to possess a confidence that the rich cultural matrix of our nation is appropriately auditioned for the world?" Actually, we want to rescue cultural policy from people who talk like that.

Ivey is 2 1/2 years through a four-year term. Ferris's term expires in November. George Bush has decisions to make -- ideally, with the help of the vice president's wife. Culture is an incubator of character, so Bush's concern about the latter should cause him to consult on the former with Lynne Cheney, who chaired the NEH from 1986 to 1992, then wrote a wonderful book, "Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense -- and What We Can Do About It."

What government should do first is define culture, for policy purposes, the way critic Allen Tate did, as "the study of perfection, and the constant effort to achieve it." The question, unanswered 36 years after the endowments were created, is whether this democracy is capable of a cultural policy unapologetically oriented toward excellence. Neither the studying nor the achieving of that is something to which everyone has equal "access."

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