The Blight of Cultural Rights
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) The Art of Painting (ca. 1666) now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Even for Vermeer, it’s a remarkable painting. That delicate Dutch light he could capture better than anyone else softly filters through the artist’s studio. The model for Historia, her glance turned demurely across her left shoulder, faces the window. In her right hand she holds the trumpet of glory and in her left cradles the book of fame. The emblems of civilization--the mask of comedy, musical scores, a book of poetry--are broadcast across the table in front of her and on the wall hangs a map of the Netherlands, ripped like the country itself divided by faith. We’re not supposed to be here. We’ve sheaked in, unobserved, and pulling back the heavy drape
find ourselves about six paces behind the artist’s back, our breaths caught as he paints on his canvas the laurels of Historia’s crown. "The Art of Painting" is certainly one of the greatest works of the seventeenth century. Vermeer kept it with him his whole life and refused to sell it even when he was in debt. Hitler liked it too, and after convincing one of Vienna’s aristocratic families to sell it in 1940, kept it at his private quarters at Berchtesgaden. He had it there “on loan”, it was to be a prominent part of the art museum he was planning for his mother’s hometown of Lenz. In May, 1944, along with other valuables, it was sent for safety to the salt mine at Altaussee where U.S. troops found it at the war’s close.
Hitler's residence "Berghof" near Berchtesgaden, ca. 1940
That image—of der Führer in his alpine retreat, one hand lazily stroking a favorite dog, the other stirring tea, his eyes gazing up at the Vermeer and his mind contemplating the wonder of art, the kindness of his mother, and the bombing of London—is one I like to keep in mind when I hear the kind of looniness about art which Bill Ivey, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered to the National Press Club last December (2009). Ivey, a little over half way through his four year appointment, thought that things were going along pretty well. Congress had approved the agency’s first budget increase since 1992. He noted a growing access to “quality art and design” as evidenced by such things as Michael Graves and Martha Stewart designing stuff for Target and KMart. This process of cultural advancement now was “more fluid than perhaps at any time in the past half-century;” even construction workers in Ivey’s building were ordering double lattes. Ivey thought that the force of that flow might float the republic to the fulfillment of at least one of our founders’ highest goals. In 1780 John Adams wrote to Abigail from Paris that he must involve himself in politics and war in order that his sons might study mathematics,
philosophy and commerce so that his grandsons might have a right to study (in Adam’s words) “painting and poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Ivey seemed to suggest to his audience that such a “special stage in the evolution of American’s democratic dream,” or the point where the American culture was heavily focused upon the arts in all their variety, was just around the next bend. But we were not there yet. Even though the Clinton-Gore administration had left a firm foundation on which any future administration could build a “strong commitment to America’s cultural life,” there were still people who opposed the agency’s work (Jack Cushman, the President of the National Press Club, later quipped that he wondered if the congress could even spell NEA). Both to ward-off the country’s enemies of culture and to fortify nation’s commitment to its cultural heritage and creativity new efforts were required.
Bill Ivey, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 – 2001
So, inspired by Adams’ phrase “a right to study painting and poetry,” Ivey delivered to the representatives of the press “An American Bill of Rights for Culture.” They are (summarized):
1) the right to “fully explore America’s over-arching collective experience as it is embodied in music, literature, theater, painting and dance;” 2) the right to “make art, to become artist citizens”; 3) the right to “engage a healthy and valued community of creative artists;” 4) the right “to choose among a broad range of experiences and services . . . provided by a community of cultural organizations;” 5) the right “to an external representation of our nation’s expressive life that accurately conveys the complexity and diversity of America’s human and material artistic resources to the world;” 6) the right “to engage in art and art-making of the highest aesthetic quality. . . that embodies universal truths or art of quality that auditions the unique character of diverse nations and communities.”
These rights were “moral claims on the public conscience.” “Art, art-making, heritage and creativity” and had to be asserted by the government. Ivey argued that “we must advance a moral claim to a cultural agenda in order to enhance the lives of young citizens, strengthen communities, bridge the spiritual divide”[sic]. Wow. There’s so many horse feathers here that it’s hard to know where to begin mucking them out. His history is misleading (John Adams actually had very little use for the fine arts, believing them to be inevitably prostituted to “superstition and despotism”), his political science Jacobean (“Ah, bonjour Monsieur Citizen-Artiste!” “Bonjour Citizen-Plumber!), and his grammar opaque if not nonsensical (how do you “engage in art”? Wiggle through a painting?). But the biggie is that last one: The Spiritual Divide. Here we’re no longer dealing with just aesthetics or even politics. This is a moral issue of spiritual consequence. Move over Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Rev. Sun Yun Moon. Here comes the new and improved NEA bridging the spiritual divide through bureaucratic committee work. I can see it now. American civilization reaching its peak as hard-hats at construction sites sipping double lattes wonder why Ralph Lauren doesn’t come out with a nice chintz in his spring collection. John Adam’s vision of the Great American Experiment: Martha Stewart teaching us how to carve butternut squashes into little turkeys for our Thanksgiving tables. We can even export our Nirvana: Peace comes to the Middle East through supervised finger painting. It’s hard not to see Mr. Ivey’s points as some Monty Python sketch mischievously slipped into serious public discourse (although the Python gang would have mercifully telescoped the six points into three: 1) the right to look at and listen to really neat stuff; 2) the right to make stuff, and be just not a citizen-nobody but a stuff-making-citizen-somebody; 3) the right to have your stuff paid for and displayed as American stuff). And it would be tempting to let such silly notions slide as simply the well meaning but incoherent meanderings of a speaker a bit out of his depth. But nobody at the National Press Club laughed. These sensible people actually sat there and took all this seriously. And they were apparently unperturbed by the fact that someone who thought that drinking double lattes was actually of cultural significance not only might have access to the public purse but might also have something beneficial to say about morals and metaphysics. Yeikes. George Will didn’t much like the speech either. But it wasn’t the metaphysics which bothered him, instead it was Ivey’s radical egalitarianism which seemed to conflate handicraft with art, the trivial with the significant. Noting that the NEA had gone so far as to as to include dinner table arrangements and “playtime activities” as kinds of art (and thus eligible for grants) Will thought that one of the Bush administration’s first tasks should be to define just what “culture” was and wasn’t, and thus what was appropriate for government support. But that’s just the problem. Government support. The Blues and the Reds. That now famous USA Today county map of the United States split into Bush Reds and Gore Blues is one way of showing how divided the country is. The thoughtful seriousness of the National Press Club is another. Simply put, there is no national culture for the Bush administration to define or for the NEA to support. Instead there coexist several national cultures which are increasingly hostile to each other and between which there seems to be dwindling common ground.
Let me give you a specific example.
I am a composer and a church musician. I make my living teaching people about the mechanics of making music and have the privilege to offering music in worship. And as in the case with every artist, the portrait of who and what I am is presented most directly and intimately in the particular music I write myself, in my art—and where that art is performed. My art, at least my best art, is about Jesus; his love, his majesty, his sacrifice, the blinding radiance of his glory, the awful splendor of his grace. The light Jesus shines into the darkness of my heart (the Calvinist teaching of total depravity has always been to me the most self-evident of doctrines) is like those lightening bolts which rip apart western skies and before which the mountains cower. I think the scriptures are like that too. Just as when in Nehemiah the reading of the Law made the people weep and feast, so too do I think that the gospels call for terror and rejoicing, both and at the same time. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God, and joy beyond measure to find love there. I want my music to be like that--to be like the scriptures and those lightening bolts. To put it another way, I want it to be Gospel Music. This is not to say that my music is anything like what my fellow evangelicals would expect “Christian music” to be (from what they wrote of their expectations of Christian music, I suspect that both Francis Schaefer and Nicholas Woltersdorf would dislike it strongly). My music more than occasionally is “offensive.” It is more than sometimes highly dissonant and rhythmically disjointed. It is sometimes bizarre and often uncomfortable. If it does not quite shock, it unsettles. It can be frightening. It is sometimes angry. It is desperate. But my music is this way because I find the gospels compel me to write it this way; bizarre (like the kindness of a Samaritan is bizarre), uncomfortable (as an answer to a rich young ruler is uncomfortable), unsettling (as an empty tomb is unsettling), and frightening (as the presence of an angel is frightening). It is angry because I am angry at not being a better person than I am and angry because we believers are so prone to waste the gifts given to us. It is desperate for my only hope lies in but touching the hem of his garment. It is offensive, well because the whole gospel is offensive to those who believe themselves already whole. David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voh-nah-ROH-vitch) was born in 1954 in Redbank, New Jersey. He died from complications due to AIDS in 1992. He was an essayist and artist whose art was about being queer. For him, homosexuality (as one critic put it), was not an orientation but a way in which he was obliged to see the world. It was an “existential condition, a state of mind . . . a kind of moral insomnia that dictated how one lived a life.” His 1989 Sex Series (house) is typical of his work. The roughly yard by yard silver print shows a house and a water tower apparently assaulted by the winds of a tornado. Hanging above the house like a huge full moon is a bit of commercial pornography of two young men having sex.
David Wojnarowicz: Sex Series (house)
He explained himself: By missing variations of sexual expressions there is the attempt to dismantle the structures formed by category; all are affected by laws and policies. The spherical structures embedded in the series are about examination and surveillance. Looking through a microscope or looking through a telescope or the monitoring that takes place in looking through the lens of a set of binoculars. It’s about oppression or suppression. It’s about sexuality in this age of AIDS and the attempted suppression of sexuality. Are you comfortable looking at these images of obvious sexual acts in a crossed room. Do you fear judgment if you pause for a long time before the image of sexual expression? Can you sense absurdity or embrace in the viewing of images. . . I’m in the throes of facing my own mortality and in attempting to communicate what I’m experiencing or learning in order to try and help other I am effectively silenced. I am angry.
The same year as Sex Series he wrote an essay called “Postcards from America: X Rays from Hell.” Angry over the Cardinal O’Connnor’s resistance to teaching safe sex in New York public schools Wojnarowicz called O’Connor a “fat cannibal.” St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a fascist house of “walking swastikas,” and the cardinal, like all people in power who committed crimes against the people, worthy of the death penalty. Wojnarowicz repeated his accusations against the cardinal in the catalogue for a AIDS related exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. Because of political pressure from conservatives, John Frohnmayer, then chair of the NEA, revoked a $10,000 grant which the agency had given the project, but restored the grant after the New York art community protested his decision. When the American Family Association attacked Wojnarowicz’s exhibition Tongues of Flame, the artist took them to court, seeking damages for copyright violation, defamation of character, and violation of New York’s law prohibiting unauthorized alternation and dissemination of an artist’s work. Wojarnowicz won the case and a symbolic one dollar in damages.
His 1990 photo/essay “Untitled (One Day this Kid . . . ) was one of his last works.
David Wojnarowicz,Untitled (One Day This Kid ...),1990
Two artists. Two cultures. My viewpoint is Christian. Wojarnowicz’s was queer. I am minor member of a community of Christian artists which is itself part of a larger segment of American society for which traditional Christian values forms the core of its identity, or at least they say it does. Wojarnowicz was part of a community of gay artists which is part of a society for whom sexuality is the core of their existence and AIDS their defining holocaust. The writers I value are O’Conner, Lewis, Buechner, Percy. His models were writers too: Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet. I am an obscure artist --obscure because most artists are obscure—but also because artists are not particularly valued by the larger evangelical community. Wojarnowicz began painting graffiti on the Hudson docks west of Greenwich Village but became a recognized figure in the New York art scene and since his death has been elevated into something of a cultural icon. In 1999 the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York staged a major retrospective of his works and the New York Times bestowed its imprimatur upon the event by publishing a major review of the artist. Even the design house of Versace got on board, choosing works by Wojarnowicz to highlight their spring collection-displayed in huge windows facing St. Patrick’s Cathedral from across Fifth Avenue.
David Wojnarowicz and Michael Linton, ca. 1990
Which of us, Linton or Wojarnowicz, represents a legitimate national culture? Which of our works should receive support at taxpayer expense? When queer artists seek to have their art supported by government funds, putting together gallery exhibitions and concert performances of art which speaks of and to them, Christian conservatives typically cry foul, asking why they should be required to support art which they find profoundly objectionable. Yet should I request NEA support for a creative project, say for the composition of a cantata honoring the poverty and chastity of St. Theresa, and intend it to be performed where Christians have always thought they art best belonged, in church as part of the liturgy--would not the queer left be within its rights to voice the same objections? Why should New York’s virulently anti-Catholic gay community see any of their tax money spent on a project that would be so potentially objectionable to them? Certainly there can be no more justification for Barny Frank and Americans for whom he speaks to be required to support my artistic expression (and the expression of my culture) than there can be for Jesse Helms and those for whom he speaks to underwrite a Wojarnowicz catalogue. Our positions are extreme, mine and Wojarnowicz’s, but the breadth of our differences does testify to the very real divisions in American culture. Ivey is right in pointing out a “spiritual divide.” There is a chasm between my world and Wojarnowicz’s. But art does not bridge that chasm. Art defines it. Art marks its boundaries. By declaring who he is the artist simultaneously declares who he is not. And communities find an artist’s work meaningful because they find elements of themselves expressed in that art more eloquently than anywhere else. Communities cohere around kinds of artistic expression because those clusters help them separate themselves from others. When the folks at Versache put up Wojarnowicz’s work in their window facing St. Patrick’s they were in effect marking boundaries. WE are here. YOU are there. And HERE is the divide.
Versace, 645 5th Ave, New York City
The Bush administration can not define culture. In the present state of affairs it can only chose sides. There is no one American culture. There are now American cultures. There is my culture and Wojarnowicz’s. There is the culture of the folklorist who argues that the Tennessee basket weaver is as significant an artist as is the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. There is the opposing culture of the traditionalist who argues for the supremacy of unique works of art over the repetitive works of handicraft. There is the culture of the academic deconstructionist who writes that it’s all just a grab for power and that demands for “excellence” (whether made by a folklorist, or a basket weaver, or a conservatory professor) are really coded expressions of oppression based upon race, class, or sexual orientation. And then there is the culture of money. Things are good if they sell; things which do not, are not so much bad as irrelevant. It’s the money, stupid. The Blues and the Reds. And hundreds of shades of violets and purples in between. In every area of life, American culture is fractured; on family matters, on private morals and public policy, on the benefits of religion, on race, on ethnicity, on and on. And each faction has it’s own--and legitimate--pantheon of artists and their works. By granting support to one group the NEA simultaneously denies support to another, and by granting support the NEA in effect establishes that culture, if only for a moment, as the “legitimate expression” of America. Through its financial support the only thing the NEA can be confident of doing is defining divisions in our country and through that selective support exacerbating them. Instead of being a vehicle to “bridge the spiritual divide,” the NEA inevitably widens it. While it can be argued
that the agency might try to balance its grants, carefully giving equal amounts of support to opposing groups, such a policy would be an administrative nightmare, guaranteed only to swamp the government in a mire of contention. And even should that track be taken, the agency would be forced not to consider the artistic merit of an application but the community or class out of which it came. When Lyndon Johnson proposed the legislation that established the NEA in 1965, the then--and present--senator of South Carolina Strom Thurmond rose to challenge the bill. It was not within the perogratives of Congress to enact such legislation, he argued, and in any case the government subsidy would lead to the stifling of creativity and the institutionalization of mediocrity. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in Clinton’s first mid-term election, the right wing of the party vowed to close the NEA’s shop in revenge for the agency’s support of left wing projects. But Strom Thurmond lost the vote in 1965 and in 1995 the Republicans lost their nerve. Now it’s time. The Bush administration should introduce legislation to close the NEA. This would not be a move to destroy culture or an act of barbarism. Instead it would be a civilizing act, removing from the federal government one of its most contentious and fundamentally divisive agencies. No member of the radical queer left should find his involuntarily collected taxes used to support a work of art which attacks his chosen--and legal-life style. No Christian fundamentalist should be discomforted by finding that her government had supported a project which ridiculed the objects of her faith. No artist, neither me nor Wojarnowicz nor anyone else should be made to feel disenfranchised and marginalized by the establishment of a court patronage system and be forced to potentially misrepresent his art in order to curry governmental favor. And no government bureaucrat should be given the power of choosing for Americans what the nature of “American culture” is or is not going to be. Let us chose for ourselves. And let the country’s various societies support the arts which are most important to them. If after debate we still believe that we as a country should have some mechanism for encouraging the arts, then let it be through reduced taxation. In particular let the wealthiest among us, traditionally the most generous to the arts, keep much more of their wealth so that they may be generous to whom they chose. Our greatest cultural institutions are the gifts of individuals: the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gardner Museum, the Chicago Art Institute, the Getty, Winterthur. The greatest music of our composers; Ives’ Fourth Symphony, Copland’s Applachian Spring, Carter’s Piano Sonata, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Ellington’s Sacred Symphonies are the results of individual initiative, private philanthropy, or savey capitalism. Let private foundations, such as the sadly short lived ART MATTERS (which supported significant leftist and gay artists and projects) be the patrons of our country’s artists and arts organizations. But keep Washington out of the business of moderating culture, and even going to the ridiculous extreme of lecturing us on what our cultural rights are. I never met David Wojnarowicz. I wish I had. We must have passed each other sometime on the street; you pass everybody sometime on the street in that part of New York. I think I would have liked him greatly. He would have hated the fact that I admired Cardinal O’Connor and probably would have been incredulous that I thought sex should be disciplined by
obedience to scripture. But I think we would have understood each other. I think that we would understand what we both were up against: up against ourselves trying to be fully honest in our work in ways where we compromise elsewhere in our lives, up against traditions which hobble expression as well as expedite it, up against the fact that no matter what happens to us something compels us to create, that our art comes into existence not because it is paid for or admired or condemned but simply because it must be. Our art would not unite us. It would still proclaim the differences between us. Indeed, it would be the difference between us. But we would be united by our recognition that there was in the other much of ourselves and that somehow as artists we shared a common path. And that path might bring us to a time where we both found a bridge to a truly shared communion. Which brings us back to Vermeer and Hitler and the NEA. About the same time Vermeer was putting the finishing touches on “The Art of Painting,” Louis XIV was beginning the biggest federal building project Europe has seen since the Romans. He would spend the rest of his reign finishing it and stuffing it with art (we still don’t know how much it cost because Louis himself destroyed the accounts; he at least had a sense of shame). Today, for all its magnificence, it’s hard to walk through Versailles with a straight face. Ceilings painted with a very well worked-out Louis XIV as Apollo, or Mercury, or Mars, here in a chariot riding over the vanquished Dutch and Germans
Palace of Versailles, Hall of Apollo, Louis XIV as the Sun God
(beautiful Heildelberg still bears those scars), there bestowing the benefices of peace to a grateful Europe; so many acres of bloated hyperbole that one begs for the plain honesty of a striped wall paper. But while the palace culture did have a major impact upon the French
economy by establishing royal workshops for the manufacture of bronze and tapestry and other brick-a-brack, it apparently had almost no impact upon the finest art of the time. Louis was thirty-seven when Vermeer died in Delft. He never saw one painting by the greatest painter of the age nor did all his patronage produce one work comparable to the little canvases of the tavern keeper in Delft. The greatest artists--Vermeer, Watteau, Chardin--did not need Louis. Their art came into existence without him. Art made no “moral claims” upon the king. It never caused him to “cross the spiritual divide.” The most bountiful patron of the age was also its greatest butcher. The agony he inflicted upon the Calvinists of his own country, the Dutch of the lowlands, and the Germans of the Palatinate was never mitigated by some sense of compassion that might have come over him by looking at pictures. American artists do not need the NEA, just as Vermeer, Watteau, and Chardin did not need their royal patrons. What we must create we will create--and have created--without it. And Americans do not need the kind of politicians who might actually think that they had a duty to “advance a moral claim to a cultural agenda” by funding some kinds of art and letting others wither—whether those politicians are of the right or of the left. We’ve seen that kind of society before. It brings to mind Hitler, gazing at the Vermeer, thinking about London as his tea grows cold.
A shortened version of this essay appeared in First Things, June/July 2001