Book Review

Hartman On Blake

Review of Casey Nelson Blake, ed., The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). ISBN-13: 978-0-8122-4029-0. 361 pages.

Review by Andrew Hartman
Illinois State University
July 2010

“At stake in every struggle over art there is also the imposition of an art of living, that is, the transmutation of an arbitrary way of living into the legitimate way of life which casts every other way of living into arbitrariness.” Pierre Bourdieu

In what Patrick Buchanan described as a “dramatic understatement,” Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address included a simple critique of artists and other cultural producers. “For those who create the popular culture,” Reagan lamented, “patriotism is no longer in style.” Buchanan was more explicit: “America’s art and culture are, more and more, openly anti-Christian, anti-American, nihilistic.” The culture had not lived up to the conservative promise of what Sidney Blumenthal termed “Reaganism and the neokitsch aesthetic,” a nostalgic rendering of 1950s America, when John Wayne and Ward Cleaver were models for all things decent. Instead, the 1980s gave us Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrayed, in Reverend Donald Wildmon’s contemptuous words, a “weak, insecure, mentally deranged Jesus.” It also gave us Andres Serrano’s seemingly blasphemous Piss Christ—literally a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s urine—and Robert Mapplethorpe’s highly stylized, homoerotic black-and-white photography. “While the right has been busy winning primaries and elections,” Buchanan wrote in 1989, “the left has been quietly seizing the commanding heights of American art and culture.”

The anxious commentary by conservatives like Reagan, Buchanan, and Wildmon was less proof of leftist cultural hegemony than of the culture wars, or the “fragmentation of public experience,” which, in the words of Casey Nelson Blake, “represents Americans’ multiple visions of a good life in ways that rule out the very possibility of a common conversation between citizens” (5). Blake, a professor of history at Columbia University, is the editor of The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State, a compelling and useful anthology of essays that addresses “the often contradictory impulses that have shaped the relationship between the arts and public life in modern America” (2). Along with the rest of the Penn Press series, “The Arts and Intellectual Life In Modern America,” which Blake also edits, The Arts of Democracy seeks to place expressive culture in dialog with ideas. (See Tim Lacy’s review of another book in this series, Richard Cándida Smith’s The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century. Also see Lacy’s interview of Smith.) Blake and the other contributors to this anthology largely succeed in their mission to connect art to a broader intellectual context, especially insofar as they relate art to political culture.

In Blake’s introduction, three types of response to the September 11, 2001 attacks nicely illustrate how art interacts with public culture and the state. First, the avalanche of artistic expression in New York City following the hateful demolition of the World Trade Center reminds us that humans long for symbolic representation, especially in their darkest hour. Second, efforts on the part of authorities to channel this artistic outpouring exemplify how cultural politics are transposed onto politics writ large, or, how the state seeks to control the cultivation of its citizen-subjects. And third, the eventual battle over the meaning of September 11 demonstrates that in postmodern America, there can be no common conversation, even about a collective trauma. “By the time of the fourth anniversary of the attacks,” Blake writes, “the familiar dynamic of the cultural wars had extinguished any hope for the rebuilt World Trade Center as an open, public space. Conservative relatives of the victims and their political and media allies mobilized to banish a proposed ‘Freedom Center’ for the site on the grounds that it might dishonor the dead” (2).

Although battles over September 11 representations work well as an introduction to a book on art and politics, the culture wars of the previous two decades seem to weigh more heavily on The Arts of Democracy. Michael Kammen’s chapter, “Culture and the State in America,” a revised edition of his well-known 1996 Journal of American History article, is a case in point. He introduces his chapter by referencing the highly publicized 1980s and 1990s shouting matches over art, including the fierce legislative attack on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) budget, which stemmed from conservative disgust over NEA money that subsidized Serrano and Mapplethorpe. Kammen’s chapter seeks to place the intellectual and political history of the NEA, created in 1965 as part of Lyndon’s Johnson’s Great Society, in a context that predates the culture wars—in a time before 1995, when Newt Gingrich suggested in Time magazine that “removing cultural funding from the federal budget ultimately will improve the arts and the country.” Kammen, then, is cognizant of an important historical shift in how the NEA was perceived by various people. He writes: “We tend to forget that in 1964-65, when the NEA was being hesitantly created, some of the most prestigious artists, art critics, and arts institutions felt suspicious of politicians and believed that they had more to lose than to gain from any involvement in the political process. Three decades later, that pattern of mistrust has been turned inside out. Now it is numerous politicians who regard artists and arts organizations as tainted and unreliable” (71).

Similarly, in an essay titled, “A Modernist Vision: The Origins and Early Years of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Visual Arts Program,” Donna Binkiewicz historicizes the aesthetic preferences of the NEA, always political, to demonstrate that typical understandings of the NEA, rooted in the culture wars narratives, lack historical depth. In other words, the NEA did not always support the avant-garde, or what Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the endowment’s fiercest political critic, described as “gross, vulgar, and offensive” art. Rather, Binkiewicz details the ways in which the early NEA was a product of Cold War liberalism, as opposed to “the radical avant-garde façade that conservatives like Jesse Helms plastered upon it during the 1990s” (171). The early NEA funded modernist styles that, far from avant-garde, had long been acceptable to mainstream consumers of art. It also endowed art thought devoid of political meaning, which ran against the grain of the more innovative visual art of that era. “While American visual art in the 1960s embraced pop, minimalism, performance, feminist, black, and Chicano arts that were more critical of American society,” Binkiewicz writes, “federal art support continued to favor older modernist forms. NEA grants tilted especially toward abstract expressionist and color field artists, who had risen to dominate the art world in the 1950s and whose works were seen as the best representation of American freedom during the Cold War” (172). The Johnson administration blocked artists it considered too political from joining the National Council on the Arts, including critic Susan Sontag, outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and painter Ben Shahn, creator of social realist pieces such as The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931-32. In short, the history of the NEA demonstrates that earlier struggles over art and federal largesse were between Cold War liberals and cultural leftists, a division that seemingly died out when culture war divisions between secular liberals and traditionalist conservatives became paramount.

Rather than analyzing the more distant history of political struggle over art, Paul DiMaggio and Bethany Bryson, in their contribution titled, “Public Attitudes toward Cultural Authority and Cultural Diversity in Higher Education and the Arts,” mine more recent poll data to unmask the conventional culture wars wisdom as false. Specifically, DiMaggio and Bryson rely upon a 1993 opinion survey about attitudes towards the arts and education. Whereas conservatives like Allan Bloom and Roger Kimball argued that college made students more relativistic, and thus less likely to support traditional or high cultural forms such as the canon and fine art, the survey indicated that college graduates had more respect for high culture than non-college graduates. However, the survey also suggested that college graduates were likelier to support multiculturalism, which, in the minds of DiMaggio and Bryson, is evidence that the bifurcation between traditional and multicultural education is a false one. Although this is an important conclusion to draw, the authors then extrapolate from it to make the dubious claim that “if there was a culture war in progress, clearly most of the population had not enlisted on either side” (255). This form of analysis is common among sociologists and political scientists such as Alan Wolfe and Morris Fiorina, who too frequently put a narrow type of empiricism to work to dismiss the culture wars as the over-hyped preoccupation of the political class and the media. Such a characterization amounts to truism: elite actors generally defined or redefined the boundaries of most national political discourse. To DiMaggio and Bryson’s credit, they do not entirely write off cultural conflict as mere hype. Rather, they claim that the poll data “suggests that explanations for conflict over education and the arts must be sought not in the structure of public opinion but in the specific institutional features of these fields and in the strategies and tactics of mobilized social movements” (263). This is a wise suggestion as far as it goes. But institutional history alone will not clarify the large degree to which intellectual discourse was shaped by the culture wars, and why so many Americans consumed culture war controversies.

An alternative way to conceptualize cultural controversy is through an analysis of the fragmentations and hybrid forms that accompanied the shift from modernism to postmodernism, another of the central threads that tie the chapters of The Arts of Democracy together. In one of my favorite essays of the anthology, Michele Bogart’s “Norman Rockwell, Public Artist” demonstrates that the boundaries between modernism and postmodernism were blurred even at the height of the former. Such porosity, though, goes unnoticed, largely because art historians tend to focus their scholarly lenses on modernist art that they consider “good”—“abstract, politically progressive, and vigorously noncommercial” (33). By rethinking Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre, long criticized as “inauthentic, commercial kitsch,” Bogart seeks to reclaim Rockwell as an artist who anticipated the postmodern crossover between public and private. Bogart’s Rockwell, in other words, was more correct than his critics in his assertion “that commercial and fine art were integrally connected in twentieth-century America” (47). According to Bogart, Rockwell consciously used paintings such as The Connoisseur (1962), a depiction of a man facing an abstract expressionist painting, to point out that “boundaries asserted firmly by cosmopolitan critics were… arbitrary, narrow-minded, and elitist” (49), anticipating the more conscious postmodern turn of artists like Andy Warhol.

Penny Von Eschen’s piece, “The Goodwill Ambassador: Duke Ellington and Black Worldliness,” also documents how one artist defied modern boundaries. Von Eschen contends that Duke Ellington’s views of the world, and of his music in particular, were largely shaped by his relentless touring around the globe at the behest of the State Department—tours that “represented the international arm of what Casey Blake has described as a distinctly modern moment in American art that was self-consciously tied to definitions of Cold War freedom” (152). That said, although Ellington believed in the purposes of the American Cold War, he resisted official State Department narratives about “jazz,” rejecting the word itself as too American-centric. When lecturing to overseas audiences, Ellington described his music as international, hybrid, even pan-African, a framework Von Eschen labels a “black counterculture of modernity,” borrowing a phrase from Paul Gilroy. In this vein, Von Eschen concludes that, although the culture-as-diplomacy tactic smacked of imperialism, “to export American culture was to inevitably export its hybridity, its complexities, its tensions and contradictions” (167). In other words, the State Department got more than it bargained for.

Casey Nelson Blake’s own contribution, “Between Civics and Politics: The Modernist Moment in Federal Public Art,” explores the era sandwiched between Alexander Calder’s sculpture La Grande Vitesse, installed in Grand Rapids in 1969, and the 1989 dismantling of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in Manhattan—two decades that “mark the modernist moment in federally funded public art” (200). La Grande Vitesse was the first work funded by the Art in Public Places program of the NEA and, although it was not without its critics, most Grand Rapids residents celebrated it as a monument to civic pride. On the other hand, Tilted Arc, also built with public funds, was removed from Federal Plaza after eight years of protests and lawsuits. Various reasons were given as to why people wanted Serra’s sculpture removed, but none as satisfying as Blake’s historical explanation. “The unraveling of that modernist project for public art, so soon after its inception,” Blake writes, “reminds us that the transition from artistic modernism to postmodernism was not simply a shift in taste or aesthetic style. Rather, the crisis of modernist art in public spaces was intimately related to the crisis of the Kennedy-era liberalism that inspired it. Controversies over public art reveal that the movement from modernism to postmodernism was a thoroughly political process, shaped by deep conflicts over power and the structure of public life” (201). How did this work? Blake relates the dissatisfaction with public art installations to the dissatisfaction with urban liberalism, which crumbled under the weight of fiscal crisis and the failed promise of renewal. “Public art,” he argues, “invited attack as the most visible manifestation of the liberal state in urban spaces” (208).

Blake concludes that liberal modernism should be reevaluated as a flawed attempt to democratize art in public space. In framing art in negative terms—in opposition to Soviet totalitarianism—rather than as something the government should positively seek to construct, liberal modernism accentuated a privatized vision of art. “This was a recipe for public art without public purposes,” Blake contends, “an art created for a nation of private individuals” (203). In other words, liberal modernism sowed the seeds of its own demise. This then created a vacuum that conservatives proved successful at filling, illustrated by the popularity of the patriotic imagery of neo-traditionalism, such as Nizette Brennan’s Knoxville Flag. Neo-traditional art, an updated version of the Reagan era “neokitsch aesthetic,” articulates collective meaning in a time mostly devoid of it. The challenge, then, is to create an alternative to this conservative vision of the world, to build a public, democratic art that speaks in purposeful ways to our collective desires for peace and justice. At least, that’s the message I take from this excellent anthology.

[Editor’s note: Click here for the permanent link to this review.]

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dear Andrew–Very good review of what is obviously a very interesting book. You use “totalitarianism” at the end. Is this just ass covering or do you now think it is a useful concept? I wish there was a concept like “semi-popular authoritarianism.” If we spoke German, someone would make up a word like that. Leo

  2. Leo: I should have used the mock quotation marks, as you did, for “totalitarianism,” since I was channeling cold war liberalism in that instance. I find it a useless concept. We should start a petition for the Germans to invent a word for “semi-popular authoritarianism.” I love German words for complex ideas. My favorite is schadenfreude. Thanks for reading. AH

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