Radical: A Government Arts Agency Promotes Quality!

Photo by Tom Giebel — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The U.S. might be trying to renew quiet diplomacy, but fortunately one of its leaders won’t be quiet.

Rocco Landesman, the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, has provided the press with energetic quotes and has lit a fire under the arts community. In Landesman’s latest round of interviews, he put forth his goal: above all other factors, the government should promote quality art.

Who could argue with that? Well, believe it or not, plenty have.

For too long, government funding for the arts has been more about equality of distribution, community representation, and the no-wave theory of creation. If everyone gets a little, all they can agitate for is more. If no one is offended, then no one needs to fear a backlash and a smaller pie.

This way of operating a government agency is sweet, nice and fair. However, as Landesman pointed out to Variety last week, “Washington isn’t about fair.”

Landesman’s approach appears to ignore political correctness and embrace provocation: “We’ll be a strong, aggressive and unapologetic NEA.”

Although he only has $155 million to spend, Landesman hopes to double the budget. He also hopes to renew funding for individual artists, even though the “NEA 4” almost brought the agency down and helped fuel America’s culture wars.

Landesman believes his ace in the hole is the artist-in-chief. Of his boss, Landesman notes, “He’s the first real writer in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first really good writer since Lincoln. That’s a very significant thing.”

Can Landesman pull it off? Can he get the agency to live up to its new slogan, “Art Works”? Every artist and artistic movement needs someone who can put the work in context and help garner support. The arts succeed — in education, in the community, in the marketplace, and in importance — only through leadership.

Here’s hoping Landesman follows the advice of Leonard Garment, an éminence grise of arts advocates: “It’s the essence of the artist to be provocative, and to avoid straight lines in favor of curves.”

It will be good news for the arts in America if the NEA throws a few curves.

- Bill Reichblum

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