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Great art doesn't need the NEA

By Steven Fantina
web posted February 9, 2004

With its majestic cinematography accentuated by a stirring score, The Sound of Music is a beatific film. Casablanca also inspires the soul. Six decades after it first graced movie screens, viewers remain enthralled watching it. Star Wars' intergalactic tale of Good vs. Evil brilliantly put on celluloid has taken its place near the top of any classics listing.

Numerous other movies are equally memorable as more than just satisfying diversions. The Wizard of Oz, It Happened One Night, and Rain Man, are among those that can rightly be categorized as fine art.

Television has not falsely been termed a vast wasteland, but even in the barren desert an occasional oasis is found. The legacies of Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and a handful of others prove comedy as an art form makes the human spirit soar. We still benefit from laughing at their contributions.

South Dakota may not a tourist mecca. The bucolic, sparsely-populated state has no beaches or major cities, but one attraction Mt. Rushmore beckons millions from all over the world and edifies all who see it. Gutzon Borglum touched American hearts in his reverent depiction of four great men from our history. Yet even those who never heard the names Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt would be awed by the carved mastery. Great art is similarly evidenced in a plethora of other sculptures throughout our land.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler's portrait of his mother entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black but commonly referred to as Whistler's Mother is just one of enumerable sublime paintings that show America's contribution to the field is second to no other country.

Sarah Vaughn
Sarah Vaughn

Via the magic of compact discs we can still hear Arthur Fielder conducting the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra every Fourth of July. Although the masters are long gone, masterpieces remain to enhance us all. Lionel Hampton's phraseology, Sarah Vaughn's scat singing, and Louis Armstrong trumpet flourishes represent the American-born art of jazz. Jimmie Rodgers' yodels, Hank Williams' haunting voice, and Johnny Cash's unaffected celebration of the common man bespeak the southern counterpart, Country Music. Bill Monroe's seminal picking gave birth to country's cousin -- bluegrass. All three genres aesthetically tell a story that is proudly American.

Anne Bradstreet composed her transporting poetry nearly 350 years ago, and every generation of Americans is better for reading it. Her oeuvre inspired Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Langston Hughes, and legions of their colleagues whose rhyming words live on, and continue to ring out across the land. Nathaniel Hawthorne gave us The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville bestowed Moby Dick, F. Scott Fitzgerald created The Great Gatsby, and like other expert novelists they elevated the culture with their timeless narratives.

The intricacies of great motion pictures, the visual splendor of sculptor and painting, the risible joy from comic geniuses, the enrichment of good literature, and the gladsome harmonies of exhilarating music demonstrate the transcending power of true art. Interestingly all of the works cited above somehow managed to come into existence without any help from the National Endowment for the Arts.

None used fecal matter, blood, or pornographic depictions to bring out their radiance.Not one of the players who produced such memorable labors ever filled out bureaucratic paperwork or indignantly harrumphed about artistic freedom while bilking the US taxpayer. All successfully created a lasting impression rather than gaining fifteen of minutes of the level of fame appropriate for realty show contestants.

Under Dana Gioia's tutelage the NEA has retreated from the shocking schlock that has characterized much of its tenure, but President George W. Bush's decision to increase funding for the constitutionally suspect quango does not bode well for artistic triumph. It sadly foretells an escalation of bland boorishness. Even without Karen Finley smearing her nude body in chocolate, or Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of scatological grotesqueries (both previous grant recipients), the NEA -- if it develops the best of intentions -- is not likely to give us another Gone With the Wind or fund the next Irving Berlin as he pens the 21st century's version of God Bless America. Recent endeavors have brought Shakespearian plays to remote parts of the country and military bases (debatably not the cure for homesick GIs' longings), but alas government regulations interfere with artistic accomplishment and individual freedom--phrases the exhibitionists so arrogantly proclaim while collecting their generous subsidies.

Also politics does and will play a role in NEA grants. With the dawning of the next liberal administration, we'll likely see a return to phallic-obsessed, boundary-stretching stunts. While the NEA is unlikely to give us another Marian Anderson or George M. Cohen, it may very well elicit a future Janet Jackson or Justin Timberlake.

(c) 2004 Steven Fantina.

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  • The singular Mr. Gioia: A poet helms the NEA by Robert Bové (November 10, 2003)
    Dana Gioia is the newly named chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a poet. Robert Bové examines some of the ideas the former vice president for marketing at General Foods will be bringing to bear in his new job
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