TESTIFYING BEFORE CONGRESS in February, a few months before his tragic riding accident, Christopher Reeve told members of a Senate committee that their obligation to the National Endowment for the Arts is to hand over the cash and ask no questions.
"When you give an artist money to go and create," the actor said in answer to a query from Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), "you do not have the expectation or the right to expect certain results. It is a statement of trust."
Gorton was amazed. You mean to say, he asked, that the government should provide a subsidy for artists without inquiring into how it is being spent?
Reeve: "Yes, I think the money should be given to artists who are deemed worthy of support; but I also think that the system . . . must have a very strict mandate of accountability to the highest standards."
Gorton: "Excuse me. Who is going to set those standards?"
Reeve: "I think that the chairman and the Endowment itself must work with a definition of art. . . ."
Gorton: "But who makes this definition -- the . . . Endowment, or this Congress?"
Reeve: "There has to be trust reposed in an artist of the caliber, say, of Jane Alexander" -- the NEA chairwoman -- "and the people at that Endowment."
Gorton: "So it is up to us to give the money, but not to set the standards?"
Reeve: "It is up to you to give the money and -- yes, as a matter of fact, if you come right down to it -- "
At which point, clearly antagonized, the senator got up and left. Reeve continued. "Artists decide about art," he said. "Artists should be making decisions about what art gets money -- not politicians."
Reeve couldn't have turned in a more arrogant performance if he'd rehearsed for six months. But who needed to rehearse? What he said is exactly what he and the NEA's arts claque fervently believe: Not only are they are entitled to taxpayers' money, but they -- and only they -- are entitled to decide how to spend it. Their judgment, they so modestly like to point out, is the best. For an artist to get an NEA subsidy, or have his grant application approved by one of the endowment's peer-review panels, is to be officially certified "Grade A" by the highest authority of all: themselves.
"The peer panel review system," declaimed the Boston Ballet's artistic director, Bruce Marks, in a recent TV debate, "is a marvel of fairness, a marvel of self-examination. . . . These are people deeply, deeply concerned about the arts." The great thing about NEA grants, said Marks, who has received several, is that "you can take them out there in public and say: 'My peers believe in me; my government agency has funded me.' "
What critics of the NEA don't realize, laments Barbara Grossman, a member of the National Council on the Arts (the endowment's key decision-making body), is how darn superb the NEA arts commissars are. These are "people who are arts professionals, arts activists, practicing artists, arts lovers," she says.
Arts insiders, in other words. Members of the Club. And who better to judge which art deserves government funding, who better to brandish the national seal of approval, than the Beautiful People themselves? "The value of a federal arts agency," New York Times columnist Frank Rich has written, "is to set a national standard for excellence."
On the contrary. Rarely does the arts establishment recognize the great art of its time. In 1863, the French Academy -- the NEA of that era -- refused to let a group of artists who didn't meet its "national standard for excellence" display their paintings at its annual exhibition, the Salon. The upstarts -- a group of fellows named Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro, Whistler and Sisley -- mounted a separate exhibition of the rejected works (a Salon des Refusés). Today their paintings, masterpieces of European art, are among the world's most beloved.
Time and again, the elites of the "arts community" have been oblivious to the great artistic revolutions taking place around them. "In the visual arts, they denounced lithography and barred museum doors to photographers," notes scholar Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her lively new book Art Lessons. "In music they bedeviled Wagner and Mahler while attempting to lock the concert hall on Gershwin and Ellington. In drama they defended theater against film; when film survived, they deemed silents more artistic than talkies. . . . These pundits habitually dismissed whatever attracted mass audiences or achieved commercial success until it had passed into history. . . ."
The NEA's notion of itself as the keeper of America's artistic flame, the guarantor of our cultural vitality, is sanctimonious blather. No federal agency sustains the creative spirit; none ever will. Tens of thousands of artists lining up, palms outstretched, while government-picked panels render verdicts on their poetry, painting or drama -- the whole spectacle makes a mockery of the very idea of great art.
The NEA was a mistake from the outset. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right. "Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature," he wrote. "It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)