The preface to Lynne Munson’s new book is titled “The Art Wars.” An entirely understandable reader response at this point might be “here we go again.”
Munson has some good clean fun with the antics of various performance artists who have received NEA grants, juxtaposing creations that have a more lasting value with other, less Olympian testaments to the human creative spirit. The cover image of a man with a twelve-foot Italian sausage and a hula skirt made out of dollar bills comes readily to mind.
But fear not. Robert Mapplethorpe, Piss Christ, Jesse Helms, and the expressive powers of smeared chocolate make only very minor guest appearances in these pages. To her credit—and undoubtedly to most readers’ relief—Munson is not interested in rehashing the art war follies of recent years
Rather than merely piling on, Munson would rather explain how we got here.
To that end she takes us on two co-joined tours, one through the early days of the NEA, and another through the institutional art world of recent decades, with stops at a number of the nation’s most influential museums and arts education programs.
Munson’s criticism of the NEA does not emanate from a reflexive skepticism of government-sponsored art. Her beef is with bad government-sponsored art. And she places the blame for such art squarely on the shoulders of a generation of academics and arts bureaucrats.
Munson’s principal device for teasing out the baleful developments in the Endowment is to contrast the artists considered by the NEA’s Visual Arts Panel in 1967 with those who were awarded visual arts fellowships in 1995.
By presenting the works of the older group, she makes the case that many of these artists’ works have stood the test of time, and that there was reason to believe at the time that these were artists of enduring quality. (Looking back to 1967 also makes the point that the NEA can do things right.)
The works of the 1995 winners, by contrast, are largely ephemeral. For all too many artists, Munson observes, “visual considerations do not play a significant role in defining their work.. . . Typically, these artists substitute cleverness for visual interest.”
All very well, but as the title suggests, what Munson is really interested in is “exhibitionism,” and it is to this topic that she returns, dismissing the notion that it has always been the “duty of avant-garde artists to shock the public and to challenge social norms.” Even if it were, “a brief survey of early modernist accomplishments suggests that the comparison does not flatter post-modernists.”
Munson also exposes the claim that the “shocking” artist stands outside the glass tower of the Establishment, hurling Truth. No, the “shocking” artist is the Establishment, sipping the best wine with the wealthiest and most influential patrons. In this regard, she does a good job of debunking the false elision of “what is shocking” with “what is art.”
Early in the book Munson recounts the experience of being asked to appear on a panel sponsored by the Creative Coalition, an arts advocacy group founded by, among others, outspoken actor/artist/activist Alec Baldwin. The panel was being convened for a public discussion on the arts gotterdammerung of the moment, the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibit, famous mostly for its elephant-dung smeared Madonna.
The designated “conservative” on the six-person panel, a representative from a Christian group, had dropped out, and the Creative Coalition folks wondered whether Munson would agree to fill in. Well, she said, she had some views on the subject: the professionalism of the process of selecting who would be featured in the exhibit, the irresponsibility of the museum’s leadership, and the cheesiness of the museum’s marketing campaign for the exhibit.
Apparently disappointed that Munson was going to talk about actual museum and arts issues rather than serve as a knuckle-dragging straw man, the Coalition said thanks but no thanks and found someone else to fill the slot. Munson concluded that the Coalition was far more interested in creating “fireworks” than “discourse.” With this book, Munson sensibly seeks to do just the opposite.
Tom Riley is associate editor of Philanthropy.