The Great Society at 50: Lyndon B. Johnson’s cultural vision mirrored his domestic one

Music served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Bob Santelli of the Grammy Museum explains music’s role in social change, then and now. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

On May 22, 1964, in a University of Michigan graduation speech filled with references to excellence, inspiration and enrichment, Lyndon B. Johnson interspersed the word “beauty” or “beautiful” five times. It was not the first mention of the term “Great Society” — the phrase had been used as the title of a commission report on the humanities five years earlier. But more powerfully than anything Johnson had said before, it connected the quality of American intellectual, aesthetic and artistic life with the basic aspirations of a prosperous, democratic nation.

Today, it’s easy to read the Great Society speech as generic political boilerplate. And most Americans, whether they admire or loathe Johnson, don’t remember him as a man preoccupied with art, culture or Aristotle’s ideal of man as a social being. He has come down to us as a collection of caricatures: the legislative sausage-maker, the men’s-room multi-tasker, the Rabelaisian figure delivered up by dozens of biographies and memoirs. His personal fund of metaphor and imagery came from the barnyard, not Parnassus, and so it’s a shock, 50 years later, to rediscover the halcyon Johnsonian rhetoric, so fresh, so idealistic, so impractical.

The trauma of Vietnam, images of the embittered and almost broken Johnson who dropped out of the political battle in 1968, and ongoing rancor about the economic and social costs of the Great Society have mostly erased memories of this lofty language. But it wasn’t uncharacteristic. During the 1964 election, which brought him an overwhelming congressional majority and legitimized his rise to the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Johnson published a slim volume called “My Hope for America,” filled with similar inspirational nuggets. The Great Society, he averred, “serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” It was a campaign document, and critics — especially those still mourning Camelot — savaged it. Murray Kempton thought it vulgar, false and badly written, sneering in the New York Review of Books, “To read him then is to pick through the racks of a dealer in second-hand national pieties.”

And yet, as we assess Johnson’s legacy, there is a surprising coherence to his cultural vision. He didn’t create the cultural infrastructure we know today, which is for the most part privately funded, intensely local and hugely diverse in ambition and resources. Nor did he initiate many of the ideas, programs and institutions that now define how Americans experience art and understand culture. But it was under his administration that the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the American Film Institute, the Hirshhorn and Renwick museums at the Smithsonian, and a host of other agencies and organizations were created or set on the path to fruition. The pieties may have been second-hand — Dwight Eisenhower and Kennedy laid much of the groundwork for the Great Society cultural program — but it was Johnson who helped realize them in legislation.

Equal access to excellence

There is still little agreement whether any or all of this was a good idea — whether the government should be involved in delivering ideas and beauty to the people, whether it is an effective system or a ridiculously cumbersome one. But in the extraordinarily active 89th Congress, which began in 1965, Johnson did something unprecedented in American history: He put art, culture and beauty on the same footing as roads, rights, commerce and security. If you want to understand Johnson’s cultural agenda, you have to see it not as an appendage but integrally related to the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The calculated brilliance of the Johnson cultural legacy is how closely it mirrors his other legislative priorities. The NEA, the NEH, the networks that bring us “Sesame Street” and “All Things Considered” were essentially a vast transportation bill meant to convey Americans through a moral, intellectual and aesthetic landscape.

Which programs worked, and which didn’t?

“I think that President Johnson believed that the human experience needed to be nourished by face-to-face engagement and by bringing together people of different backgrounds and different races,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which has played a major role in guiding and supporting the essential pieces of Johnson’s cultural program over the past ­half-century.

Johnson’s rhetoric affirms that. Again and again, the 36th president returned to a basic trope of encounter — that if Americans could see what was on the other side of the tracks or the other side of the country, once intractable problems would disappear. In Joseph A. Califano Jr.’s memoir of his time as Johnson’s top domestic aide, “The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson,” he remembers his boss saying: “You know the way to do something about Harlem? Make these rich Wall Street bankers drive through Harlem to and from work every day so they see the poverty instead of riding on an air-conditioned train drinking martinis and talking to each other about how much money they make.” Johnson offered the same solution to urban pollution: “Make the auto company executives and their wives ride around Detroit in non-air-conditioned cars during the summer,” Califano remembers him saying. “Then, they’ll damn well solve the problem.”

His ethical understanding of America was based on two essentially aesthetic, even artistic, ideas: discovery and epiphany. If Americans could be made to see the problems, they would by natural, reflexive impulse set out to solve them. But first, they had to see them firsthand. They needed knowledge of each other, and they needed equal access to the tools of encounter, whether that was art, music or documentary film.

“They are very much part of a related package,” says Paula Kerger, speaking of agencies such as the NEA and the one she runs as president and chief executive, PBS. “If you look at the NEA and PBS together for a second,” she says, one of the goals was “to bring art and knowledge into every corner of the country.”

Or as Califano said in a recent interview, Johnson’s cultural legislation “was kind of analogous to the Heart [Disease], Cancer and Stroke Act.” Like top-tier medicine, first-rate culture shouldn’t be limited to a handful of major metropolitan areas.

If access was essential, so was quality. “Johnson’s most famous legislative triumphs are about protecting and including people at the bottom of society,” says Dana Gioia, who became chairman of the NEA under George W. Bush in 2003. “But what people forget is that Johnson felt that you [also] had to invest in the ‘top’ of society, scientific research, medical research and, for the first time, cultural development.” In other words, equal access to excellence.

Which was, in turn, driven by deep concern about America’s place in the world. The cultural programs of the Great Society sprang from many sources, including Cold War competition and Johnson’s own sense of being a cultural outsider as a Texan in Washington.

“If the Soviet Union weren’t exporting art or the perception of superiority in the arts, would we have been as motivated?” asks Marc Scorca, head of Opera America. Just as Sputnik galvanized public funding for science, the Bolshoi Ballet’s international tours (beginning in 1959) helped build consensus for supporting the arts.

The need to represent American culture on the international stage helps explain one of the central contradictions of the cultural programs of the Great Society: In many ways, they weren’t really necessary. The situation for American culture in the mid-1960s was complex. There were deep worries that some older, “high culture” institutions, such as opera, might not be able to survive without government assistance. But there was also a boom in smaller cultural groups — theaters, dance companies, even regional opera companies — beginning in the 1950s. Johnson’s agenda wasn’t just to foment culture — it was meant to put a national stamp of approval on existing trends, an endorsement of the vibrant artistic and intellectual churn that preexisted his call “to advance the quality of our American civilization.”

“It is almost as if the growth in the field called for a federal agency,” Scorca says.

The culture business

Conservative critics saw little reason for government to get into the culture business, and great potential danger. Today we see Johnson’s arts and humanities programs through the lens of the culture wars, when the NEA was accused of blasphemy and obscenity, the NEH of academic insularity and historical revisionism, and PBS of political bias. Some critics argued that the agencies should be eliminated altogether, while others demanded stricter control over the art, academic research and public programming supported by taxpayers. That was a 180-degree reversal from the central conservative critique heard during the legislative debates in the 1960s — that government support of culture would lead to government control of culture. “The day will not be far off before we demand political allegiance of those who receive federal gifts, that we see the controversial ignored and the mediocre praised,” warned Rep. William S. Broomfield, a Michigan Republican.

The debate remains a perennial staple of congressional budget squabbles. But the history of these arguments confounds any easy sense of partisan division. When Johnson birthed the NEA and the NEH, the budgets were tiny. (The NEH began life in 1966 with an appropriation of $5.9 million, and the NEA $2.9 million.) Under Richard Nixon, both budgets increased exponentially, and two of the NEA’s strongest leaders were Republican appointees: Nancy Hanks, who served under Nixon and Gerald Ford, and Gioia, who served under George W. Bush.

Democratic administrations have often been uninterested in the agencies, or confused about their purpose. President Obama left the chairmanship of the NEA empty for more than a year, and the NEH is still without a chairman more than a year after the departure of Jim Leach. Such absences have weakened the cultural stamp of the administration and the effectiveness of both agencies. The commercialization of public television has continued steadily, regardless of the political climate or administration.

And over the past half-century, some of the Johnson cultural programs have essentially lost their Great Society stamp altogether. No one seems to care much that it was Johnson who brought Joseph Hirshhorn’s extraordinary modern art collection to Washington, despite ugly anti-Semitic debate during and after the museum’s creation about having a museum on the Mall named for a Jewish man born in Latvia (“I want the American people to see this stuff, I don’t care if they call it the horse---- museum,” Califano remembers Johnson saying). The American Film Institute, also born under Johnson and with a major outpost in Silver Spring, Md., is privately supported, its quasi-governmental origins largely forgotten.

Johnson’s cultural legacy is still contested, with strange contradiction on both sides. Some arts advocates view it as absolutely essential to the survival of culture yet bemoan budgets so small that the programs can never be effective. Some detractors seem almost as addicted to punching it as they are determined to eliminate it. The amount of energy spent criticizing a handful of controversial grants during the culture wars was strangely disproportionate to the simultaneous descent of popular culture into crudity, vulgarity and insipidity.

And yet, despite constantly attracting epithets such as “embattled” or “controversial,” most of what was established in 1965 has proved remarkably resilient. “The consensus about the value of the arts has always been a fragile ecosystem,” says Robert Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts. But it survives, he argues, because a lot of different constituencies “found a home in that legislation.”

Gioia argues that the decentralization of the cultural programs was part of its brilliance, making it more dynamic and creative than the centralized, top-down European systems of cultural funding. Kerger, of PBS, admits that “there is a part of me that wishes there had been more resources set aside” for public broadcasting, but adds that “on the other hand it has made us more entrepreneurial and more attuned to the needs of our communities.”

And one might argue that the darkest days of the Great Society cultural programs — when conservative critics angry about homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and a handful of other controversial grants — only proved how necessary Johnson’s vision of cultural encounter and epiphany was. The arts and humanities as a “transportation” project had been all too effective, bringing Americans too close, too quickly, to ideas that made them uncomfortable.

The Great Lady that wasn’t

In the end, after Johnson left the White House, when he seemed broken and bitter and his administration was defined by the failure and cynicism of the war in Vietnam, Johnson spoke to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin about the Great Society. “I figured when my legislative program passed Congress,” he said, it “had a real chance to grow into a beautiful woman. And I figured her growth and development would be as natural and inevitable as any small child’s.”

There is a universe of megalomania and psychosexual weirdness in that image. But it is also one of the oldest metaphors of art, a reference to the statue of the beautiful woman who comes to life — Galatea, immortalized for 20th-century audiences in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” a satire on class and self-improvement. Johnson imagined his woman growing into a colossus: “I figured she’d be so big and beautiful that the American people couldn’t help but fall in love with her, and once they did, they’d want to keep her around forever.”

The cultural parts of Johnson’s Great Society never became the Great Lady he imagined, but Americans have so far been inclined to keep her around.

Curiously, in 1964, the Pygmalion and Galatea story was familiar to many Americans from the movie “My Fair Lady,” released that year and based loosely on the Shaw play.

Two people, from vastly different walks of life, were seen in Technicolor splendor, crossing cultural boundaries and having epiphanies about basic empathy. It was possible then, for many Americans, to imagine the whole world could be full of lots of chocolate for everyone to eat, and lots of coal making lots of heat.

One wonders whether Johnson, the cultural outsider, the foul-mouthed Texan taking up the Kennedy cultural mantle, knew the film. “Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?”

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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