NOT LONG AGO, an Anti-Object artist named Le Ann Wilchusky climbeed aboard a small plane, carrying a large bundle of crepe-paper streamers. The plane ascended, and, at the apppropriate moment, Wilchusky emptied the streamers out into the sky. "I'm sculpting in space," she told a reporter later. "A black streamer looks like a crack in the sky. Red and yellow streamers look like hughe lines, lashing at the earth." By making people look upward, she added, her work "called attentiont to the higher spirit of mankind."
The reporter published these comments, and noted that Wilchusky's project had been financed by a grant of $6,025 from a federal agency, the National Endowment for the Arts. The story was forwarded, by an incredulous taxpayer, to Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin, well known for the Golden Fleece of the Month Award which he bestows upon federal agencies "for the biggest, most ironic or most ridiculous example of wasteful government spending." The taxpayer wanted to know tif the Arts Endowment really had funded Wilchusky's project, and Sen. Proxmire wrote to the then chairman of the Endowment, Nancy Hanks, to find out.
Hanks, in reply, pointed out that the Endowment was authorized by the Congress to give grants "for projects and productions which have substantial artistic and cultural significance." She added that, in carrying out this directive, the Endowment's media arts program had offered grants "designed to improve the quality of programming of and about the arts." She confirmed that Wilchusky ahd applied for a grant to throw paper streamers out of an airplane, and to film them as they fell. she emphasized that it was the film of the event, rather than the event itself, which made the project meriorious.
Sen. Proxmire reflected for two months upon the chairman's letter. Then he asked for additional information about the grant. The information was provided by the Endowment's director of media arts. The director added:
"The kind of work Mrs. Wilchusky does is based upon environmental concerns many artists now share. By filming her events, they become availabel for viewing by large audiences, and MRs. Wilchusky's work has beenshown widely in museum exhibition programs across the country. She is respected by her colleagues, and is a serious and dedicated artist."
Sen. Proxmire had his own opinions about expressions of environmental concern. he asked a staff assistant to talk to Wilchusky. He learned that her film, which ran for 20 minutes, had only brief glimpses of the paper streamers falling through the sky. he came to a decision. He rose in the Senate, on Sept. 7, 1977, and declared: "I am giving the Golden Fleece of the Month Award for September to the National Endowment for the Arts for making a $6,025 grant to an artist to film the throwing of crepe paper out to high-flying airplanes." Sen. Proxmire continued:
"The money to pay for this outrage comes from the taxpayers. The worker who trudges through the factory gates at 7 every morning . . . pays. So does the cleaning woman who ekes out a living scouring a floor in a Madison office building all night. The dairy farmer . . . who rises at 5:30 to milk his cows, and . . . harvests his hay by the dim light of his tractor, long after sunset, also pays for this artistic fling.
"While the $6,025 is relatively very small, it is the sun total of the taxes paid by three typical taxpayers of the kind I have listed here."
The senator concluded:
The federal government simply must stop spending this kind of hard earned tax money for this kind of artistic frou frou."
The government is authorized . . . The government must stop . . . The battle lines seem to be drawn, but, on what ground? Hanks never argued that all "artists" are entitled to public suppoet Sen. Proxmire always agreed that significant arts activities should be publicly supported.
What then, is issue at stake?
The immediate issue is the significance of the kind of art that Wilchusky practices. Hanks' program director, and her professional advisors insist that a film of paper streamers falling through the sky has "substantial artistic and cultural significance." Sen. Proxmire calls it "frou frou."
The larger issue is moe serious. Hanks hold that the grant to Wilchusky was made in full accordance with the Endowment's basic principles and procedures. In that case, Sen. Proxmire may reply, there is something about the Endowment's basic principles and procedures that is wrong.
If the grant to Wilchusky was the first and the last of its kind, we could go on our ways, knowing that this dispute, like the crepe paper, will soon settle and he swept away. Nut, this is not the case. Wilchusky's credentials, as the program director noted, are solid; her project is no more bizzare than hundreds of others in the visual arts, which the Endowment has funded, and, as of now, will continue to fund.
If, then, we sense that there is merit on both sides of the argument, we should ask: Where does wisdom lie? In pursuit of the answer, we can best start with the Endowment's governing law.
The law which governs all of the Endowment's actions is the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1955. It states over and over that excellence is the standard which must guide the Endowment's decisions. But how is artistic excellence to be determined?
In some artistic disciplines, the answer is apparent. Thirty young pianists, let's say, take part in competition. They play identical works; they are judged by accepted standards; the chances are that a jury of recognized experts will arrive at a consensus may be attainable for other performing artists, and for performing ensembles - symphony orchestras, and companies in opera, theater and dance.
But what about the creative arts? Can a jury of acknowledged experts be selected to sit in judgement upon comtimporary composers? Can it reach a solid consensus on the relative merits of proteges of Glancarlo Menotti and George Crumb? Eight years of selecting panels, and watching them at work, suggests to tme that cosensus is attainable in literature: for all the efforts of the Concrete Poets, the printed page remains the printed page. But in the Visual Arts? There are Anti-Object artist, and Earthwork artists, Conceptual artists and Performance artists, Minimalists and Minimal Systematicists, Tradionalists committed to form, and Iconoclasts,whose sworn puropose is to annihilate all form in the visual arts.
Given this range, standards become meaningless; no consensus can be assured.One panel of experts will select a score of meritorious artists from a thousand applicants; another panel will make a different selection. The determination of excellence becomes arbitrary, and so, loses its validity. The Endowment's director of media arts may affirm that Le Ann Wilchusky is "respected by her colleagues and is a serious and a dedicated artist." Sen. Proxmire will retort that the director is expressing his personal opinion, and that Wilchusky's colleagues are a small segment of the arts community, out of touch with the mainstream of American life.
Sen. Proxmire's quarrel with the Arts Endowment arises from its policy of awarding direct grants to individuals in the creative arts. It is not a new quarrel. It broke out first in 1968, when the Act of 1965 expired and had to be reauthorized. Congressman after congressman argued, on that occasion, that the federal government lacked the wisdom and the capacity to make individual awards. An amendment forbidding the Endowment to make direct grants to individuals was passed by the House of Representatives. It did not become law however, and the Endowment continued its policy of making individual awards. The Congress then retreated and sanctioned direct grants to "individuals of exceptional talent." This, of course, begged the question; for "exceptional talent" was simply another term for "excellence" and "excellence" had been the Endowment's standard from the start.
The Congress turned to other quarrels; the problem remained. It surfaced on many occasions, most notably when Erica Jong dedicated "Fear of Flying" to the Endowment in gratitute for the fellowship grant which enabled her to write her novel. An outcry followed; the Endowment, in self defense, cited once again its reliance upon its professional advisors. But who appointed the advisors? Sen. Jesse Helms demanded an answer to that question; Rep. Bauman told the House that if the Endowment could not pick panelists with a concern for decency, then the Congress itself should act as the panel. His proposal was never presented in the form of an amendment to the 1965 Act. Had it been, the $5,000 awarded to Erica Jong might well have imperiled the millions of dollars given each year to museums, symphony rochestras, and opera, dance and theater companies.
Sen. Helms and Rep. Bauman were concerned about obscenty; Sen. Proxmire is concerned about frivolity. The pretext may differ, but the issue is the same. If the Endowment puts up 10 cents on the dollar of the budget of the La Mama Theatre Company it cannot be held fully responsible for the company's productions. But when the costs of a project are borne predominantly by the Endowment, as they are in the case of direct grants to individuals, than the Endowment should and will be held accountable.
Does this mean that government should not support the individual creative artist? Not at all. The support, if anything, should be greatly increased; but, it should, I believe, be given in other ways.
This year, for example, the Endowment is a awarding $700,000 in direct fellowships grants to visual artists; it is providing $640,000 in matching grants to art museums, to purchase works by contemporary Americans. The first of these programs centralizes the patronage power within the Endowment, the second disperses it among 54 museum directors and their boards. The first program involves only the Endowment and the artist; the second involves 54 towns or cities in the raising of matching funds. The first program offers the artist a handout, and so perpetuates the alienation between the artist and the taxpayer; the second ends in a transaction, and so brings the artist into accord with the rest of us.
My own view is that the fellowship program should be phased out, and the purchase program greatly expanded. I would apply the same principle to other creative arts. In place of direct fellowships for composers and librettists, I would offer matching funds to symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles and choral groups to commission and to perform new works. In place of direct grants to novelists and poets, I would offer to match the sums that publishers pay in advances for works for unusualy merit, but limited appeal.
For as long as the Endowment attempts to take predominant financial responsibility for work which seems offensive, or frivolous, or simply incomprehensible to the majority of Americans, it is laying itself wide open to attack. The sensible response is not to turn, in fear, from the experimental, the esoteric, the offensive, but within this limited sector of the arts constituency, to disperse the patronage power. If this can be done, as I believe it can, without damaging our talented contemporaries, then a major obstacle to the continued growth of public funding for the arts may be removed.
At the very least, there is need for an open debate on this issue. If it can be generated, because the Golden Fleece Award has been bestowed upon us, then the award, which has been a source of paid to Wilchusky, and of embarrassment to the Endowment, may prove to be a blessing in disguise.