THE CARTER administration acted this week to counter mounting criticism of "politicization" and lack of direction in its cultural policies. But many of those who were raising questions remain unconvinced that the government's cultural house is about to be put in order.
Commenting on the plan for an "across-the-board" review of government cultural support by a committee under Joan Mondale, producer Joseph Papp observes:
"We have to be sure who's making the judgments, both here and in the upcoming White House conferences on the arts and the humanities, before we'll know whether our culture will get reviewed in the rough and ready way it needs to be."
Papp is concerned, as is Yale Drama School dean Robert S. Brustein, about the vehicle for performing the administration's review being the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, because the council's 14 ex-official members are governmental officials.
"There are fine people in that group, but I think any fresh look at the arts and the humanities should be free of the vested interests. It should be controlled by people who don't have anything to gain from the conclusions. It should be outsiders who take a look at the inside. And the same is true of the cultural conferences if they are going to do any good."
The Federal Council was created at the same time as the endowments to function as an umbrella organisation overseeing the two agencies and coordinating their programs with those of the rest of the federal arts bureaucracy. But, in fact, the council has done little overseeing or coordinating of any kind until now.
The policy review will be timed for completion before the congressionally mandated White House cultural conferences, which probably will occur some time next year. The conferences, like previous ones on such subjects as nutrition and the aged, would bring together a cross-section of persons concerned with the arts and humanities in the country to reassess priorities in cultural policy and to serve as a catalyst for new ideas and insights.
Papp praises Mrs. Mondale, who on Monday was announced honorary chairman of the revitalized Federal Council, because "she is sort of a free spirit, and I don't think she has any intention of trying to dictate an arts policy," a view New York Cultural Affairs Director Henry Geldzahler echoes.
And a frequent Carter administration critic, former Acts Endowment deputy director Michael Straight, says he thinks Mrs. Mondale could play an effective role in her new job. "But I think she ought to be out there on the idea end and not get deeply involved in day-to-day routine." Mrs. Mondale's title is "honorary" because the vice president's staff has interpreted a 1967 law as preventing her from becoming an appointed official. She said at the gathering where the appointment was announced: It's called "nepotism."
The Mondale appointment meets with the approval of the two principal arts lobby groups, both of which had been concerned that there was no principal clearing house on cultural matters run by a person who had the president's ear. James Backas, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, points out that Mrs. Mondale was "already the biggest force in the administration on the arts, so it only made sense to give her a portfolio." Louis Harris, chairman of the American Council on the Arts, says, "This is one of the things we've favored for a long time."
Former Arts Endowment chairman Nacy Hanks is in India and could not be reached. At the time of her resignation, Hanks expressed the need for a central cultural figure at the White House with "the president's ear."
Two of the most outspoken recent critics of administratin cultural policies of administration cultural policies are adopting wait and see attitudes toward both the policy review and the conferences. Straight, who recently caused a bit of a flap with his declaration that "the cancer of political interference has begun to undermine the credibility of the endowments," says he would support both initiatives "as long as they could do constructive good."
But he shares Papp's concern about the judgements being made by persons with vested interests. "Cultural conferences made up of the best minds who are working honestly and earnestly might be very productive. But if they are dominated by professional groups they will be disasters.
"And since the groundwork for them will be laid by arts and humanities conferences in each of the states, there is a real danger the national conferences will be taken over by the state people. The plain truth is that only about a third of the state groups are really good, and there is no reason to expect good people to be sent from groups that are not good."
Brustein, who made waves with his statement in a recent article that "the politics of consensus-American democracy" were undercutting the standards of the endowments, says it is too early to have any idea if the administation policy review and the cultural conferences will accomplish anything important.
But he adds that both would be healthy developments if they can formulate an articulate policy on the arts and humanities. We have needed that for a long time. But it is essential that the policy affirm the priority of quality above all other considerations."
Brustein, who is a former member of the National Council on the Arts, says he is troubled by a recent quote from Mrs. Mondale in which she denied charges that the endowments are turning populist with the statement that "the arts are like a great pyramid, and the broader the base, the higher the peak."
"She's got her mathematics wrong," says Brustein. "Given the same amount of mass, it's just the opposite. The broader the base, the lower the peak. And that's just the point."
Robert Lumiansky, president of the American Council of Learned Societies and a former member of the National Council on the Humanities, reflects Brustein's view that the policy review and the conferences could be valuable if well done. "It was 12 years ago that we finally convinced the Congress it was just as much in the national interest that the arts and humanities be supported by the government as the sciences. Back then the National Science Foundation got enormously more than the endowments, and though the endowments' budget have grown at a great pace, the gap with science has never been closed. The NSF now gets about $1 billion and the endowments get about $250 million. And we ought to consider that imbalance. I also like the idea that the Humanities Endowment be the forum to take another look at our national values and that we take a look at the way we want to present ourselves to the rest of the world. If these new developments could accomplish some of that, I think they would make sense. And, in fact, I think the Federal Council should have been activated earlier.
A strongly negative note is sounded by Ronald S. Berman, the former Humanities Endowment chairman whose renomination by President Ford was blocked by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) in an abrasive confrontation over whether grants were being spread sufficiently through the population.
Berman sharply questions the need for either the policy review or the conferences. "In the five years I was in the endowment we certainly were never at a loss to know our policies. When the need for that comes along it is a sign of failure. Do dentists and engineers and other professionals have to get together like this to know their policies because they are experiencing uncertainities?"
Berman also attacks what he called "the bandwagon approach" of arts advocacy and cites Mrs. Mondale's trips around the country in support of the arts as an example. "It's countless speeches and too many promises. There's not that much to go around. And it results in distributive justice. That's a proliferation of grants according to congressional districts instead of merit."
Mrs. Mondale declined to be interviewed on these topics last week, saying that the Federal Council's policy review is still in a preliminary stage.
The legislation authorizing the White House conferences, a project of Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Ind.), passed the House by an overwhelming margin recently. Senate passage, without amendment, is expected soon. Earlier the White House staff expressed a preference for merging the two conferences and for delaying it until 1980. But there has been no suggestion that President Carter would veto the legislation on these grounds.