You'd hardly know it from the noise that emitted from various quarters last week, but it looks for all the world as though the furor over the National Endowment for the Arts is headed into a holding pattern. The radical "artists" of the left and the anti-obscenity zealots of the right are screaming at each other -- not to mention at thee and me -- for all they're worth, which makes for great theater on the news broadcasts and provocative copy in the papers. But in the places that matter, where power is concentrated and exercised, all the evidence suggests that the center will hold.
That conclusion, if indeed it is correct, is a classic instance of good news and bad news canceling each other out. The good news is that if the congressional commission that met for the first time last week has what appears to be its way, the controversy will be defused for long enough to give reasonable men and women time to settle the NEA's future in an atmosphere less charged with overheated emotion. The bad news is that if the issue is settled in such a fashion, it almost certainly will be accomplished by skirting the basic questions about the NEA's role that scarcely a soul seems interested in addressing.
A quick glance at last week's news would not suggest, to be sure, that sweet compromise is in the NEA's immediate future. The White House proposed a one-year "cooling-off period" for the endowment and was promptly rebuffed in Congress on both sides of the aisle. The chairman of the endowment, John E. Frohnmayer, sacked his chief deputy, Alvin S. Felzenberg, for allegedly leaking NEA secrets to the syndicated columnists Evans and Novak, though everyone busily tried to pretend that Felzenberg really wasn't fired. The Village Voice published a hysterical cover piece called "THE WAR ON ART: The Sexual Politics of Censorship," and around the country -- most visibly and noisily, needless to say, in New York -- artists both fancied and real observed "Arts Day USA" in support of the NEA.
All of which added up to a lot of hubbub and confusion, none of which should be taken quite as seriously as the people stirring it up might wish. No doubt the zealots of the right would like nothing better than to heave all the zealots of the left into the East River wearing cement overshoes, and vice versa; but when push comes to shove, as inevitably it will, the zealots aren't going to have much say in the matter. It will be taken care of by people who live in the real world of politics, and the last thing they're interested in is handing a clear victory to either side.
For those who like to read the tea leaves as they're harvested here in the capital, the week's most significant news was not the internal wrangling at the NEA or the melodramatic theatrics at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the selection of John Brademas and Leonard Garment as co-chairmen of the commission charged with reexamining the NEA's grant procedures.
Although it is possible that the commission may never get off the ground -- it is already well behind schedule -- the more likely prospect is that it will be revitalized. Washington dearly loves commissions, for the simple reason that they enable politicians to shift responsibility for tricky issues onto the shoulders of others, so the betting here is that ultimately the dozen people on this panel will become both the focus of the NEA debate and the means of lowering its temperature.
Neither Brademas nor Garment is likely, by experience or temperament, to cave in to either side of this dispute. Brademas, who is now president of New York University, was a principal supporter of the NEA during his earlier life as a member of Congress; Garment, who practices law in Washington, was closely involved with shaping the NEA's structure during his years in the Nixon White House. Both men believe in the fundamental notion that government has a responsibility to the arts, though they might differ as to its precise nature; both men doubtless believe in assuring the survival of the NEA, though they might differ as to what form its future might take.
These are reasonable men who have taken on the chore of reaching an accommodation in an atmosphere of unreason; they aren't to be envied. But in American politics reason, or a facsimile thereof, usually prevails. In this instance that will come to pass not merely because Brademas and Garment are capable of engineering a workable compromise, but also because the NEA is now an entrenched bureaucracy, which is to say that it has been granted a permanent existence. Departments, agencies, endowments -- everything in Washington is forever, as the encounter between the Reaganites and the Department of Education makes abundantly, if amusingly, clear.
It is certain, though, that no compromise will come to pass as a result of agreement between the zealots on the two sides of this issue. The hatred and mistrust that divide the arts community and the anti-obscenity crowd are every bit as deep and bitter as the enmity separating the "pro-choice" and the "pro-life" crowds. Art may be a relatively insignificant aspect of American life, but when art links arms with obscenity it has as much power to inflame and divide certain elements of the public as any issue of greater consequence.
The power the issue holds over the right is well known; as Charles Babington recently reported in the New Republic, Jesse Helms routinely waves the bloody shirt of "obscenity" in order to extract contributions from his legions. But the intensity of feeling on the other side is every bit as exaggerated, as witness the aforementioned article in the Village Voice. The work of a writer identified only as C. Carr, it is every bit as paranoid about the folks over there on the right as they are about their opponents on the left. It refers to the anti-obscenity people as "the Gang of Fear," makes references to Hitler and fascism, conjures up images of conspiracy: "And wouldn't ya know, fresh outta godless Communists, they've discovered the art world -- a rich new mother lode of sinners."
Some of the accusations C. Carr makes against the radical right no doubt are accurate, just as are some of those the right makes against the art crowd, but the tone of his/her piece leaves no room for mutual understanding, much less compromise; on both sides they want war to the last man, and by the time they're finished Kenneth Branagh's Agincourt will look like kindergarten.
The oddity about C. Carr's piece is that amid all its anger and intemperance it points, however unwittingly, to the issues that ought to be debated, but won't be. At one point Carr writes, "NEA grants are the most prestigious available, emblems of an artist's worth or a venue's seriousness," and at another approvingly quotes demonstrators in Cincinnati who shouted: "Not the church! Not the state! We decide what art is great!" In the first statement the question is implicit: Why should the "most prestigious" arts grants be awarded by government, politically and bureaucratically compromised as it is? The answer is in the second: It shouldn't. The arbiters of art should be the people and their private institutions, not the government.
That in any event is how, after years of reflection, I have come to see the issue. But the furor over obscenity has so clouded matters that this is certain: It is perhaps the one issue that won't be raised