Quincy Jones, not content with having inflicted “We are the World” upon we of the world and withdrawing Peggy Lipton from circulation, has inspired a petition campaign begging President Obama to hatch a Secretary of the Arts, presumably to oversee a U.S. Department of Culture.

The quick answer to this was provided by the painter John Sloan in 1944: “Sure, it would be fine to have a Ministry of the Fine Arts in this country. Then we’d know where the enemy is.”

We are in for at least four years of earnest middlebrow culture-vultures sucking up to the new president, whose reported tastes run from the exemplary (Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan) to the execrable (Toni Morrison, Philip Roth) and include, as far as I can tell, not a single writer or musician from his native Hawaii. For shame, oh rootless one!

“A good writer,” said Ernest Hemingway, “will never like any government he lives under. His hand should be against it and its hand will always be against him.” His hand should not be extended stateward reaching for alms. The Armenian-American writer and pacifist William Saroyan, who refused to shake FDR’s hand at a reception, had the right idea. So did William Faulkner, who turned down a gala at which President Kennedy was honoring Nobel Prize winners, explaining that the White House was “too far to go for dinner.”

It still is.

I wrote a good deal about government subsidy of the arts back in the early ’90s, when the National Endowment for the Arts was marinating in Andres Serrano’s urine. I did enjoy debating the subject: on my side were Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Edward Hopper, Ed Abbey, and Charles Bukowski; for the NEA were the listless ghosts of Archibald MacLeish, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Kitty Carlisle, who, to tell the truth, was the last lass to feel the lash of Thomas E. Dewey’s ‘stache.

The dirty little secret of the NEA—and the reason I fully expect the neoconservatives to embrace a Department of Culture and fill it with moles—is that it was sold as a Cold War propaganda agency. Endowment godfather Frank Thompson, the New Jersey congressman later imprisoned for his role in the Abscam sting, called it “a program of selling our culture to the uncommitted people of the world,” while President Kennedy lauded music as “part of our arsenal in the Cold War.” (Not that Kennedy went overboard for artsy stuff. After enduring the Bolshoi Ballet, he told an aide, “I don’t want my picture taken shaking hands with all those Russian fairies.”)

By some strike of lightning—probably conducted via the book-reader Laura—George W. Bush appointed one of our best poets, Dana Gioia, to chair the NEA. About halfway through his run, I was asked to serve on an NEA grants panel. What the hell. I did it, though to shut up the anarchist in my conscience muttering, “You gotta be kidding!” I donated the very modest stipend to local civic groups.

Maybe I should have taken as my model the great Gore Vidal, whom JFK appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on the Arts. Vidal “made it a point never to attend a meeting” because “I didn’t believe that government—particularly one as philistine and corrupt as ours—should involve itself in the arts in any way. I am Darwinian in such matters: What cannot adapt dies out.”

The NEA staff impressed me. So did the other panelists. I liked them, and if we disagreed over the principle and practice of state subsidy of the arts, well … life is short.

I requested a recorded vote on the panel’s recommendation and cast my negative on very lonely, localist, and libertarian grounds. Eight of the 15 agencies that made the final cut were based in either New York or California, confirming the enduring truth of Edward Banfield’s observation that “the real reason for the passage” of the NEA act “was, and is, to benefit … the culture industry of New York City.”

New York senator Herbert Lehman, in arguing for art subsidies in the 1950s, looked out over the land of Chuck Berry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Eudora Welty and saw “an aesthetic dust bowl” whose aridity contrasted with Manhattan’s vibrant culture of Tin Pan Alley, Time magazine, and Ethel Merman. Impose MOMA on Oklahoma. After all, we are the world.

Thanks but no thanks, Quincy. A Secretary of the Arts would be to the arts as John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Eric Holder are to justice. I’ll stick with Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Beauty will come not at the call of the legislature. … It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.” Or as the punks used to say, DIY. Do it yourself.  

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