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Making art for the people again

A new study - by the National Endowment for the Arts, no less - concludes that eroding public support for the arts is less the fault of congressional actions against infamous NEA-funded exhibits (crosses in urine, expletive-addicted poets) than of the isolation of elite arts groups from "the communities they claim to serve but don't."

True, the report is talking less about offensive "shock art" than about cultural snobbery - the notion that the arts exist to gratify a chosen few, leaving the masses the sole role of ponying up tax dollars for the overhead. But this spin isn't entirely convincing. Although the study includes the usual self-flagellation about a failure to "reach out," it also notes that between 1982 and 1992, the number of blacks attending a live arts performance rose 45 percent. This is hardly evidence of stubborn WASPish insularity.What's really off-putting to private donors, we suspect, is an aesthetic snobbery - the conceit, laid bare by some outrageous NEA grants, that cutting-edge works of an anti-religious or anti-patriotic bent are meritorious because the elites say they are. Though most arts dollars support traditional works, there's the sense in some communities that the arts crowd is just dying to throw a sneak elbow at the teeth of middle-class mores. Maybe that's one reason private support for the arts dipped from $10.23 billion in 1992 to less than $10 billion in 1995 - a span when the economy was growing.

The report wisely urges local arts groups to develop rapport with their communities, which may well mean overtly forswearing projects that turn some faces ashen and others red. Anybody who calls this "censorship" should buy a dictionary.

Anyway, the belief that the artistic avant-garde is entitled to funding is something new (probably contemporaneous with the 32-year-old NEA). It would have astounded e.e. cummings, whose "I Sing of Olaf" is a rousing put-down of flag worship, or Robinson Jeffers, who poetically lionized Judas Iscariot, if government or bourgeois benefactors had actually paid them to write. Then even the iconoclasm was better.