The Prairie State Is Not Hostile
to the Arts, Just Indifferent
In which I try, without much success, not to sound like a yahoo. The problem with public aid for the arts, however, is that, to the extent it is genuinely public it will be hostile to art and artists, and to the extent it is genuinely artistic it is likely to be unpopular with the poeople who paid for it.
Arts lovers have smote the Philistines at last. In June, Gov. Jim Edgar signed the $3.4 million increase in grants funds that a munificent Illinois General Assembly approved for the Illinois Arts Council (IAC)—a 45 percent boost. In Washington, the National Endowment for the Arts, after first having its budget sliced to 1977 levels and then watching the House vote last year to give it no money at all, was voted $98 million by strong majorities in both houses of Congress.
Illinoisans—those without IAC performance grants for the purpose, anyway-did not dance in the streets at the news. The Prairie State is not hostile to the arts, just indifferent. In one of its five "belief statements," the IAC asserts, "The arts are an integral part of education." Not in Illinois, where the arts are among the very first things to go when public school budgets must be cut. (Any principal who wants to get a laugh need only propose that next year's senior trip be to the Art Institute rather than Water Tower Place.) Likewise, the IAC's assertion that the state's artists "are the cornerstone of our culture" will surprise many people, not least Illinois artists, most of whom can't support a family, much less the culture.
The status of the arts in the commonwealth can be measured by the budget for the IAC. Illinois is a rich state, yet the state-funded portion of the IAC's fiscal year '99 base budget of $11.3 million comes to less than a buck a year for each Illinoisan. For every one dollar the state of Illinois spends on the IAC, it spends 3,377 on other things. The recent raise had to await a state revenue surplus, and even then the boost merely restored the agency's budget to about its 1990 level.
Of course, the IAC budget is not all that governments in Illinois spend on the arts. The local property tax exemption given museums is an expenditure in the form of foregone revenue, some arts teaching still goes on in schools and universities, and the General Assembly makes available some money directly to local arts organizations. As the IAC has been encouraging "plain folks" (as the Chicago Tribune put it) to express their values and honor their heroes in bold colors in public places in our cities, I suppose one should also count the CTA's graffiti removal costs as an arts subsidy.
Small change, even then. Such niggardliness is a judgment on the arts, not the IAC. The arts have seldom been less important as a medium of culture. They persist as middlebrow entertainment or decor—things one consumes rather than learns from. Painting and sculpture in particular are all about agitation and advocacy, usually of causes not nearly as heterodox as artists would think they are if they read something besides ARTNews. Harvard artist Nancy Seidler's piece, "The Decision," was shown recently at a partly IAC-financed exhibition of women's works at Woodstock's Old Courthouse Arts Center. It consisted of the torso of a mannequin with a clock for a heart emblazoned with the word "Baby," which the Chicago Tribune reporter called "a stunning representation of a woman's agony over her biological clock." Stunning, indeed, in its banality. Such didactic works remind us that art, whose purpose is to celebrate, to inculcate, to educate, usually is as empty as Soviet-style socialist realism, whose extra-aesthetic ambitions (if not its style) are reflected in so much of contemporary art.
It is as unwise to hold artists' foolishness against the IAC as it is to allow politicians' antics to discredit the essential institutions of government. As the trivialization of the fine arts has probably expanded their potential audience, the IAC is kept busy enough.
The council's many grant programs, technical assistance, workshops, and "special initiatives" bolster not-for-profit arts organizations of diverse kinds. It sends artists into schools, underwrites exhibits, and maintains a kind of high-minded vaudeville circuit of local community centers and school gyms that brings Chinese acrobats and kindred acts to trading posts such as Schaumburg. Because funded projects must pass muster with the IAC's advisory panels, the council's imprimatur legitimizes them and makes it easier to attract other money.
Funding is the least of the problems faced by a public arts agency in a state whose public doesn't much care about the arts. For example, it can't comfortably admit to what is probably the most persuasive rationale for its existence, which is that the arts are Good For You. In this way the late 1990s resemble the 1890s. That's when the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded at Hull-House, out of the conviction that there is a relationship between social issues and aesthetic reform, and that beauty was the way to a beautiful world. When latchkey and single-parent kids from the mean streets of Naperville meet for Junior Jazz, an IAC-supported eight-week program of dance lessons at the Hinsdale Center for the Arts, the steps may be different from a century ago but the dance is the same.
Lacking a mandate from the larger public, the IAC has had to invent a rationale for its existence. Actually, being creative people, they have invented several. The arts, we are told, are a tonic for the economy, a spur to child development, an opportunity for family fun. For both artist and audience the arts are a means to self-realization and social respect, and thus agents of the democratic process.
Lacking a sizable natural constituency, the IAC has had to invent one of those too. The agency's new strategic plan stresses arts programming in "underserved" communities, expanding arts education within and outside schools, and increasing funding for small and community-based organizations. This may be better politics than policy. Apart from the considerable exception of crafts, small towns produce artists, but it is the big city that produces art. Edgar Lee Masters turned Petersburg into literature, but he did it in Chicago; Vachel Lindsay stayed in Springfield, and produced nothing so good. It may improve Highland Park's quality of life to have its own opera studio and to stage exhibitions of "cutting-edge art" (both paid for in part by the IAC), but it is unlikely to improve the quality of Illinois art.
Which, of course, is only a small part of IAC's goal. That is (quoting the agency) "expanding the accessibility of [Illinois's] artistic wealth to children and adults in every corner of the state." Thus does the IAC hope to do for the arts what Andrew Carnegie did for books. The century's new public libraries, along with its public child welfare agencies and universities, were founded largely to reach under-served populations ignored by private institutions. The IAC, founded during a later progressive era (the 1960s), seeks to do the same.
Are Illinoisans in even its remoter precincts really starved for the experience of art? More of them from wider backgrounds go to concerts and museums than ever before. The arts-via the Web, magazines and books, CD-ROMs, recordings of all kinds, cable TV, public radio-have never been more accessible. Supplying seniors centers alone with clay for crafts classes must keep a fleet of dump trucks on the road full-time. What Illinoisans most lack is not access to the arts but curiosity.
Creating a society whose members are literate in the arts, so to speak, certainly gives the IAC scope for action. No population is more underserved than public school kids. As museums have done, the IAC has found new sources of support, political and fiscal, through its attempts to make up for public education's scanting of the arts. Of course, mixing artistic and curricular agendas is likely to produce some odd offspring. A grant from the IAC's Art in Education program allowed fourth-grade classes in Wheaton to make four fiber art panels under the supervision of a visiting artist. One of the panels illustrates the modernization and industrialization of Chicago, using sheep wool. I've not seen the work, but if the kids pulled it off, they made Michelangelo's transformation of marble into a grieving Mary look as easy as finger-painting.
So what if the IAC wastes some of what they spend on kids? Schools spend thousands of times more destroying children's capacity to perceive beauty in any of its forms. Taste, broadly speaking, is a mutable concept anyway. When all cultures are deemed worthy, after all, comparisons are invidious. So all art is equal before the bar of taste, as all citizens are equal before the law.
In another of its belief statements, the council asserts that funding of projects "should be based on the pursuit of excellence, which recognizes that established institutions, emerging groups and under-served populations are at different stages in this pursuit."
This is a frank admission that in aesthetic matters the IAC grades on the curve. (An artist paid for by the IAC recently helped 22 eighth-graders at a Chicago West Side Catholic school paint a mural that the school's curriculum director noted would be "a way to establish history for the neighborhood, for everybody." Among the subjects was Sitting Bull, which may be drawing the boundaries of the West Side a little expansively.)
The IAC has tried harder than most to reconcile the general taxpayer to the subsidy of what is, by any objective measure, a coterie interest. But the ability to appreciate art, if not to produce it, remains stubbornly a function of education, which in turn is a function of class.
After more than 30 years of proselytizing, the arts as conceived by the IAC remain a pastime of the cosmopolitan middle class—the same constituency for public broadcasting, classical music performances, and historic preservation. Which art you bring to the people matters less to the aesthetic experience than what people bring to art. ●