The phenomenon known as the "culture wars," now about 20 years old, seems to have found a permanent place in the social fabric of this country. It began as an attack on the concept of using public funds to support visual art, centering on that small yet embattled federal agency, the National Endowment of the Arts. It grew into a full-blown right-wing ideology (Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" is its Magna Carta), which demonizes non-traditional contemporary art as symptomatic of the decrepit moral state of our society, and posits itself as the nation's defender against the multi-cultural conspiracy of postmodernism, and other forces undermining "family values." How it came to this, and why the vehemence has persisted is a complex subject ripe for a sociological treatise that objectively looks at the people, policies and prejudices involved in the central controversy.
Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance by Lynne Munson wants to be, but is not that study. While Munson dug up enough evidence of abuse of power and sheer arrogance to indict the NEA for causing its own problems with Congress and the public at large, the author does not make good use of her material, preferring to issue blanket condemnations and take a self-righteous, accusatory tact instead. In her critique of the "new dogmatism" that has allegedly permanently established itself throughout the art world, Munson lays bare her own (and the right's) simplistic, black-and-white view of the issue, countering the opposite camp's intolerance with her own which, though couched in the language of reason, is equally unjust. We search in vain for some middle ground. Either we have Munson's notion of art or we have "exhibitionism."
The most informative part of Exhibitionism is the first two chapters, which give a detailed history of the NEA's Visual Arts Program from the agency's founding in 1965 through Congress's elimination of individual artist grants in 1996. Weaving facts, figures and interviews with crucial participants, Munson paints an interesting if depressing picture of competing elitist agendas, from the program's initial emphasis on rewarding only important, well-established artists to the triumph of the art intellectuals for whom ideas and theories took precedence over aesthetics and craft. Munson describes the reign of the latter as a self-perpetuating "art bureaucracy," one that took little heed of the dwindling number of panelists pushing for greater balance in distributing funds. She leaves no doubt about who are the bad guys.
Unfortunately, the author's own prejudices are so obvious they undermine her credibility. "Serious" is an adjective she throws around a lot when talking about art and artists, insinuating that this ill-defined label does not apply to most postmodernist work. She writes of pluralism and excellence in art as if they were mutually exclusive concepts. Her chapters "The Persistence of Painting" and "Leveling the Museum" are polemics against postmodernism that highlight her personal preference for escapism rather than engagement in art, whether it is championing what she calls "perceptual painting" (whatever that is—she doesn't define it) or bemoaning the loss of neo-classical museum architecture. At the same time, she has that cloying way of placing "serious" artists on a pedestal as passionate geniuses working away in "the inspiring sanctuaries that are their studios," which can be so nauseating.
In a nutshell, Munson is just not a nuanced thinker about art. She fails to more deeply consider events at the NEA in light of what was happening in art generally. The history of the NEA corresponds with a revolution that took place in visual art from 1965 on, when artists were scrambling to get it "out of the box," to borrow a phrase, and traditional hierarchical values were being emphatically challenged. In many ways it represented healthy growing pains, but revolutions are messy, emotional, often irrational affairs. Their reaction to authority and the status quo can be brutally extremist until a new sense of balance prevails, as I think is happening now. But despite the NEA's missteps and shortcomings, the endowment has a track record of launching or salvaging the careers of many artists making provocative, edgy art who went on to do important work. Its grants have also served as seed money for local arts support.
Munson's call-to-arms comes a bit late in the game. The NEA's Visual Arts Program has been effectively neutered with self-censorship firmly in place and the avoidance of controversy practically its mission statement. Armageddon in university art departments has not come to pass. Perhaps she was motivated by the realization that stalemate prevails and although the right won the NEA battle, it cannot, in the end, win the war.