Supporters of the National Endowment for the Arts hail its record of accomplishment in the promotion of diversity. Detractors repeat a few instances in which performance artists appearing at institutions that have received grants have
committed acts that many consider offensive or outside ordinary definitions of art. Meanwhile the NEA pursues a steady course, supporting a range of activities that defy easy characterization.
Its latest round of grants in Maryland included awards to institutions that support dance, jazz and theater performances, scholarly studies, educational initiatives and concerts, as well as to two individual writers.
The budget of the arts endowment is small (64 cents a year for each of us), compared to those that support other public endeavors that raise the quality of life: the maintenance of parks, of roads and bridges, of rail and bus systems, the disposal of waste and the abatement of pollution. The agency has become, however, a symbolic issue, nearly as divisive as abortion, and the rigidity of viewpoints sometimes suggests a breakdown in civic virtue or civic culture.
In search of some traditional guidelines, I took a look at a book published exactly 90 years ago, celebrating the unveiling of murals in the Baltimore (now the Mitchell) Court House. The subject of one of these murals is "Religious Toleration in Maryland." It is an allegorical representation of the enactment of the Act of Toleration by the colonists of Maryland in 1649.
This act declared that although Maryland was a Christian commonwealth, in which blasphemy was a capital crime, any person using a "reproachful" name to another on account of his or her religious preference would be subject to a fine. The mural, in the words of the artist, depicts "Lord Baltimore commending his people to Wisdom, Justice and Mercy" -- represented by three female figures. Behind Lord Baltimore, at the left, are a Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor, who together hold the Edict of toleration. Lord Baltimore, in armor, is addressing Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy, telling them that his people are worthy of receiving the qualities they embody.
When the mural was unveiled, an address was delivered by Ira Remsen, the chemist who had become president of Johns Hopkins in 1901. Remsen began his speech by praising the beauty of the building and of the murals inside. "We rejoice in the possession of this great monument," he said. He continued with these thoughts: The value of beauty is increasingly recognized; beauty affects our lives, but it is hard to say just how; a fine building is not finished until appropriate paintings adorn its interior spaces. In 1904, at the time of the unveiling, Baltimore had no public art museum.
Remsen went on to describe the development of the concept of religious toleration, and its origin in the Biblical statement, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render to God the things that are God's." The Act of Toleration would not be considered toleration at all today, but in a time when Catholics and Protestants were at war, it marked a decided advance. Since the 17th century, there had been improvement, said Remsen, closing his address by quoting the Congregationalist minister Lyman Abbott: We "have come, or are coming, to see the difference between the truths and the truth, and to perceive that none of us possesses the truth, and that our neighbor possesses some fragment of truth which we ourselves have failed to possess."
The mural itself also implies faith in progress: with the help of Wisdom, Justice and Mercy we may build a better world. There is an important detail included by the artist, whose name was Edwin Howland Blashfield, that Remsen did not comment on. Behind Lord Baltimore, in addition to the Catholic priest and the Protestant pastor, are a "negress and Indian squaw." The implication is that Wisdom, Justice and Mercy may have smiled upon the two clerics in 1649, but that in 1904, when the mural was painted, the government had not yet permitted the extension of these virtues to African-Americans or American Indians.
Quaint lessons: that beauty should play a part in our lives, even if we can't quite say why; that we can always learn from what our neighbor believes; that abstract notions of Wisdom, Justice and Mercy have bettered people's lives in the past and may do so in the future. But these are lessons that lie at the heart of the concept of civic culture.
One of the artists whose work is most frequently mentioned by critics of the NEA is Andres Serrano. His photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine was included in a museum exhibition that had received partial funding from the NEA. No savvy person, you might think, would try to defend such a work.
Nevertheless, put yourself in the position of one of the panelists reviewing the exhibition proposal. You are convinced that the curator responsible for choosing the works recognizes and demands beauty. You understand that Mr. Serrano is a man not indifferent to religion or contemptuous of it but obsessed by it, and that his photograph may genuinely be considered a meditation on the relationship between our sorry, mortal flesh and the transcendent.
Mr. Serrano's work may be blasphemous, but it is not merely blasphemous. At the same time, you recognize that there are people who will see only the merely blasphemous, and that these people, no less that Mr. Serrano himself, may possess "some fragment of truth which we ourselves have failed to possess." It's your call: You are the unpaid panelist, helping to make a judgment, maintaining civic virtue.
Hiram W. Woodward Jr. is curator of Asian art at the Walters Art Gallery.