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It's dead certain that our culture wars will rage again.

David A. Smith, a senior lecturer in history at Baylor University, does not actually make that prediction in his book, Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy. But it's there. It's there because, according to Dr. Smith, the culture wars have never really ceased fire. Federal support of the arts has been the trigger for an argument, he believes, that has flared on and off practically since the origins of the republic. Dr. Smith's book is the first to study government arts funding in this light.

Of course, the tag "culture wars" was originally coined about the loose but linked political firefights we've had the past two decades. James Davison Hunter's 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, popularized the term. Dr. Hunter saw Americans as divided into two polarized moral understandings, the "orthodox" and the "progressive," and he tried to make some historical sense of what has been a tangle of social, political and religious differences, involving creationism, stem-cell research, gay marriage, abortion -- and federal funding of the arts.

Specifically, the confrontation over arts funding was launched in the late '80s by Republicans in Congress. Senator Alphonse D'Amato, Senator Jesse Helms, Representatives William Dannemayer and Dick Armey became incensed over government-funded artworks they deemed offensive. Or to turn that sequence of events around: The National Endowment for the Arts provoked a public outcry when it began underwriting artworks that these members of Congress felt went too far. The works, they charged, exceeded limits of community taste on matters of sexuality and faith, they explicitly advocated hostility toward Christianity and a "homosexual agenda" -- and they did all this with tax money.

David A Smith Baylor.jpg

But while other people might see the history of arts funding as marked by just these kinds of distinct, historically-bound outcries over decency or budgets, Dr. Smith sees them connected in a long, knotted thread. This thread stretches from 1817 -- when Congress paid to have the first patriotic oil paintings installed in the Capitol Rotunda -- all the way to the just-finished tenure of Dana Gioia as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dr. Smith offers a welcome and clear-headed analysis. He lends coherence to the history of arts support in America -- as a clash of underlying principles about the nature of democracies and government arts funding.

It's just what's lacking from Money for Art that's so dismaying.

May 30, 2009 5:42 PM | | Comments (5)

Although Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness is getting shelved in the "self-help" sections -- and more power to that label if it means the book will sell better than the usual essay collection -- Willard Spiegelman's new volume is actually a set of reflections on a set of quotidian activities: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. His pieces are  classic essays in the humanist tradition that goes back to Montaigne. They're part personal memoir, part guide, part explanation, part appreciation, part conveyor of insight, whether it be practical, moral, political or philosophical. The essays are all very much in the voice of this Southern Methodist University literature professor and longtime editor of Southwest Review: elegantly phrased yet seemingly casual, bemused yet thoughtful. And, of course, literate and learned but not in an off-putting manner. Think of it as a likable donnishness. It's that voice, that ruminative process of thinking that is one of the book's enjoyments. It succeeds so well in leading a reader along.

In his introduction, Spiegelman explains that he comes from cheerful stock. His outlook on life, as most of ours have, has been shaped by his genes. As he says in our televised conversation (which you can see at Art&Seek), he could do without these activities, these pleasures, and still be cheerful. This is one of the rare places in Seven Pleasures that I parted company with the likable don.

May 16, 2009 10:40 AM |


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