Art Lessons: Learning from the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding; Alice Goldfarb Marquis; BasicBooks; 1995; 304 pages; hardcover; $25.00.

An overview of the course:

For advanced students, students with an interest in arts funding, auditing NEA officials, and conservative politicians interested in furthering their careers. The professor, Alice Goldfarb Marquis, a visiting scholar in history at UCSD, wants students of public arts funding to learn from its relatively short history. She wants them to gain a working knowledge of the cultural changes that precipitated the rise of public arts funding in the U.S. (the way Americans began to define art, how this definition contributed to our perceived need to support artists, and the centrality of arts funding after World War II).

Moving along a little faster, Professor Goldfarb will teach readers about fifties and sixties efforts to establish arts centers, giving an overview of who was behind all this. She'll talk about the eventual creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, who pushed for it and why, and who started major federal funding (Nixon!). She'll give a detailed account of the NEA and its role as political football, how it is now a "faint shadow" of its former self, and conclude with a discussion of how useful the organization is.

She wants her readers to ask themselves: What are the problems inherent in public funding? How does public funding influence the arts? Who decides who gets money for art? Does "being exposed to the arts" improve us? Do giant funding councils, such as the National Endowment for the Arts have a sense of social responsibility? As a historian and journalist, Marquis wants students to consider exactly what the history of arts funding teaches us. Critically thinking readers may want to formulate their own study questions, asking themselves about the publicly-funded art that surrounds them (hint: there's more there than performances of Nutcracker and ugly metal sculptures). Readers should ask themselves when and why public arts funding has worked, and why Marquis leaves any success stories out of her argument.

Marquis wants the readers to consider, in particular, the case of the NEA. With us since 1965, the NEA was born with a giant push from academics in the humanities; the NEA became America's biggest source for art organizations and individuals who needed funds. It came about as a result of lots of cultural factors--including our competition with the Russians who supported arts heavily, and an increasing belief--which, Marquis says, bordered on religious fervor--in exposure to the arts as the solution to America's problems.

Marquis provides examples of mismanagement and carelessness to show how the whole organization got so big and out of hand that money was being passed out without being investigated by the council leaders. Small committees simply made recommendations that were rubber-stamped at an incredibly fast rate by the council; furthermore, the NEA could not always control what grant recipients did with their money. Then, politicians who didn't like arts funding covered by the government started pointing out useless art projects to embarrass the NEA and to convince voters that arts funding is not just frivolous but ridiculous and wasteful.

So what, at the end, is the lesson of history? For Alice Goldfarb Marquis, history has taught us that the NEA is a Victorian relic: "the NEA acts like a naive, thoroughly addled Lady Bountiful. It purveys a multitude of fictions: that Americans do not contribute generously to the arts; that there exists a distinct cultural realm worthy of subsidy, a realm easily distinguished from simple entertainment; and, worst of all, that the arts in America would perish without federal intervention. . . . . The promise of money has lured [artists] into the safe, orderly, predictable environment of the cultural zoo. . . . It is time to turn the animals loose."

Dangerous is a dangerous word to use, but does all the logic of Marquis's substantial research and incredibly detailed history qualify this sudden leap to pathos, this hokey appeal to set the artists free from their zoo cages? A call for a restructuring of the NEA is one thing; these statements are pretty scary. Conservative politicians will turn this book into a well-documented, arguably academic soapbox to cut funding for the arts. The contemporary NEA may or may not be managed well, but are Marquis's strange but true stories of ugly metal sculptures scorned by the masses they were supposed to enlighten enough to convince us that public arts funding will never work? And if the government follows her recommendations,`` what will happen to, say, poetry--a small and defenseless animal--which would not survive Marquis's Darwinian utopia?

There will be a quiz tomorrow.