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Art in America: Does a great nation deserve great art?

The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts raises questions about how we as Americans define great art – and greatness itself.

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“A great nation deserves great art” proclaims the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a slogan warranting scrutiny despite the appeal to greatness.

Its undertones hint at the bleaker possibilities of a purely market-driven arts environment, sans government funding. We might imagine a glut of “reality” TV shows, advertisements, and other overly-hyped entertainments many wouldn’t define as “art.” Yet defining art is not the critical issue, but rather: What are the sounds and images dominating media? Wouldn’t they have to stand as our national self-expression, since majority-rule, including popularity, matters in a democracy?

Junk vs. nutritious consumption

Worthy arts that are the purview of a small “in-crowd” are not serving the central, democratic role of guidance that art could. With food, we distinguish “junk” and nourishment, and understand the effects of wrong choices. Doesn’t this principle also apply to the arts we “consume”? So ideally, the NEA’s role would be to foster beneficial work not liable to survive the marketplace.

Like health care, finance, or the environment, we might once again ask: Do we need encroaching government agencies overriding free-market choices, including the NEA’s “affirmative action” for the arts? Maybe that depends on us, on our actual greatness as a people.

If “great nation” and “great art” are welcome assessments, then what about the word connecting all that greatness, “deserves”? Is that the right verb? It suggests passive entitlement, or maybe a reward earned for being great. Either way, it seems to assume that great art doesn't rank among the prerequisites determining national greatness. Politicians incessantly remind us of all that we deserve, but that preoccupation doesn’t fit the profile of greatness.

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