Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Artist in America

Michael Brenson, Author
Michael Brenson, Author New Press $25 (157p) ISBN 978-1-56584-624-1
Reviewed on: 02/01/2001
Release date: 02/01/2001
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Beginning with the postwar boom in art that had Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson climbing on the bandwagon, and quickly jumping to the rancorous scorched-earth rhetoric of Gingrich and Buchanan, this book supplies an important and engaging juxtaposition of national cultures and moods. Brenson, a former New York Times art critic and now a Bard College professor of curatorial studies, details the nuts and bolts of national arts funding and shows how its mechanics directly reflect less quantifiable valuations of art and artists within the culture at large. The creation of the NEA by Johnson in 1965, argues Brenson, was the culmination of an unprecedented closeness between pioneering American abstract visual artists and a federal government that celebrated them as incorruptible visionaries and saw their output as a major Cold War propaganda tool. This contrasted starkly to the then pervasive stereotype of artists as goldbricking decadents, which, Brenson shows, was revived with a vengeance by the far right at the height of the culture wars. In 1995, the year after the ""freshman revolution"" in Congress, that culture war ended grants by the NEA to individual artists and cut its budget by 40%. Brenson is clearly an NEA partisan, but his arguments are well documented and passionately made, pointing to ""conservative phobias about the artist and about the nonwhite, nonheterosexual, and particularly gay body"" projected onto provocative work. As for now? ""The private sector is probably the only hope."" (Feb. 1) Forecast: This unflinching study will be picked up and feted by the art world, but probably ignored by conservatives, who assume they have already won this battle. Its real target audience may be the (diminishing) dot.com class and others looking for places to open their wallets. PW plans an interview with Brenson in February.
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