The National Catholic Review

My mother, in an unusually arch moment, once proffered a solution to all the church-state debates about Christmas crèches on public squares. Take the clothes off the Wise Men, she said. That way they could get an arts award.

Jane Alexander, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts, likes wit. Her account of her days at the N.E.A., Command Performance, is a graciously written, even funny book. She would have the grace to laugh at such a quip, albeit nervously.

Alexander’s book recounts her years of living dangerously at the N.E.A. during the first years of the Clinton administration. An award-winning actress both on stage and in quality films (Kramer vs. Kramer, All the President’s Men), she focuses especially on that odd conjunction of politics and theater known as Washington, D.C.

She is too classy to say this directly, but her account substantiates what everyone credits as her valiant work in support of the arts. Without her, the N.E.A. would be dead. Although funding was cut back by about 40 percent during her tenure, this was hardly her fault. Saving anything was her accomplishment.

How did Alexander save the N.E.A.? The book tells the story plainly. She staved off Newt Gingrich (no love will be lost between them) and neutered Jesse Helms, with whom she had cordial relations. She worked the Senate well, rallying Democrats and moderate Republicans, about whom Alexander is fair enough to say there are many upholding an old patrician tradition of arts patronageAlan Simpson of Wyoming, for example, one of the bulwarks of the Shakespeare Folger Library, who became an N.E.A. champion on the Hill.

Alexander brought art to arts administration. No one who heard Alexander ever can forget how she magisterially presided over N.E.A. council meetings; she owns a voice to launch a thousand ships. Her skills as an actress were unquestionably in play as she defended her agency from budget cutting or closure. She also knew how to act. Helms prizes himself on chivalric courtesy to womenat least white womenand is vulnerable to feminine charm, and Alexander frankly says she worked him and other patriarchs like Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.

Alexander has told the truth as she sees it. One is not a Philistine, however, to question parts of her take. To her the N.E.A. is always more sinned against than sinning. But, to cite one problem, in 1996after years of Congressional complaints on the subjectclose to 40 percent of N.E.A. panelists came from New York and California. The N.E.A. likes to brag about the growth of the arts; apparently, it takes too little pride in its efforts in Portland or Phoenix. In its next reauthorization, the N.E.A. was instructed that not more than 10 percent of panelists annually could come from any given state.

The N.E.A. has been weak on arts in the schoolsa cause, you would think, that might be dear to it or the Department of Education. Both agencies play the game of pointing at the other and saying they’re in charge. So no one is, and K-12 arts are orphaned. Alexander frankly admits the N.E.A. talks about schools, but mainly (a) when it is time to divert Congress with outreach programs and (b) in terms of fellowships for artists in schools, which is not the same as (1) sequenced classes (2) from regular teachers (3) for all students. No area of education has taken such a hit in the last 20 years as the arts. All federal funding for the arts will be moot without future audiences. Facing that would be truly avant-garde.

Alexander, like most arts advocates, also sees issues in simple terms. Federal funding for arts strikes her as a first amendment issue. But is denying money equivalent to censorship? The N.E.A.’s sister agency, the N.E.H., makes a prime criterion for funding the significance of projects. If the N.E.H. is censoring insignificant speech, there is no evidence that it has suffered.

The only issue is what criteria agencies will use to fund certain projects, and why liberals think they can exclude moral criteria. But of course, when it suits them, they don’t. Alexander deserves some credit, for in the book’s best passage she confronts the issue as she recounts a dinner debate about whether or not there is some merit to content objections to art. She writes:

 In this age of political correctness, libraries and schools are removing books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huck Finn from their shelves as offensive to African Americans. Where do we draw the line? When does art cease to be art, and become propaganda or perversity? The consensus that evening seemed to be that the criterion of excellence’ by a jury of one’s peers is the fairest way to adjudicate art and that the N.E.A. panels were doing a pretty good job in their advisory capacity.... Still, I was left with an unanswered question: What are the limits of acceptability?

Alexander never answers her final question. Too bad. the issue deserves a philosopher; Plato says it predates him. But if D. W. Griffith came back and asked for funds for The Birth of a Nation, or if some new Bach authored more Jewish choruses for a St. John Passion, does their accomplished style excuse the content? The history of the arts is replete with works that are beautiful but not good. Contemporary poststructuralists say all Western art is merely the aesthetically pleasant privileging of class, gender and race. With Jesse Helms, that is, they agree the content of art causes problems; the only difference is over what content.

Determining the answer is not a constitutional issue, but a political one. What is always astonishing about arts advocates, including even Alexander at her best, is their shock this should be so. She has written a good book, but skirted the biggest question.

Tom OBrien, formerly at the National Endowment for the Humanities, is managing editor of Arts Education Policy Review in Washington, D.C.