Reading Politics, Reading Art: Aims and Assumptions
I am currently at work on a book that explores the relationship between certain domestic and international issues in U.S. government policy (the Depression, the Cold War) and the various federal arts and humanities programs that to a large degree were meant to address those conditions (the Works Progress Administration relief programs; the international cultural exchange agreements of the 1950s and 1960s; the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities). While politicians tended to view these programs in strictly pragmatic, even propagandistic terms, artists and scholars who accepted such funding tended to operate under a different set of assumptions. The historical record grants very little support for the extreme positions of, say, a Jesse Helms or a Frances Stonor Saunders, whose ostensibly opposed political positions share a common assumption of prior docility on the part of government-funded artists and scholars that was somehow shattered during the NEA/NEH "culture wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The memoirs of Hallie Flanagan, director of the Depression-era Federal Theatre program (which had its funding cut for producing work deemed too critical of the government) and Livingston Biddle, an architect of the 1965 legislation creating the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, make clear the crucially productive nature of the differing assumptions of artists/scholars and government officials involved in funding programs for the arts and humanities. Careful attention to these differences leads us to consider the degree to which such disagreements may be constitutive and productive (rather than troubling and obstructive) aspects of the fluid and ongoing relationships among artists, humanists, and government.
Keywords: Federal Theatre, National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, Federal arts funding in the U.S., Cultural Diplomacy
Ms Catherine Kodat
Associate Professor, English American Studies, Hamilton College