A Letter from Deep in the Heart
By Michael McCullough
Most budget debates in the US Congress are conducted on an astonishingly low cultural and intellectual level, marked by both parties claiming clairvoyance over what is required to “make the country a better place for our children and grandchildren.” While their concern for posterity is always welcomed, it leaves one wondering how the yet-to-be born where regarded when the deficits were created in the first place. After all, it takes a great deal of time and effort to create monumental budget deficits such as the ones we now maintain. And in a sign of utter incompetence, the Congress and President have now left the budget debate in the hands of the bureaucracy to work out; we’re all anxious to see if they can come up with a more rational method of balancing the Federal checkbook.
So far, being “sequestered” – in the budgetary sense- doesn’t seem so bad, but think how strange it is to see budget cuts that don’t disproportionately affect the National Endowment of the Art. Since the Reagan administration, the NEA has been the whipping boy for federal budget excess, as if the small amounts given to arts funding in the US has any real impact on the budget. Perhaps this is because the government’s role in defining and regulating cultural life in America has always been controversial: Americans, true to their pilgrim roots, detest government interference in most areas of life but especially the cultural and spiritual.
Every now and then, usually while visiting Europe, I realize how late the US was to funding the arts. In the early 20th century, philanthropists were creating great museums and libraries, while the Federal government’s support of the arts was- at best- sporadic, leaving many people in the arts community in despair and disbelief. In 1955, President Eisenhower tried and failed to introduce legislation to establish a Federal Advisory Council of the Art, a modest proposal by any means. President Kennedy revived the effort in 1961 but the bill was defeated in the House 166-173 on a roll-call vote (some things never change). Kennedy tried and failed again in 1963, but Congress passed a bill in 1964 creating an advisory body, the National Council on the Art, in the Executive Office of the President. In consequence of this, President Johnson was the first president in American history to employ a Special Assistant to the President on the Arts, a full-time arts adviser. This led to Johnson’s 1965 State of the Union demand for a foundation on the arts and to Johnson’s submission of a bill to Congress in March of 1965 to establish arts funding. Johnson decided that the bill was a “must” piece of legislation and firmly pressed the Speaker of the House to push the Committee of Rules to move the bill to a vote.
The result was the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. Johnson stated at the signing ceremony that the legislation was meant to address the curious fact that “[s]omehow, the scientists always seem to get the penthouse, while the arts and humanities get the basement.” The Arts and Humanities Act established the NEA and provided for 26 citizens to serve as advisers to the agency as members of the National Council on the Arts. Members are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate for six-year, staggered terms. Congress has since reduced the membership of the Council to 18 members of the National Council on the Arts and an additional six members of Congress to serve in an ex officio, non-voting capacity for two-year terms.
It’s difficult to know Johnson’s personal thoughts on the arts, and I’m not well familiar with the various biographies of Johnson. It’s unlikely that Johnson’s early upbringing had a major influence on his understanding of the arts; it’s easy to miss Johnson City, Texas while driving on Highway 289 between Fredericksburg and Austin. It seems more likely that Johnson’s approach to the arts was an intellectual one, and this plays out in many of his speeches and writings on the topic.
The legislative files on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 in the LBJ Presidential Library- a collection well worth the visit- offer some useful hints at Johnson’s views on the arts. The Johnson White House wrote dozens of letter to supporters of the legislation, but very few written by Johnson himself- most of the correspondence was delegated to aides. However, in a letter from Johnson to one of the early and keen supporters of the Arts and Humanities Act, Dr. Barnaby Keeney of Brown University, he wrote “[w]e have indeed begun to worry as much about our greatness as about our goods- – and it is a giant step forward.”
This theme of intellectual progress is reflected again in Johnson’s first annual report to Congress on the NEA, delivered in January 1967. The first draft of the address, written by aides, was a dry, bureaucratic checklist of accomplishments. To the final draft, Johnson added “[i]n countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. What this bill does is to bring active support to this great national asset.” He continued on to say, “[t]hose who believe that the quality and appreciation of art is one test of a nation’s maturity and greatness will take heart from this report.”
In another letter, written to the actor Kirk Douglas in thanks for his support of the Arts and Humanities Act, Johnson wrote, “[n]o society is truly great unless the arts are alive. If we can help nourish them, then history will favorably record our times.” As memories of the Vietnam War- and of Arthur Miller- fade, perhaps it’s time to reflect more upon Johnson’s support for the arts and his great legacy of arts funding.