Blurring the Boundaries at the NEA

by Louis Torres

[This article appeared in Aristos, January 1991.]

A dance critic acclaims choreographers who are "stretching the definition of dance."

An eminent director praises playwrights who are "redefining what constitutes theater."

A theater critic applauds those working in "the indefinable field of 'performance art,' in which anybody can do anything almost anywhere."

More and more, today, definitions are being distorted, even discarded, or just plain ignored, by arts professionals, including those who advise the National Endowment for the Arts.

As a teacher I always urged my students to be attentive to the precise meaning of words. If one of them had spoken of "redefining what constitutes theater," I would have asked: What does the term "theater" mean? How can it be "redefined" without becoming something else? If it becomes something else, why call it "theater"?

Contrary to the view now nearly universal in the art world, precise definitions are important. By identifying the essential characteristics of things or ideas, definitions (from the Latin definire, "to limit; to be concerned with the boundaries of something") set terms within their proper boundaries so that meaningful discourse can take place. Yet the vast majority of today's reputed artists, curators, critics, and scholars seem bent on blurring the definitions of the major art forms. They even go so far as to deny essential distinctions between art and other areas of human activity.

Thus a respected art historian notes approvingly that an artist's work "destroyed the boundaries between art and design." Similarly, an art critic earnestly reports that the line between art and craft is "everyday more blurred on the contemporary front."

A dance critic writes of performers "honing the hybrid of gymnastics, modern dance, and circus trapeze techniques."

A music critic, in a bold variation on the theme of blurring, predicts that the music of the future will "blur the distinction between listener and composer."

Still other arts professionals refer to "blurring the lines between art and technology," "tearing down the barriers that divide the fine and applied arts," "resisting categorization," or "confounding conventional notions about what is or is not art."

Hardly anyone, it seems, is immune to this litany--not even William Safire, one of America's most estimable guardians of language. In a recent column in the New York Times (May 18, 1990), Safire declared that "a central function of art is to redefine frontiers."

The widespread disdain for precision of language in the art world today calls to mind a passage from George Orwell's 1984: "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Every year . . . the range of consciousness always a little smaller. The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought as we understand it now."

In the prevailing discourse on contemporary art, Orwell's prophecy has long since been realized. Nowhere more so than at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Consider a typical example of the rhetoric in an NEA-sponsored volume published a few years ago on developments in public art. The keynote chapter--not surprisingly entitled "Stretching the Terrain"--praises artists who have "blurred the distinctions between art and life."

In fact, boundaries pertaining to the arts were officially blurred at the NEA from the beginning. The Act of Congress establishing the endowment in 1965--Public Law 89-209--itself erased distinctions between art and other areas of creativity. Purporting to define "the arts," the original legislation merely listed traditional forms such as music, dance, painting, and sculpture together with categories like industrial design and fashion design, and indiscriminately referred to all of them as "major art forms."

Thus the legislation ignored a fundamental distinction between the fine arts--which convey important human values--and such utilitarian products as wheelchairs or evening gowns (both of which have been exhibited in major art museums with NEA funding).

As a former teacher, I most lament the blur-the-boundaries/anything-goes approach to art in the endowment's Arts in Education program--a program that has supported, among its activities, "artist residencies" in the public schools.

The results of such residencies in one field--poetry--have been sharply criticized by Myra Cohn Livingston, a noted children's poet, teacher, and writer. In her definitive The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality? (reviewed in Aristos, Vol. 4 No. 1, January 1988), Livingston decries the thousands "who call themselves poets" and visit the schools, with NEA support, purportedly teaching children to write and appreciate poetry. She charges that these self-styled poets lack basic knowledge of their craft; under their tutelage, poetry becomes "a sort of playing with words for the children," to little end but the advancement of the "poet-teacher."

There is yet more distressing testimony regarding the impact on our nation's children of the NEA's blur-the-boundaries approach to art. It comes from a fifth-grade class that was visited regularly by an NEA-supported "philosopher of art" who, in part, engaged his young charges in esoteric discussions about the meaning and value of art. His ultimate aim? "To produce people who think totally differently about art." How well has he succeeded? We can judge from the response of one fifth-grader, who wrote this note of appreciation to her philosopher-mentor:

"Art can be good in any way. . . . Art can be anything with line, shape and color. Art doesn't have to be a picture. Art can be anything in the world. Anything is art. Thanks for coming to teach us about art."*

Anything is art? No boundaries? That, apparently, is what the National Endowment for the Arts would have us all believe. Common sense, however--not to mention logic--dictates otherwise.

*Quoted from "Rapping with the Scan Man," Newsletter of The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, Winter 1990. Astonishingly, this fifth-grader's note was cited as evidence of the success of the philosopher's efforts and, more broadly, of the Portland Oregon School District's discipline-based art education (DBAE) program--originated and initially funded by the Getty Center (now known as the Getty Education Institute for the Arts). The philosopher's work was sponsored in part by "Artists in the Schools," an NEA project.

[NOTE: An earlier version of this article was published in the Orange County (Calif.) Register, September 9, 1990. Though funding for the NEA has shrunk considerably since then, the same mentality continues to influence its programs and activities. See, for example, "Crossing Boundaries--Where Artists and Art Forms Meet," published on-line by the endowment. More disturbing, that mentality permeates private initiatives such as the lavishly funded Getty programs in arts education (see above), which would continue even if the NEA were completely dismantled.]