Americans and the Arts

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Roger Mandle
Title: Americans and the Arts
VTR: 9/16/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And the very presence of my guest today compels me to focus once again on questions that first occurred to me as a young American historian four decades ago in preparing my edition of Tocqueville’s classic study of democracy in America. For the themes that, in truth, distinguish Tocqueville from many other Nineteenth Century commentators on America were what he called “The influence of democracy upon the intellect in our country, and the spirit in which Americans cultivate the arts.”

And surely few are better able to observe and evaluate the arts in our time than Roger Mandle, the new president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, formerly the deputy director of that extraordinary American jewel, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Now, Tocqueville’s mid-century, in the last century, observation was that “Democratic nations will cultivate the arts, which serve to render life easy, in preference to those whose object it is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful. My question to Mr. Mandle is: Is Tocqueville’s observation still correct? And if so, what are its consequences for the arts in America today?

Fair question?

MANDLE: That’s a very fair question on a variety of levels, particularly in a democracy, and in a democracy, a capitalistic one, the whole issue of the relationship of business to culture and culture as business is very much in the air these days, particularly because of the political consequences and the economic consequences to the arts.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “Political consequences?”

MANDLE: Well, the most obvious political consequences are those coupled with the National Endowment for the Arts, or with some of the more experimental art forms that are harbingers of change in this country. A lot of those expressions are difficult for people. And so we find the controversy about the diversity of expressions and the more experimental aspects of those bubbling up in the debates in Congress about the National Endowment for the Arts. And I really think that the arts are not useful to some people. They would like to see them put to more beautiful purpose. They would not like to see them challenge people. They would like them to somehow sit in the background and be pleasurable. But, in fact, the arts can be almost anything. The arts can be pleasurable to the first instinct. But the arts can also be pleasurable, in my mind, if they challenge and if they ask questions for which there aren’t answers. The debates in Congress right now seek to find simple answers to those questions, and to sort of put the arts in a traditional box. But the fact is that our country is changing dramatically, and there are many more voices, many more languages, many more colors and cultures represented here than ever before. And so I believe that part of this debate is about change, and about the giving up of power, or the sharing of power, and of the diversity of influences on power.

HEFFNER: How sanguine are you that the results of the debate will be those that you can admire and embrace, and will be productive in terms of your own interests?

MANDLE: Well, more and more I think that the arts, in the short term, are very vulnerable. And I think, in the short term, the forces of darkness, shall we say, the forces that would try to control expression and limit them to a certain kind of preconceived notion, one that has already been understood, the arts of the past instead of the arts of the future, the arts of the known instead of the arts of the unknown, I think those voices in the short run may almost prevail.

HEFFNER: And the long run?

MANDLE: In the long run, I think history is on the arts’ side. In the long run, the arts will out. In the long run, the arts always are signals of change, and they will be there whether or not people will seek to control them. Look what happened in the Soviet Union. The artists in the Soviet Union were thwarted in having a chance at free expression. But those works of art, as we know now, were still being made. And when the doors opened, it was possible to see the extraordinary amount of expression. Now, the sad part of that, of course, is that this was an expression that was not supported; It was not produced with any degree of friendship on the part of the official channels. And so, who knows of the artists who never gained the possibility of materials or the chance for encouragement? That, in the short run, is the sad part of this story. In the long run, however, I think the arts always win out. And in retrospect, the history will show matters of interest about the arts that don’t have a great deal to do with a lot of current concern.

HEFFNER: But, look, let’s, if we were to take Jesse Helms, for instance, as a person in Congress who has probably done more damage along the lines that you were just describing than anyone else. Isn’t there a basic sympathy that you must feel for his position as he has to vote or not vote to appropriate public monies for the arts that, to a very great extent, are not, perhaps, appreciated enough by the public at large?

MANDLE: Well, let’s put this in context. Because really this has become a political debate about a very, very small corner of federal support of the arts for a very small corner of the artistic expression in this country as well. The debate is about those things that have been identified as a problem, which in terms of public support of the arts is a miniscule amount of the money that is spent. In the case of the current debate it was $150 out of what was $174 million annual budget of the endowment. Think of the symphonies and the children’s art classes and the dance groups that have been formed, and the museum exhibitions that are brought to light to many. Think of the artists that are doing experiments that are perhaps less difficult. Al! of those things are on the block because of this tiny debate which has been marginalizing the arts.

But I’d also like to suggest that there are other arenas here which have to do with your quote about do Tocqueville. Those are the areas of design, as well. And in design, the forces at play are more economic. And here’s where I think our country is beginning to wake up. And I see that there are extraordinary signs of revitalization of interest in good design and manufacture. Government support of the arts and design, by a survey that the endowment took part in recently, is manifest. There are presidential awards in design now. And this is for design of bridges and other public projects. So the government is beginning to wake up to these issues as well.

HEFFNER: How do you define – how do you define – good design?

MANDLE: Well, good design comes from having a useful purpose, in my mind. But it also comes from having a useful purpose that extends to the grace of the object. That it isn’t just a cup: but it a cup that feels good in the hand, that it’s true to the materials that the artist is fashioning it with, that it has a presence that is beyond “cupness,” that it stands for itself in a certain way that has a pleasurable volume.

HEFFNER: And you have reason to believe, I gather, that increasingly Americans feel for design, have an interest in – or maybe “interest”l is the wrong word – have a feeling for good design, and that you can reach them through good design.

MANDLE: I see it more and more. I think that those responsible for creating manufactured goods are recognizing that in a world market – which we’re in; it’s not just within the borders of the U.S., but we really have to consider it as a competitive world market – that our goods, many of them – automobiles are an example, appliances are others – are beginning to be competitive again for the virtue of their design. Design has practical value. It makes the object work, it makes it last. But it also has efficiency and effectiveness and beauty. And those things all come together.

HEFFNER: Somewhere you wrote recently that art – and I’m sure you’d say this of design – that art had, for many, become a function of the criticism of the art form, that it was the critic who had, in a sense, supplanted the artist. Explain that, if you would.


HEFFNER: If I’m stating your position correctly. And correct me if I’m not.

MANDLE: No, I think that’s very, very basically what I had been writing about, which is that the critic, and his or her language, and his or her requirements for following a chain of events that could describe an art form, put it in context, was beginning to drive the debate about quality and art, rather than the object itself. That the rhetoric of art was beginning to supplant the art as a form of discourse itself. That it was getting out in front of the object as a point of encounter. And this is, I think, the other extreme to what we experienced about, oh, ten or 15 years ago when artists had fear of their place, and so all they would do, when they would review an exhibition or a play, was to describe what they saw without drawing any conclusions. Somewhere in the middle, I think, is a good position, in which the critic is trying to invent a place for the arts for the viewer’s perspective as well so that the encounter is about the object and not about the discourse.

HEFFNER: I really thought you were saying that the critic was attempting to create a place for the critic.

MANDLE: Oh, absolutely. I’m convinced of that. And it seems to me that the critic has, certainly has a place as an interpreter of the object and as a connector between, to help the viewer understand the place of the object in society and in the chain of events that led up to it as an object. But beyond that, to create a discourse around it that surrounds it with rhetoric that makes it a hard and impenetrable experience to see the object, then I think it’s a problem.

HEFFNER: Mr. Mandle, what would happen if the National Endowment and other sources of funds from the public were to disappear from the arts?

MANDLE: It would be a profound tragedy, not just for the artists, but for this country. Every great nation has done something in the way of support and inspiration to personal expression and to the arts. Not just visual arts, but music, literature, architecture, etcetera.

HEFFNER: But you say “personal expression.” Why would that personal expression not remain?

MANDLE: Well, the personal expression would remain, and it would go underground, or it would find other ways to be supported. Or, in fact, as its been argued, the private sector would take over. But think of it. For a nation not in its values to express the importance of the arts as a pinnacle of its being, I think would be a profound tragedy.

HEFFNER: Yes, but that’s something else, isn’t it? You’re saying that we as a people should do what others, as peoples, as nations, do. Granted, I will agree with that. Others will agree with that. And then Jesse Helms, perhaps, may not. But you’re not talking about the death, or the dearth, of individual creativity when you talk about succumbing to Helms.

MANDLE: No. I mean, obviously, private support would remain to the extent that it would. But I would see, also, over a period of time, the erosion of private support. Because it wouldn’t be viewed as a national priority. Look at education in that same way. That we have a Department of Education. And that education, even though it doesn’t have, the Department of Education doesn’t have a direct influence on the amount of support that goes to local school systems from the federal government, is in fact rather small, but the federal government has made education a priority over its history and has created an effort to help define it and to coalesce certain goals, I think, helps make education the kind of priority that it ought to be. Absent that, there would be chaos.

HEFFNER: Education in the arts, though, has been severely limited in the last generation.

MANDLE: It has. And I think that accounts for some of the problems in the public perception of the arts today. I think that’s one of the reasons why demagogues such as Jesse Helms can be heard, and there will be floods of cards, because they don’t see the arts in an overall context, they don’t recognize the value of it pervasive through our society; they just see arts as somehow marginalized kooks who are making objects to offend, when, in fact, the arts really are, and arts and design, are really so much a part of what we do.

HEFFNER: But it’s the marginality of it all that concerns people, isn’t it?

MANDLE: Oh, it is.

HEFFNER: Can you deal with an effort to reduce the marginality?

MANDLE: I think the marginality can be put in context. And I think one of the most important things that’s happened recently is the effort to inc education in the Goals 2000 program, and that the federal government has recognized, finally, that in the basic educational curriculum for our country that the arts play a role throughout, from kindergarten all the way on through high school and college. And so that will be defined in each local school system. But that it’s part of this now national agenda for education will help build a constituency that will understand that the arts are not a marginal part. There are artists who are operating on the fringe as they push the boundaries of the definition of what the arts are all about, but that there is a core of meaning to the arts for everyone.

HEFFNER: Do you think we can, as a people… No, strike that. Not “whether we can,” because we’d agree that we can, I think. That we will, as a people, chew gum and walk down the street at the same time, that we will deal with questions of health and health insurance and well-being, and deal with race relations and all the other social problems we have, and at the same time emphasize to your satisfaction the role of the arts in our educational structure?

MANDLE: Oh, absolutely.

HEFFNER: I mean, be a prophet. You think we will?

MANDLE: I will be a prophet. I think that there is an enlightenment, and there is a pervasiveness of general understanding in Congress. And as the political tradeoffs begin to shuffle, the arts have prevailed. There still is a National Endowment for the Arts, there will be one. And I believe that fundamentally the arts will be able to maintain their strength. I think also because there is a new understanding of the coalescence of the arts and design as a factor. And I think that recognizing the importance of design in America is one of the ways in which our Congress, our business community, and our citizens will be able to see this appropriate balance.

HEFFNER: You’re, of course, in the catbird seat, in terms of design, because I do think, when you go back to Tocqueville and talk about the useful design fits more into the category or the classification “useful,” man co many arts. But you think it’s as true of the arts generally? Well, I’m repeating myself. Your answer was yes, you’re optimistic. You think there’s room. Well, what’s the evidence?

MANDLE: Well, the evidence is that, contrary to the views of some people who would see the arts as marginal, more people still go to museums than go to sporting events. It is still the case that our professional theaters are doing well. Our dance groups are supported. There are problems around the edge because of the lack of government support and because the matching funds there aren’t going out to these groups. But I do see that the arts are going to remain strong and alive.

HEFFNER: If you were to be a critic, if you were to change hats, a critic of the arts in America, what would you do with that statistic: there are more people who go to museums than who go to sports events?

MANDLE: Well, obviously I’d say, “Well, what are they seeing? How good is the experience they’re having? I mean, what is the interest that there ought to be in serious film? How good are the dance groups that are springing up in local communities?’ But I think those are the questions that are always going to be there. The fact is that there is a kind of vitality and there is a kind of sharpening that occurs through both art education and the support of the arts that exist already. My own feeling about the visual arts, for example, is that there never has been a time when there is more diversity in expression being recognized, more cultural voices coming out through the cracks and beginning to be heard. And that’s a very profound and important thing at this point.

HEFFNER: What’s happening in other countries?

MANDLE: Well, I think that, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries, there is not a kind of outlet that’s happened. There is a curious kind of backlash to the struggles of getting heard. And after the first impulse for artists to become successful, those artists are now finding in the free marketplace a greater difficulty. And in the chaos that’s there, I think the arts are having a difficult time. The really interesting place for arts and design outside the United States, I think, would be Italy, and in Germany, in England to some extent, certainly in Japan, but also in countries like Korea which are beginning to emerge with a very strong economy. Strong economies, obviously, give vent to the possibility of greater support to the arts.

HEFFNER: And turning back here, the political struggle. You are sanguine? You think in the long run it’ll work out.


HEFFNER: In the short run, what is happening? We’re talking in September 1994. What do you anticipate in the next congressional session, the next congressional term?

MANDLE: Well, of course, we come up; the National Endowment comes up for not only appropriation but reauthorization in the next cycle. And that’s the time when there will be much more substantive debate about what the endowment has meant to this country and what it ought to mean in the future. And it is not exactly a good time for this debate at this moment because of the fact that there is a great emphasis, I think a correct one, on trying to keep the budget of the federal government down to whip the deficit. And so every agency will have to take its place. However, the National Endowment has not had an increase in its budget in more than a decade. And that’s, I think, a pretty sharp price to pay. So, on the one hand, there will be very much an emphasis on trying to redefine the endowment, to try to find goals and directions that recognize broader voices, to look at the community developments for the arts. At the same moment there are large organizations, the Metropolitan Opera, educational television, symphonies and so on, which have come to depend on matching support from the endowment, which will have a case to be made. Contrary to that, I think there will be these voices that seek not just to still the endowment but also to control education agendas to determine what books get put in libraries. And the endowment and the arts are a very vulnerable point at which these arguments can be brought out. It makes great column inches. The newspapers and the news are still very responsive to the kind of demagoguery that would say that because of one $150 grant that the entire endowment should go. So I think that these are the torsions that are going to be taking place in the debate. And I think the outcome is very much in the balance.

HEFFNER: In practical terms, I know, at points in history, you could have said, John Brademas is there in the Congress, and you could have spoken about others, both in the Congress and out. Is that as true today that there are as many voices with power i the national legislature who are concerned, as you are, with the arts?

MANDLE: I think there are. I think there are. And they do tine up at the appropriate moments. But I also think that the White House is much more supportive of the arts than we’ve seen in the past. We haven’t really put that to the test in a reauthorization mode, but I think that we’ll find that all the right forces will line up in the long run. But, I have to say, that we ought not to be sitting back and waiting for this to happen. Those of us who believe firmly in the arts and the value of the arts in education are going to have to speak as loudly about those fundamental values as those who would argue the opposite case, or I think we an expect a very poor outcome.

HEFFNER: Do you expect that the arts themselves will, in the years immediately ahead of us, provide provocation politically?

MANDLE: Always.

HEFFNER: Always.

MANDLE: They’ll always be a group of artists who seek to provoke, to challenge, who speak on behalf of people who don’t otherwise have voices, who find ways of being vexatious. Absolutely. But that, as I said, these are the fringes. These are the people who are pushing the boundaries of the arts out. And on the other hand, there are artists who look backwards. And I think that part of the balance among the arts in this country that needs to be re-emphasized is that there are as many artists who are painting pictures of rapes and of difficult subjects as there are those who are still creating landscapes and those who paint abstract impressionism and so on. And there are the arts as music, which are very abstract, and are important, and don’t have the kind of political message that people are trying to silence.

HEFFNER: You know, we have just a few minutes left. I go back to the thought that I’ve frequently expressed, and that is: If you don’t anticipate the worst, then you’re not prepared to say what it is you want, the essence of what you want to save.


HEFFNER: You said, when I asked the question about, “If government support were taken away totally, what would happen?” You said, “Well, perhaps we’d have to turn more to private sources.” Is there any effort to transvalue values and to come up with alternative means of supporting the arts now?

MANDLE: Oh, absolutely. I think that as many artists as there are who are ingenious in making their art, there are artists and administrators who are trying to be clever to invent new ways of keeping them alive and growing. First of all, the United States is now inter-webbed in a global corporate economy. And many institutions are getting substantial support for their cultural activities, in this country, from abroad. That’s one thing. Secondly, I think there are a lot of community groups, on a grassroots level, who are finding means of supporting themselves and pushing themselves up through the sidewalk cracks to become very powerful in their communities, and they’re doing it with support from local governments, and they’re doing it from support by companies in their own neighborhoods. And in fact, this national debate, while it has begun to sour some state legislatures, we find that the local art scene is very solid and very strong itself. But what it needs is this national or international inspiration to continue to grow.

HEFFNER: In this nation of more than a quarter-billion people, do you think there’s a large enough base of individuals interested in and aware of the value of the arts, the value of Tocquevillian terms, of the arts, for them to support?

MANDLE: Absolutely. Because recent surveys have shown that more and more people are interested in the arts. In the press to get the Education Department to recognize the arts in Goals 2000, a survey was undertaken. And there was an overwhelming support for establishing the arts as a permanent part of the school curriculum. Now, that, to me, expresses an extraordinary interest by the local citizen in making something strong about the arts.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, of course, that has to be translated into votes upholding budgets that provide for such activities.

MANDLE: Of course. Of course. And that’s being organized very directly now. And I think there will be a substantial reflection on that in the education sphere. About the politicization of the arts in the more public arena, that’s another question. And I think we need to build that translation.

HEFFNER: I hope you do build that translation, and I hope that your tenure at the Rhode Island School of Design will indicate to you that you’re right in all of your optimism. And thank you so much for joining me today.

MANDLE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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