Arts and Minds

The United States government wants to enlist members of the art community to help win "hearts and minds." This fall, the American Association of Museums will award almost $700,000 -- half of it from the State Department -- to American grant applicants for overseas artistic outreach projects. The idea isn't new, but the level of control the government may assert over the actual art is.

At first blush, this program, Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCCA), appears to be an earnest extension of U.S. "public diplomacy" efforts, intended to help our country regain the international admiration it has lost during the Bush presidency. Under closer scrutiny, however, it is less benign. For one thing, the State Department requires that each proposal explain "how this project promotes U.S. foreign policy." For another, it turns out that U.S. embassies and consulates are allowed -- or, one might guess, encouraged -- to preselect foreign museums for participation. The application guidelines also specify that proposals involving preselected museums "may receive additional consideration by the MCCA selection committee."

In this light, the MCCA program raises the uneasy question of whether the government should be influencing art for political purposes through state largesse at all. The issue is not altogether unfamiliar. During the Cold War, the CIA subsidized the avant-garde through front organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which supported abstract expressionist painters as well as intellectual magazines like Encounter, Monat, and Partisan Review. The idea was precisely not to attach political strings to specific artists or projects, but to show ambivalent foreign elites that Western capitalist democracy constituted the most fertile ground for artistic freedom. Indeed, many of the artists and writers that the CIA supported tilted to the left, which, as writer Louis Menand has noted, betrayed the rather sophisticated conviction that "it's possible to be left-wing, avant-garde, and anti-communist."

As CIA operations went, supporting the arts was benign and enlightened. Its clandestine nature raises red flags, but the reality was that in the 1950s and 1960s American citizens were highly suspicious of the avant-garde. The majority didn't appreciate the new art that the government was promoting; they preferred more traditional realism. Moreover, they saw the avant-garde message as sympathetic to communism and, more broadly, as anti-American -- not an affirmation of American freedom.

Unlike that previous effort, the State Department's joint venture with the American Association of Museums is able to be entirely overt without raising conservative hackles. Indeed, given the difficulty the Bush administration has had in winning "hearts and minds" in the global "war on terror," deploying the arts as a soft, noncoercive form of American influence certainly seems like a promising approach. But both the State Department's preselection prerogative and the express funding criterion of advancing U.S. foreign policy pose the risk that the government will scrutinize content to an unacceptable degree.

The seeds of direct content regulation were sown in the late 1980s, when National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) support for the controversial work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano triggered the "culture wars of the arts." These culminated in NEA v. Finley (1998), in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal law requiring the NEA to consider "general standards of decency" and "respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" in awarding government grant money to artists. The decision enshrined a high level of NEA attention to content, and paved the way for similar scrutiny on the part of other government grant-giving agencies.

Another effect of the decision was that projects and grant proposals that addressed community needs were the most readily funded. Artists adapted, and their community involvement was generally beneficial. Now, in essence, artists and arts organizations will be funded to fulfill a similar mandate on an international scale, and confidence that they can do so is warranted. But if the actual awards are inordinately skewed toward projects involving preselected institutions -- or, worse, toward efforts directly targeting ideas deemed "anti-American" -- much of the arts community will drop out. Beyond that, foreigners will be more likely to perceive the projects themselves as bald propaganda tools rather than well-intentioned channels of cultural openness and reconciliation.

Clandestine though its Cold War activities were, the CIA realized correctly that it was the West's artistic freedom -- not political didacticism -- that attracted those from other cultures. The State Department and the American Association of Museums need to follow that model by doing away with preselection and the implicit requirement that funded projects directly promote U.S. foreign policy. And they should make no secret of it.