American Culture

The state of literary art I: who is an artist?

American literary fiction over the last 50 years has been, it seems, in a struggle to find an audience…

Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

Another book from the 2014 reading list composed of essays. This one, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millenium, is a collection of essays by writer, writing teacher, and litfic cheerleader Joe David Bellamy. Since this is a book of essays that range over a number of issues confronting the literary community, it seems logical to look at Bellamy’s book in sections. So, as I’ve done with a book of scholarly essays on popular music as protest, I’ll be looking at this work over a number of weeks. This will allow me to share Bellamy’s wide ranging discussions of issues such as  of support for the arts (particularly literature), writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, and styles of literary fiction.

Bellamy has a lot to say about each of these areas (and others) and his opinions are – interesting might be the best word. I agree with some of his assessment of the state of litfic, some of it I would say probably needs updating, and some of it smacks of his personal biases. That last is not necessarily a bad thing – except when he resorts to trying to make literature style an object of political analysis.

The first essay in the collection is a good place to start as it gives an overview of where American literary culture was at the end of the 20th century. To be fair to Bellamy, this book is 19 years old, so some of his observations about the state of the American literary scene are dated – and certainly an essay from the mid 1990’s could not anticipate the changes in both publishing and book culture that have occurred in the last two decades.

The essay looks at two important issues that were occurring during that period of economic boom. The first of these, seen up close by Bellamy, who at the time was working as Director of the Literature Program for the National Endowment for the Arts, is an eyewitness account of the near success that the religious and political Right had in trying to eliminate our only national program to support the arts. Bellamy does an excellent job of discussing both the politics of the NEA and the politics swirling around it at that moment in history. While Jesse Helms and his minions did all they could to claim that the NEA  was nothing more than a cesspool of obscenity funded with “our tax dollars,” the NEA responded with the “three arguments” that are now classic rationales for support of the arts: that the arts promote educational performance, that the arts draw businesses and economic development to communities where the arts thrive, and that the arts help improve the lives of people in communities where the arts are supported (i.e., the arts provide social benefits). Fortunately, Bellamy notes, these arguments were enough (barely) to save the NEA. Bellamy does, though, add his own argument to those offered above: he argues that there is no reason not to argue for the arts as value added to the culture. That’s certainly a noble argument, but when one is faced with a combination of those who express hatred for anything that is not profit driven and those who see any art as evil that does not depict “the greater glory of God” (the Christian God, of course), arguing that art exists for its own sake would fall on ears for which the description deaf would be inadequate.

The other topic that Bellamy explores in the essay is why literature gets such small support compared to either the visual or performing arts. He offers the following astounding information: the United States spends more on military bands through the Department of Defense budget than it spends on the arts for the entire nation. And the bulk of the money allocated by the NEA is spent on grants for the visual and performing arts – the encouragement of creative writers is a small percentage of the NEA budget. Bellamy argues that this poses a distinct threat to  literacy in our country. As evidence he cites the decline in sales of works of literary fiction from the major publishers. Having written about the decline in literary fiction sales myself, I understand his concern. But it is Bellamy’s comments on why the arts budgets of other countries far surpass America’s arts budget that is perhaps the most telling insight this essay offers.

In discussing the reasons why the Canadian arts budget – particularly its budget supporting literary artists – dwarfs that of the US, Bellamy notes that a major reason many countries offer extensive support to their artists is to offset the influence – influence often bordering on hegemony – of American pop culture. That rationale – offering substantial, meaningful support for the arts to counteract the hegemonic domination of American intellectual life by its popular culture of entertainment – would certainly be a possible way for America to find its way toward a literate culture with an appreciation for good literature. Given our current technopoly, however, the possibility of that sort of reassessment of our national commitment to the arts seems sadly unlikely.

Finally, it seems apropos to mention an anecdote Bellamy shares that he suggests illuminates the attitude toward the arts at even the highest levels of government. At a White House gathering for artists who’d received NEA grants, President George H.W. Bush (you remember him – the “smart” Bush president) told the assembled artists – some of America’s great artistic talents – he was going to introduce them to some “real” artists. He then introduced baseball legends Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams to the group.

That, Bellamy tells us, is the current state of the arts in America in the mid 1990’s. I doubt anyone reading this would argue that matters have improved.

15 replies »

  1. “Bellamy notes that a major reason many countries offer extensive support to their artists is to offset the influence – influence often bordering on hegemony – of American pop culture.” Wow, never heard this before. If widely known, though, knowing Americans, it would only spur us to escalate and export even more American pop music and movies overseas.

    • Not just that, Russ – beginning back in the 80’s America’s film industry has kept out most quality foreign cinema – all while making inferior American versions of the films – everything from “City of Angels” (a remake of Wim Wenders poetic “Wings of Desire” to our even crappier versions of popcorn flicks like “Gojira” – remade and remade and remade – always badly, it seems – as “Godzilla.”

      And guess what American books have become phenomena? Yup. “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.” If we have to infantilize ourselves literarily, we hope to take the world with us, it seems…sigh….

  2. Interesting. I knew that Canada had structures in place to hedge against American hegemony in popular culture. They used to require Much Music to play at least 50% Canadian artists, for instance. Not sure what the state of those policies is today.

    But I didn’t realize that this had implications for “high” art. Things being what they are, I can’t imagine that US hegemony in litfic would be a serious problem for nations less afflicted by anti-intellectualism.

    • The problem is the American decline in literary quality, Sam. So much embracing of middle brow stuff as “literary” that I think other countries fear that we’ll contaminate their serious artists and writers.