Since the massive debates over the National Endowment for the Arts erupted in the early 1990s—largely stemming from the NEA’s funding of a controversial Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition — a variety of scholars have taken up the task of trying to assess the value of the arts in contemporary American society. Casey Nelson Blake’s edited volume, The Arts of Democracy: Art, Public Culture, and the State, with its goal of “illuminat[ing] the often contradictory impulses that have shaped the relationship between the arts and public life in modern America,” is one such attempt (2).
The NEA debates form the underlying event of at least half the book’s essays, which highlight a number of contemporary heavy-hitters in “public art” discourse. Michael Kammen’s contribution, “Culture and the State in America,” is now a classic in its tracings of the delineation of U.S. arts policy. Paul DiMaggio and Bethany Bryson’s sociological work in measuring public attitudes toward the arts appears here in brief, as does the work of Sally Promey, a prominent art historian who works on American art’s intersection with religion in public, shared spaces.