Foreword: Art From the Swamp

Today is the official publication date of Art from the Swamp by our late friend Bruce Cole. With the kind permission of Roger Kimball and Encounter Books, we are posting Roger’s brief foreword below.

This is one foreword that I wish I did not have to write.

When my friend Bruce Cole died suddenly in January 2018, age 79, he left the manuscript of this book about Washington’s patronage of the arts almost complete. In a world in which the operations of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—the three Fates who spin, measure out, and finally snip the skein of life—were not so preemptory, it would have been Bruce himself who would have offered these few stage-setting words.

But it was not to be. Bruce, a historian of Renaissance art and of American civics, was also the longest-serving director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held from 2001 to 2009. He was also the author of fourteen books on various aspects of Renaissance art, American civic literacy, and related topics. In 2008, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal “for his work to strengthen our national memory and ensure that our country’s heritage is passed on to future generations.” The preservation of national memory and the preservation of our heritage were abiding leitmotifs in Bruce’s career, both in his voluminous writing and in his many administrative activities.

Bruce’s last official perch was as a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He was a potent commentator on a clutch of public controversies, weighing in most recently on the heated debate over the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, a controversy that looms large in this book.

The title Art from the Swamp suggests the spongey and enveloping nature of the phenomenon Bruce seeks to anatomize in this book. For what started in 1783 with an unrealized public commission by the Confederation Congress for an equestrian statue of George Washington has ballooned, like every bureaucracy that pulsates in the pullulating ground of Washington, into a sprawling and expensive congeries of programs, initiatives, grants, set-asides, commissions, and mandatory spending requirements overseen by the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture Program, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other swampy entities. The result, as Bruce catalogues in the following pages, is a corrupt process that disgorges a panoply of art and architecture at taxpayer expense but most often without regard to taxpayer taste or preference. Bruce shows just how vast the empire of government patronage has become in an Appendix which lists every known work of government funded art and architecture from 1975 to 2016. It is a long list.

I said that when Bruce died the manuscript for this book was almost complete. I have to emphasize the adverb: almost. Without the tireless and expert intervention of Bruce’s longtime assistant and EPPC colleague J. Bradley Studemeyer, Art from the Swamp would have remained a work in potentia. It was he who dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, filled in the lacunae, polished the rough edges, supplied the missing quotations, and checked and doubled the many sources that Bruce consulted in writing this book. Mr. Studemeyer’s work was the indispensable coping stone. I am grateful to have this opportunity to thank him for his labors.

Copyright © 2018 by Roger Kimball. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the kind permission of Roger Kimball and Encounter Books.

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