Everyone seems to instinctively know that this election is the biggest deal since Stalin and Roosevelt lit up pipes in the same room – or if you’re very young, since the gangly protuberance growing on Victoria Beckham’s royal-wedding hat.
Stakes are perilously high, killers on the loose, war zones have doubled and the depth of political division tears at the gut of the nation. In such a time as this, what should artists be doing as a group? Ah, there lies the rub, we’re in the same splintered, acrimonious shape as everyone else, and there is no “group.”
Rather, in a time-battered and highly comical way, conservatives and liberal artists duke it out in a ceremonial boxing match over the National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, which doesn’t begin to touch the real issues. It never fails; the NEA randomly picks some vulgar or clearly anti-Christian art to fund, and in a classic, almost Pavlovian response, conservatives start screaming to cut their funds or tell their grandmothers.
I have some other ideas. Why don’t we all view the offending art and just laugh and make rude comments to the curators? Send them along to government agencies while you’re at it. Or be creative and have fun making your own versions of offensive art with targets reversed. Ah the possibilities: How about an homage to the delightful Chapman Brothers as children (one of their favorite targets) with Hitler’s face and a miniature RAF bombing them while using the toilet? Alternatively, deranged children could be burning them at the stake along with their art; I think they would appreciate this thoughtful reflection of their work.
Or recycle Chris Ofili’s Elephant dung (reserved for the Virgin Mary in his work) by creating an entire sculpture of him with the stuff in his honor. You could add little flourishes; he could be tortured by terrorists in feathered pajamas with a great, smiling George Bush face floating overhead for added authenticity (I wouldn’t actually do this, because I have better things to do with my life – but I’m having a great time fantasizing about it). It might mix things up, so we could have valuable “discussions” that are known to solve all difficult things and bring diversity on Earth.
Perhaps the best response for this kind of deliberately offensive art is to just ignore it until it shrivels up from lack of interest, value and depth and blows away. Eventually the political winds will change, and the directors of the NEA and their policies are replaced by someone else. That is if we still have a government and a nation.
But back to the screamingly urgent.
Mitt Romney recently said he would cut or even eliminate the entire NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities in an effort to trim federal spending. Since their combined subsidies come to perhaps $590 million, that won’t even qualify as a razor nick on the $14 trillion dollar beast of a debt. Removing these arts and culture institutions will do little more than polarize the voters, and it’s been working in the last few elections.
Sarah Palin also struck up the band to defund the NEA, as have other conservatives. She went so far as to label the arts a “frivolous” thing, bringing a swift and generally negative public reaction. If she prevails, she’d win a minor skirmish but possibly lose larger battles by not enlisting public support or having a Plan-B for aesthetics.
Conservative politicians have been trapped in a clever ruse and don’t realize they were goaded into an ambush. In a knee-jerk reaction any decent person would have in response to “P— Christ,” fungible politician “A” suggests shutting down the only symbolic U.S. agency of art. This makes him feel much better, but he’s left looking like a barbarian who just clubbed a blind cellist.
In spite of the current administration, the NEA+NEH still comes up with some valuable cultural outreaches, especially in a time when public schools are so forlornly art-emptied. Projects they’re considering this year among others are restoring an old Synagogue into a community center, funding a legal debate club in the Bronx and teaching incarcerated youth to produce Shakespearean plays, which I personally would really like to see.
Probably the best example of a conservative who “gets it” is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was working the crowd at the Republican convention in support of the arts. “Americans for the Arts” lobbies for creative industries and appeared at both the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions trying to drum up interest and support. One key point, especially for Republicans, was to prove the benefits of the arts to local economies. They also advocate federal and state funding for arts and have several conservatives in leadership.
Huckabee is a serious musician with his own band who befriends other musicians and supports all forms of the arts. While Obama sucked up all the adulation and posters from starry-eyed artists, Huckabee, an actual supporter of the arts (and not on every fourth year only) was virtually ignored.
Thanks to Obama’s work, artists are now faced with imminent economic collapse of the entire U.S. government, which may, possibly, have an undesired affect on governmental art funding. But what is that to blind, left-wing idealism? They have their posters and memories.
I personally believe that any civilized society produces and often funds great public art and makes efforts to promote it. This reaches back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and is evident in any society with a dime to its name – although we could quibble about our current national debt at this point and whether that includes us.
Many conservatives (myself included) have no problem with the NEA+NEH except when administered through petty, partisan cronies of the administration. This has been avoided somewhat by a ban on grants to individual artists created several years ago. But it’s common knowledge that the NEA has been used by the Obama White House with conferences and carrot sticks to promote the president personally and his policies.
A 2009 Breitbart interview with whistle blowing filmmaker Patrick Courrielche described how he was courted by the White House via the NEA. In a conference call, artists were invited to create pro-Obama administration art and push his personal agenda – this was made clear. They asked for help laying “a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda – health care, energy and environment.”
This is a bad thing for everyone involved and should be reserved for small island oligarchs surrounded by children waving olive branches.
Constitutional and justice issues aside, the lack of class and show of brass required to preempt the entire art-making efforts of a nation for his own personal gain is stunning. In Bush’s era, many NEA grant recipients were allowed to viciously attack him as responsible for all the ills of humanity and some species of plant life, which only proves the latitude and freedom extended the arts by the “evil” Republicans.
I have yet to see one artist with a large national, state or institutional grant who either attacked the policies of Obama or was particularly pro-American. The same can be said of the more prominent art galleries on both coasts. What gives? Do they really think he’s a y-chromosome version of Mother Teresa? This is bad for America and for art and alienates many people when they think about contemporary art.
With the exception of most big city galleries and academics, who wouldn’t stop their obsessive fawning over Obama if he personally firebombed them, there’s a chorus of dissatisfaction from many in the arts communities. Art critic Tyler Green pronounced President Obama a disappointment to the art world and cited his chopping at the budget for NEA among other unkept promises.
Threats to axe the NEA+NEH have been wielded for a couple decades now, and even if accomplished, they avoid the larger issues of whether and why governments should fund art or support the culture of a nation. Holding these institutions hostage to a particular type of thinking that the majority of the population happens to find repugnant does not help. Liberals, stop hyperventilating and get a clue.