March 20, 2017

Abolish the NEA? An Observation about the Old Debate

For the past week, I have been trying various methods to manage a downturn in health. My approach to pain management is perhaps somewhat unconventional but effective for me. I sit underneath a warm blanket, take my antibiotics, sip my warm liquids and read government documents. It took a whole day to read The National Endowment of the Arts, A History: 1965 -2008. It was exciting, informative and thought provoking literature for me. It felt, at least in a tangential way, autobiographical. The NEA was founded when I was just eight years old, in 1965. In my own life time of devotion to creating art, educating about art, and developing a non profit art corporation I’ve seen many social and economic changes with regard to who funds art, how it is funded, and for what purpose. That is why this book I was reading paralleled my own life in many ways and felt more like an intimate reminiscence than an objective historical overview.

The day after I finished reading this document, a former colleague brought George Will’s opinion piece in the Washington Post to my attention. It was funny to read his calls for the dismantling of this agency after reading the NEA document because here was an example of history repeating itself in the person of the same dark knight that was trotted out by the media when the NEA was going to be dismantled under President Ronald Reagan. The man and his message have not changed at all, despite time, change and opportunities to learn. This time, Mr. Will has others who rally to the cause, albeit in slightly different ways. Having worked so long in the arts and having just read a history, perhaps now would be a good time to take a fresh look at an old struggle in hopes of finding better ways of forming solutions.

Firstly, meaningful discourse can only happen when people are on the same page with regard to facts and actual occurrences. This happened. How do we feel about it? Are there different ways to solve the problem? But around controversial issues, like the recent calls to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, a simple formula seems to be promulgated that serves no one well. The formula is this: A conservative writer writes a piece that includes a range of misleading presentations, out of context observations, and fragmentary information. The liberal, or left leaning response is to wax sentimental about how we feel about such things, throw platitudes at it if feeling philosophical, or invectives if feeling outraged. Little to no fact checking seems to be involved. So we end up with different interpretations of alternate realities from which no one can possibly learn anything because nothing consequential or evidence based is presented.

I will illustrate with two example of a conservative’s call to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. The first comes from George Will. Here is a link to his article. I would like to examine a statement from this article:

" Let’s pretend counterfactually that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g. "Piss Christ" (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine" and "Genital Wallpaper" (don’t ask). What, however, is art?" -George Will

First of all, counterfactually is not a word. Let’s pretend that George Will means "counter to the facts" or counter factually. This implies to me that George Will thinks that not only has the NEA funded this "rubbish" in the past but is continuing to do so. He doesn’t help us out much by not including the context, time, place or even so much as the artists’ names so it forces readers to do some research - if they are so inclined and unfortunately most are not. Nor do they have the time and energy. Writers like Mr. Will count on that.

First, let’s look at context. The "Piss Christ" debacle, as well as the "Genital Wallpaper" incident, are both about three decades old. "Piss Christ" was a piece that was included in an exhibition funded by the NEA. "Genital Wallpaper" alludes to an artwork that was not funded by the NEA. (In other words, not true). "Piss Christ" was indeed a photograph of an ivory colored crucifix surrounded by a murky gold. I recall seeing the original photograph some decades ago. It was actually not offensive to me. The title was what people found offensive - that mixing up of the sacred and vulgar - and the fact that it confessed to being the artist’s own body fluid. The artist was photographer Andres Serrano, and submerging objects into bodily fluids and photographing them was how he made his pictures in the late 1980's. His work caused great controversy and brought such criticism to the NEA that the agency’s then director had to resign and the agency never fully recovered from the negative media hype, and neither did our country’s artists. That was three decades ago. Contrary to George Will’s "facts" this is not an ongoing phenomenon. In fact, the debacle of the late 1980's and early 1990's "culture wars" caused the NEA to shift its policy and not award grants to individual artists. And it has been that way for the past thirty years. Poets, writers, musicians welcome. Visual artists and all your descendants not. The issue remains one of controversy. Interestingly, the visual artists who were the centers of those controversies from the so-called "culture wars" of the late 1980's were largely performance artists, and one could argue that their performances were really theater rather than visual art. One of my former graduate school professors from Parsons School of Design in New York, felt that to be the case. Nevertheless, an American painter or sculptor will be required to pay ad infinitum for a few artist’s acts from three decades ago, not only financially, but in the court of public opinion, media exposure, and in access to recognition. A thirty year old sculptor may now pay a penalty for things that performance artists did before she was even born. Is that fair? I wonder how Congress, who had pressured the NEA for restrictions on artists, would feel if they had their free health care revoked for several decades and perhaps permanently because Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "You Lie!" at President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address back in 2009? Doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent, you’re a Congressman and a Congressman was rude several years ago so we’re taking away all your funding permanently. Permanently! And don’t expect tax payers to fund your travel, your election campaigns, your meals.

The second art work that George Will alludes to in his opinion piece is ostensibly the work of Robert Gober. Contrary to George Will’s "facts" again, Robert Gober was not funded by the NEA. The reason why his work (it does indeed include white traced drawings of genitalia on black wall boards), comes up in association with the NEA is that the artist sued the NEA for not funding his exhibition. This incident is also about three decades old. I wrote to George Will recently with a polite request for him to correct his mistake. I doubt anything will come of my request and most assuredly the false information will continue to spread like wildfire.

The next conservative call to abolish the NEA that I wish to have a closer look at comes from the Boston Globe. This one is interesting because the writer shares with his readers examples of artists and art organizations that "thrived" without government support. The writer is conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby and his illustrious examples of non-government supported artists are Aaron Copland, Phyllis Wheatley and myriad Shakespeare companies, the last of which he graciously supplies a link to.

Following this link on the last one I see that these groups have been funded by the NEA. That would seem to undermine his premise a bit but we’ll move on. How about Aaron Copland? Aaron Copland was a strong supporter of government support for the arts and even chaired an early panel on the NEA. Copland’s own work was supported by the government of France through his study at the Fontainebleau Conservatory. Hardly an example of an artist without government support. And then we come to poor Phyllis Wheatley, an early colonial African American poet. She was not supported by the American colonists financially, except with room and board by the couple who purchased her. Funding for her first publication of poetry was found nevertheless through a British patron. Perhaps her money did not come from the American government - there wasn’t one at the time - but it did indeed have to come from somewhere. But was she "thriving" as Jacoby proposes? Her biographers tell us that she died in abject poverty, unable to sell her work, at age 31: "She was reduced to a condition too loathsome to describe. ... In a filthy apartment, in an obscure part of the metropolis ... . The woman who had stood honored and respected in the presence of the wise and good ... was numbering the last hours of life in a state of the most abject misery, surrounded by all the emblems of a squalid poverty!"

So much for thriving without support. But I must confess, that despite the fact that Jacoby would like to see artists thrown in to the sink or swim American economy alone without a government life jacket, I almost felt sorry for him with the attacks levied upon his column from fellow Bostonians of a more liberal bent of mind. Still, I could not help but wonder why they were calling him out for his conservatism but not for his facts, which would seem to be more immediately pertinent? I wrote to Jeff Jacoby recently to inquire as to why he did not come up with examples that would serve to bolster his opinion instead of negate it. Why not, for instance, include an artist like Jan Steen, who supported himself in seventeenth century Holland by running an inn?

In the upcoming months, there will probably be much more debate on whether or not the NEA should be "scrapped" to use Jacoby’s term, or seen as an expendable "frill" to quote George Will. I would hope that in this upcoming debate, discussions can be based upon facts rather than rhetoric, with the media being more responsible for fact checking and respondents more discerning about what stories they share. For a history of the National Endowment for the Arts, here is a link to an online book that provides an in depth look into what has actually been funded from 1965 to 2009. It is a document well worth reading for anyone who wants to know better the history of government support for historic preservation ( the founding of the American Film Industry for the preservation of early black and white films is one fine example) early support of individual artists , bringing arts to under-served communities, museums and veterans. The Obama years have not been included in this text. Despite his education, Barack Obama does not seem to have been a truly ardent supporter of the arts and humanities. Any commentary on what was actually funded during his tenure on my part will require more reading.

I will continue to advocate for retaining a National Endowment for the Arts. I might just suggest that it actually be expanded and that grants to individual visual artists be restored again. Why beg when it is would seem appropriate to demand justice and equality?

*It is early yet but I have not received replies from my inquiries or requests to George Will or Jeff Jacoby. I’m certain they are deluged with emails and mine would not be considered of much importance. But I will post a response if I do get one. For now, I can at least answer George Will’s question, "What is art?" That part is simple: art is what an artist makes. If the artist is fortunate then someone pays for it.

1 comment:

Jessie Thompson said...

Thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Janet! One expects journalists to research and report facts, not fiction, in their references. Maybe newspapers do not require that in opinion pieces. Perhaps "opinion" should include a more fitting caution.
PS Are you going to eventually sell some of your snakes?