Artless US Gov

Photo by Joe Benjamin — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What’s the most controversial way to begin a conversation with artists? “Welcome to your government.”

So said Yosi Sergant, who, at the time, was director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts. On an August 10th conference call organized by Michael Skolnik, Sergant tried to enlist the arts community to support President Obama’s community service initiatives.

The call’s organizers certainly knew their business, their art, and their government. Skolnik is political director for Russell Simmons. Sergant came to the White House job after helping to promote the Obama campaign’s use of the Shepard Fairey “Obama Hope” posters.

The conversation’s goals appeared innocent enough: use the arts as an outlet for the Obama administration’s United We Serve volunteer initiative. After all, what could be wrong with getting the arts community to tap their own volunteers to help communities across the country?

As recorded by a skeptical participant on the call, Sergant asked those on the line to pick one of the keys to Obama’s national agenda — education, environment, health care — and apply their “artistic, creative community utilities.” (Hear the whole call or see transcript from Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site here.)

The conservative community was shocked, shocked that an official from a government agency that gives grants would imply a quid quo pro — you support us, we will support you.

After percolating through the less honorable conservative press and blogs, the Wall Street Journal provided what has become the majority point of view:

The NEA Web site describes its mission as follows: “supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.” Organizing propaganda for the party in power is not mentioned, nor is financially rewarding politically friendly artists.

A government rewarding its supporters? Politicians rewarding their friends? Who ever heard of such a thing?!

As of this week, Sergant is no longer employed at the NEA. The new chair of the agency, Rocco Landesman, promises to keep politics away from the art.

But, why?

Surely, no one believes that the US government is so pure in all the other areas where private enterprise intersects with the public good. Moreover, the arts institutions that receive the largest share of NEA funds are those institutions that serve the most people, are the most well connected, and do their level best never to create art that might offend the powers-that-be. Isn’t their programming just as “political” as the agit-prop group that protests the status quo? It’s only the flip side of a political debate.

Secondly, would it be so bad to politicize the funding choices of the NEA? Just as each administration puts its stamp on the judiciary, permanent staffing at federal and state agencies, and governmental priorities, why not do so for the arts?

If support for the arts, and who should receive support, were part of the way the US evaluates its politicians, perhaps the arts would be brought back to the table of intellectual and passionate public discourse.

The issue should not be about outing inappropriate democratic or republican largesse. The issue should be about the winning party’s choices to represent what is best about American initiative and creativity.

After all, unlike so many other places in the world, America gets a chance to radically change its government every four years. Why not radically change the art, too?

- Bill Reichblum

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4 Responses to “Artless US Gov”

  1. Tom
    September 28th, 2009 11:05

    As always, you’ve written a thoughtful piece and raised some interesting questions. One question I’d ask is whether you’d be as comfortable ceding authority and influence to a different administration once the pendulum returns, say, a Jesse Helms or John Ashcroft to prominence. I suspect it would be harder listening to someone else use your argument to defend them.

    I like hearing the US Marine Corps Band play “The Star Spangled Banner” - I don’t imagine I’d enjoy “Let’s Pass Single Payer Health Care Now” quite as much.

  2. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » NEA Story Continues
    September 29th, 2009 00:11

    [...] Los Angeles Times Artless US Gov [...]

  3. Bill
    September 30th, 2009 10:20

    Thanks, Tom.
    Yep you’re right: the argument only works if it cuts both ways. For me, it does. I am willing to roll the dice, even with Jesse and John (whose power bases were always more localized than national).
    Hence the opportunity to change course - and funded culture - every four years.
    By the way, you’re lucky. The US Marine Corps Band is one of the better US government funded musical groups that doesn’t have to compete for the paltry dollars of the NEA. They have a pretty good deal: they get to hone their craft, get a free university education, and get to serve their country. Maybe that’s a model for all up and coming artists?

  4. KadmusArts Culture News » Blog Archive » NEA Responds, Again
    October 3rd, 2009 00:08

    [...] Los Angeles Times Artless US Gov [...]

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