The Arts Are 'a Little Gay'

Good for NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman for calling out the homophobia that undergirds opposition to federal funding for the arts. "The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay," he tells Robin Pogrebin in today's New York Times.

The straight-shooting Landesman won't earn many points for diplomacy in that interview, particularly with the ill-considered slap, "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman." That remark is bound to alienate whole flocks of legislators as well as artists outside major cities. Nonetheless, the point he's trying to make about democratizing arts grants -- "I don't know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography" -- is perfectly valid, and his new NEA slogan, "Art Works," is beautifully attuned to the zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, however debatable Richard Florida's "Creative Class" gospel may be, Landesman's tacit embrace of it with "a program that he called 'Our Town,' which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas," is something Congress surely can understand and perhaps even rally around.

It's a sharply different approach from that taken by Landesman's ostentatiously populist predecessor, Dana Gioia, who placated conservatives suspicious of contemporary art and artists by focusing on the classics (Shakespeare) and America's artistic heritage (jazz). Yet in taking that tack, Gioia might have made some lasting progress for the agency, whose natural opponents have been forced to concede, at least to a degree, that there is value to the arts. If Landesman, a Broadway producer, uses creative-class theory to hang a dollar sign on that value and explain the dividends investment in the arts would pay, he may be speaking lawmakers' language.

But back to the homophobia, about which Landesman is dead right. The idea that the arts are gay, and therefore dismissable, is closely related to another notion about the arts: that they are inherently girly. Leaving aside the abundant irony in that assumption, let's consider for a moment what John Stuart Mill -- a feminist way ahead of his time, who believed women should "have the power of gaining their own livelihood" -- had to say on the subject back in 1832: "The only difference between the employments of women and those of men will be, that those which partake most of the beautiful, or which require delicacy & taste rather than muscular exertion, will naturally fall to the share of women: all branches of the fine arts in particular."

In our perception of the arts, we haven't advanced terribly far from that mindset in the past 177 years. The arts are widely viewed as a milieu best suited to women, and to men with an affinity for beauty, delicacy and taste and an aversion to muscular exertion (read: gay -- and, no, I am not endorsing the stereotype, merely articulating it).

As a nation, we tend not to scrape together public funding if we believe it would benefit people like that. Unless, maybe, we can be convinced that it's in our economic interest to do so.

So let the culture-class argument begin.
August 8, 2009 2:05 PM | | Comments (1)


Landesman's interview was the most positive thing I have read about the arts in many years, and I think his analysis of the problems with support for the arts is right on target.

I have long thought that American’s lack of support for, if not actual distain, for the arts harkens back to colonial and pioneer days, when education was a task largely left to women. Because culture and all kinds of “book learnin’” were associated with women, culture was feminized. Therefore the failure to support the arts is a reflection of the basic misogyny in American culture, where women still earn less for the same work in the 21st century.


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