New NEA Chair and More on Starving Artists


AT long last, we have a National Endowment for the Arts chair. The president has nominated Jane Chu, who runs Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Chu and has also been a performing pianist; she seems to be well-liked among people I know, considered “low key,” and capable. (This story, from Chu’s hometown paper, gives a sense of what she’s done in KC.)

Former NEA chair Dana Gioia (disclosure: an old friend of mine) told me this:

I am delighted that there is finally a new nominee for the NEA chair.  The absence of a leader at the NEA (as well as the NEH) since 2012 has hurt arts funding.  Jane Chu is an excellent choice for several reasons.  She has experience in the arts as a performer, a patron, and an administrator.  It is also a good thing to have someone from the Midwest, especially Kansas City with its strong cultural traditions.  That will bring new perspectives to the position.  But the important thing is that the National Endowment for the Arts needs a strong and capable leader.

Of course, the long delay makes you wonder why it’s taken President Obama so long to replace Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, who left in 2012. (Does Obama fear being associated with something as “elitist” as the arts if he takes too strong an interest in the NEA?) The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott argues that sjanechuhe Chu needs to be tough and stand up not just to a hostile Congress, but to a technocrat president.

Music critic Mark Swed has written persuasively on why this country needs a full cabinet position – a European-style culture minister – and not simply the much weaker, and quieter, NEA and NEH heads.

But Chu’s nomination is clearly a step in the right direction. Let’s hope a chair for the National Endowment for the Humanities is announced soon.

ALSO: The Otis survey of the “Creative Economy,” I wrote yesterday, was important but had to be read through a smokescreen of uncritical optimism. That’s doubly true the closer you look at it. Freelancers are not counted, for instance, which skews the numbers considerably, and a huge number of creative types are self-employed. The inclusion of people working at Facebook, Google, etc. also makes things look far better than they are. (Sure, these folks are “creative,” but their working lives have very little to do with a struggling actor, a freelancer writer, an architect running a small firm fighting to get work, and so on.)

Writes Mike Boehm:

the report suggests that employment in the creative sector continued to badly lag prerecession levels during 2012, the big exception being digital media. While California’s overall economy suffered a jobs decline of 5.1% from 2007 to 2012, the creative sector as defined by Otis fell more than twice as far, losing 12.1% of its jobs — 94,000 positions swept away… With a 19.2% employment gain from 2007 to 2012, digital media was the only strong growth area found in the creative industries.

FINALLY: Yesterday I mentioned how state Senator Ted Lieu of Torrance was urging a substantial restoration of the California Arts Council, using the recent Otis report on the creative economy as his argument. Here’s the full story.

PHOTO: Chu portrait courtesy of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

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  1. says

    Swed’s article about a cabinet level Cultural Secretary is interesting, but I think his thinking is partly flawed. Swed says we share a common identity as Americans that a Secretary could address, but that’s only partly true. In reality, there are enormous regional differences in America – even to the extent that they caused the bloodiest war in our history. In spite of all the myths, we are not a terribly unified country.

    How is New Mexico, where 50|% of the people speak Spanish to be compared to Vermont? How are Baptists in South Carolina to be compared to the libertarian gender culture of the SF Bay Area? Little Rock, Miami, and Boston have very unique identities. To tell the truth, they don’t share a lot. It really is absurd for an agency in Washington to fund and administer art in Boise or Tucson. That should be left to locals who understand the needs of the local population and the needs of local artists.

    In short, culture is by nature local, so it should be funded and administered on a local level. The Europeans have enormous experience with public funding systems for the arts and most of their funding is administered on the municipal and state levels. The numbers vary from country to country, but the general principle holds. In Germany, for example, only 5% of arts funding comes from the Federal Government. About 55% is municipal and about 45% comes from the State level. (I know of some good stats by country and level of government for funding, but I don’t feel like looking them up right now.)

    Swed notes that the NEA is a political football, but surely he must realize that the work of a Cultural Secretary would meet the same political forces. This is yet another reason funding and administration of culture should be local. That way people in NM, SC, and Northern CA can do what they want without getting in each other’s hair. Diversification also creates a stronger system because it can’t be gutted in one blow like the NEA was in the 90s. CA might slash arts funding, but that doesn’t keep NY from keeping the levels up.

    Of course, there are things a Federal secretary could do. Local public arts funding is just as scarce as Federal funding. A cultural secretary might be able to create a movement among states and municipalities to create effective public funding systems. As they increase, the Federal agency could be reduced.

    Sorry to blather so much on your blog, but you often touch on topics that interest me. I’ll try to cut back.

  2. says

    Re the previous comment, I want to urge Mr. Osborne NOT to cut back his remarks — as someone trying to provoke an intelligent discussion, I consider his dispatches from the Black Forest to be an important part of CultureCrash!

    The issue of local arts funding makes sense to me. (I’ll add that while I admire Mark’s culture-minister piece, the US has a less coherent cultural identity — for regional as well as ethnic/racial reasons — than most European nations.) But a culture czar could be a player in Washington, someone with a bully pulpit that goes beyond what a beleaguered NEA or NEH chair can muster.

    Anyway, will come back to these themes over time.

  3. says

    I like the pics you’ve added above — a black Prez and a Chinese American NEA Chair. It reminds us that Americans might have to invent their own unique systems for public arts funding. Several European countries have large and varied “minority” populations, but nothing like the USA. It reinforces the idea that our system will need to be locally oriented and administered by those with an intimate knowledge of the communities that create our cities and states.

  4. says

    Frustration turns to sarcasm…
    Why would we need a cabinet-level culture office when arts and entertainment is the second largest export sector of our economy (behind military hardware), when the creative economy represents one of the few tools that actually work in bringing vitality to distressed areas, when arts have been shown to enhance educational and medical outcomes…? What could possibly be wrong with having our national cultural interests represented internationally by the Department of Commerce? Why shouldn’t we be content to have little or no cultural presence at UNESCO and in other international cultural summits? Just because we’re a diverse country doesn’t mean we deserve any kind of national coordination or representation of our artists and cultural workers.

    Though I disagree with President Obama on many issues, one he has got right is his favorite saying: “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The arts sector’s objections to a cabinet-level arts and culture office are exactly that kind of phenomenon.

    • says

      It’s not an issue of not having a Cultural Secretary, but rather one of emphasis and function. Of course, a centralized position for coordinating efforts and to serve as a bully pulpit would be very valuable, especially with cabinet level access to the President. But this doesn’t change the problem that the NEA has in the past attempted to work too locally, as if it could micro-manage the arts across the country. The NEA has tried to solve this problem by forwarding a set percentage of its funds to the states. The problem is, the NEA doesn’t have the funds to spare. Its 146 million is barely enough to fulfill its coordinating function. And of course, another problem is that a Cultural Secretary and his office would be just as vulnerable to specious attacks as the NEA and its Chair. With more local funding and a diversification of the centers of power, the Secretary’s position would actually be strengthened.

  5. says

    The money allocated to states is mandated by Congress as part of the deal to keep the agency alive during round #257 of the Culture Wars. But more importantly, before the NEA there were only a handful of state and local arts agencies. It was the matching funds, and the “bully pulpit” of the NEA that created all those agencies. So this strategy has not been to micromanage so much as to spread the arts beyond the obvious coastal population centers — which I, as a resident of Indiana, appreciate very much!

    I’m looking for a national voice for culture, regardless of budget size, that is taken seriously inside the government of the U.S. and that has the legitimacy of portfolio to represent us culturally internationally. Honestly, without that voice, my hunch is that we can’t even imagine what we’re missing. Instead, 0ur international voice on issues like copyright urges the world to adopt the never-expiring Disney view of corporate copyright, and it is hostile to the idea of indigenous film, music and visual arts industries, hoping to supplant those wherever possible with the products of Hollywood, the American music industry, and the pottery offerings of U.S.-owned mega-retail. Those of us who think the U.S. government ought to take a less dogmatic and more nuanced view of culture have no voice, because there is no secretary of culture, only a secretary of commerces.

    • says

      Yes, this is a good description of the things a Secretary of Culture could do and is in line with what they do in Europe. Ultimately, genuinely strong regionalism in culture would need to be funded by regional governments — or so it seems in Europe. It seems unlikely to me that the NEA will ever have enough funds to build strong state or municipal programs with things like matching grants or even significant seed monies. So what is the solution? If even one heartland state built of good public arts funding program, it might inspire others. Which state could be the first? How would its program be built?

  6. says

    I think I have read every biography that past heads of the NEA have written and the one theme that runs through all of them is that a NEA Chairpersonship is a rather powerless appointment of an agency that is treated as a political punching bag. None of the past NEA heads could win for trying.

  7. says

    How would a heartland state develop an ongoing, robust public support system for the arts? Well, as long as the arts remain a partisan issue and are also considered economically a frill, it’s not going to happen. Every time there is a recession or a change of party control, budgets are eviscerated. But if and when the economic case and the educational case are made more public and solid (we need many more studies — the few we have are promising but not definitive enough in the face of all the other possible ways public dollars could be spent — then a bipartisan consensus of the centrality of the arts might well emerge in, say, Michigan or Illinois or Ohio.

    In terms of the futility of the NEA chairmanship, I’m not sure I agree that the former chairs felt only frustration. Of course these were all idealistic people who wanted to accomplish much more than they did with limited funds, but one can’t ignore the powerful policy agenda-setting nature of the job, especially as it relates to the arts community. Even the disciplines we recognize in the arts are defined largely by the NEA’s terms. The current centrality of “creative platemaking” stems straight from Rocco Landesmann’s priority list. The concept of creative writing as an increasingly valid way to help soldiers deal with PTSD — Dana Gioia. The concept of merging arts and housing and education efforts in cities — Jane Alexander. Bridges between profit and nonprofit sectors — Bill Ivey. In short, I would argue that the chair matters a great deal and that the agency’s importance far, far outweighs its budget size and its permanent status as a target for political attack. Which, I think, is why the job is worth having and why I’m glad we finally have an appointment! I hope Jane Chu will realize the influence and power she can exert, no matter what happens on Capitol Hill.

    • says

      Interesting thoughts. Thanks. There seems to be a growing view that if we attempt to justify arts funding through the utilitarian value of art, we are doomed to failure. The arts do have utilitarian value, but they will always fall short of the more practical needs of people like medical care, food, housing, transportation, etc. Under this approach, every NEA Chair, including Ms. Chu, will have a bull’s-eye painted on their forehead.

      Perhaps the ultimate and most important effect of arts education is that the arts are appreciated for what they are and not for their secondary applications. There are many countries in Europe, for example, that provide massive support for the arts, but not one does so with a strong view toward utilitarian concerns. It is simply the art in itself that is considered of value. It seems related to philosophical concepts of human dignity and the fundamental meaning of life. This is a hard sell in a neoliberal society like America where the market is the ultimate arbiter of almost all human endeavor. We will never develop good funding systems for the arts, either public or private, until we mitigate the neoliberal philosophies that are crushing the American spirit and mind.

      It’s true that the NEA has worked with themes such as providing arts to military bases and the other programs you describe. The stance behind these programs has often followed the usual utilitarian themes and illustrates the defensive posture the agency is always under. Public arts funding is opposed by the right and not supported by the left. Regardless of how many utilitarian themes we fulfill, new reasons along the same lines for not funding the arts will always be thrown in our path. This is especially true on the Federal level where the communal and utilitarian value of art is much harder to establish. (But of course, this is not to say that a Federal agency has no value. I’m not arguing that and haven’t And I too hope Ms. Chu will be outspoken.)

      I agree that the upper Midwest might be the area most likely to begin good regional arts funding programs and would add states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. There is a relatively high ratio of people in these areas that appreciate the arts both for their inherent and utilitarian value and who might overtime accept public funding systems. And these states have enough of a cultural infrastructure to begin incorporating good public funding systems.

      Of course, countless other questions arise. How would a political consensus for public arts funding be created in one of these states? How would the government raise the funds? Could it be similar to how they fund state universities and public libraries? How would the funds be distributed? How do we create a good public funding system when we do not even have the cultural infrastructure to use it – such as a lack of concert halls, opera houses, rehearsal spaces, museums, and trained and experienced administrative personnel and artists? And based on the practices in Europe, we should also consider if even the state level if not local enough and if the efforts should not be primarily municipal?

    • says

      I find the NEA’s current obsession with creative placemaking a direct result of conservative politics success in controlling the arts. Don Wildnon, Jessie Helms and today’s Cantor and Cruz never wanted the arts to go away, they just wanted to control what the arts are.
      The neoliberal language of creative placemaking changes the emphasis from the artists onto economic development. A result that conservatives are very happy with.

      • says

        Creative place-making illustrates the ironies of neoliberal philosophy. It created an economic system that allowed corporate big box or chain businesses like Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Applebee’s to destroy our city centers by siphoning off the economic activity that kept downtown areas alive.

        Now we are too use neoliberalism’s utilitarian concept of art to revitalize these areas by filling them with what might be termed boutique culture. This consists of things like a couple arty cafes; maybe a small commercial gallery or two; a couple antique stores; a city museum with displays of things like Aunt Martha’s wringer washing machine; a shop for scented candles; a shop for genuine Native American jewelry imported from Pakistan; and a small theater for a group of impoverished actors who will all give up as they approach 30 and go to law school.

        The arts as an instrument of creative placing making in a scheme of urban renewal can’t create a symphony orchestra, an opera house, a substantial museum, or a theater that runs all year and produces major works. It’s impossible because arts organizations like these can’t develop a self-sustaining commercial business model like a scented candle shop or an arty cafe. They would need ample, long-term public funding for their operation which is anathema to neoliberalism. As a result, these kinds of institutions can only exist in a small number of financial centers where wealthy private donors are concentrated. The distribution of the arts thus reflects the plutocratic nature that lies at the heart of neoliberalism.

        At this point, creative place-making is about all we have, so we might as well accept the funds to build what we can, but without any illusions about how they fit into the larger scheme of things or the delusions they create.

  8. says

    Gentlemen, I am really gratified by the intelligence and civility in this discussion on the role of arts funding and the nation’s lead cultural advocate… I only wish discourse in Washington was similarly enlightened. Thanks for being a part of this, and please keep the comments coming.

  9. says

    Wouldn’t it be great if governments, schools, everyone funded the arts solely due to the intrinsic wonders of creating and experiencing art? Since that plan hasn’t worked very well for the first 200 plus years of the U.S., perhaps we ought to embrace the “utilitarian” arguments not because they are conservative or neoliberal but because they make sense to people who are not artists.

    Creative placemaking, as I see it, is an attempt to get the arts back to the mythical “table” where decisions about resources are made. If every time the prospect of working with sectors outside the arts causes us to be called right-wing, utilitarian, or anti-art, then it’s no wonder we never seem to move forward in anyone’s eyes but our own.

    Still, autocorrect keeps turning the word “placemaking” into “platemaking,” so perhaps the artistic impulse is the automatic default for all of us?

    • says

      On the other hand, the utilitarian arguments have been around for about 20 years now and the budget of the NEA is still far less than in the mid 90s. Has that approach played its hand? It is time to at least consider some alternatives?

  10. says

    Creative place-making doesn’t create arts organizations, but it does create the recognition by a city government and a business culture that supporting arts organizations (such as orchestras, theaters, museums) is in the city’s interest. That’s the point. How is it different (or worse) than asking these same people for money and being told no because they don’t care about the arts? It’s just an argument that makes people who are not in the arts realize one aspect of why the arts are valuable.

    Place-making may not have helped the NEA budget (though to be fair, Rocco made it a priority only about three years ago) but it certainly has wrought a major change in appreciation for the economic influence of the arts among local policy makers, which is significant. We’ve gone from an era of not being able to get an appointment with the mayor to being asked by the mayor how to use the arts to boost the economy. Is that bad for the arts because it’s not funding given only because of the sheer excellence of a great piece of music?

    You raise interesting issues about (stereotypical) boutique culture as if such things as art galleries and small theaters and artisanal gift shops are bad — but why aren’t they considered a delightful component of a diverse and interesting place? I am no fan of the neoliberal agenda, but not everything that earns an income equals Wal-Mart.

    My guess is (though far outside the realm of arts funding) that neoliberalism is a crippled beast; the national agenda is going to have to turn back to the idea of jobs first and profits second, and when that happens (5? 10? 20? years from now), concepts like long-term public funding of the arts — in part because the arts employ people — will become more viable. Meanwhile, I’m in favor of using what arguments we have to get what we can.

    • says

      I can’t really respond, because through specious forms of sarcasm you repeatedly exaggerate my comments into stick figures and straw men that are of course absurd. With that kind of bad faith, dialog becomes impossible.

      There’s no point in continuing, but I will respond to one question that seems worthwhile: the value of boutique culture.

      As I mentioned, I too feel we should accept this sort of cultural redevelopment practice for what its worth. The boutique culture that place-making creates, however, is limited, and stands in stark contrast to the more substantial and much needed types of cultural organizations place-making can’t create. As I explain above, it is essential to recognize this limitation.

      It’s good to use what arguments we have to get what we can, but that’s exactly where our opponents want us to stop – with ideas that aren’t going to take us very far. They don’t want us to search for new ideas that might work better, and they impede discussion that might lead to those ideas.

      I can’t be sure, but I think if the debate were moved away from the national level and held more communally, we might be more likely to find dialog held in good faith – something away from the dysfunctional gridlock and wing nuts of our Congress. People become more serious and committed when talking with their actual neighbors about their community’s cultural identity.

    • says

      Let’s not forget for over 20 years the NEA directly support artists through their Artist Grant Program before that program was killed during the cultural war.
      Creative Placemaking does favor and supports arts organizations over the actual producers of culture-the artists. It’s the arts organization who applies for the grant money, not individual artists. Under the current NEA rules artists can’t!
      The neoliberal label applies because we all think we are supporting “the arts”, as in artists and performers. We are not. We are supporting politically accepted and community influenced arts organizations. Just follow the money trail.
      It’s the artists of our society that we should be supporting. It’s the artists who we all say we love and can’t live without. It’s the artists who leads society, not arts organizations. Here in Michigan less than 1/5 of all the public and private money that gets funneled through arts organizations ever ends up as programing, money which pays artists to do their thing. That’s not right.

      • says

        Arts funding is by necessity distributed by arts organizations. The funding becomes less efficient in direct proportion to the number of organizations it passes through before it reaches artists — such as Federal to state to municipal. Each level deducts its administrative costs. This is another reason funding should be local.

        • says

          Your years the NEA funded artists directly. You applied and were awarded based on a panel of professional peers. It worked. I benefited from that system. A federal system only gets filtered through a state because of politics.

        • says

          For years the NEA funded artists directly. You applied and were awarded based on a panel of professional peers. It worked. I benefited from that system. A federal system only gets filtered through a state because of politics.

        • says

          To say nothing of the problem an official in Washington might have determining who should get funding in Tulsa, Tuscon, or Topeka and how that artist’s work might mesh with his or her community. The idea of the NEA funding individual artists was awful and led to events that almost destroyed the organization. If the Bay Area, for example, had funded Mapplethorpe they could have just told Helms to mind his own business.

          • says

            Our posts crossed so I didn’t see your last one. Our perspectives might be partially different because you are a visual artist and I am a composer. Most visual artists can easily work alone, but musicians almost always work in some sort of organization like an orchestra, opera house, or string quartet.

            I understand and appreciate your view that some artists might want to work as visionaries who reject the values of the community that surrounds them, but even in that case, I think it would be local funding organizations who best understand those kinds of artists because they would probably know more about them. Panels of peers drawn from a nation of 320 million people risk losing touch with the communities the funded artists serve. It can also weaken the inherently local nature of culture, even if the opposite danger of parochialism must be guarded against.

  11. says

    A couple more thoughts in response to Richard’s interesting comments.

    There are two ways of looking at an artist’s relationship to society. One is that he or she is a part of a local community (even if the artist’s reputation might extend beyond it.) The other is that artists are a professional community unto themselves, often with little connection to local environments. Their art that refers to its own autonomous aesthetic ideals as formulated by a community of artists widely dispersed across the country and even internationally.

    In Europe, concepts of art are generally more communally embodied than in the States. Cities and regions often identify strongly with their cultural history and the living artists that represent its continuation. This is made obvious by cities like Paris, Rome, Prague, Florence, and Amsterdam, but even small cities like Sienna, Montepuliciano, Freiburg, and Utrecht follow this same ideal.

    In America, art is generally more disembodied. Our communities do not have long cultural histories like Europe. And our society is also far more mobile. We move around, while Europeans are much more likely to live their whole lives close to where they were born. Europeans extol history and preservation, while Americans see culture as something with a set life expectancy that will be discarded and replaced with something new and more relevant. (There are a few places in America that have communally embodied art. The Southwestern art of Santa Fe and Taos, or the jazz traditions of New Orleans are some examples, but they are exceptions to the norm.)

    It’s a lot easier to justify public funding for communally embodied art because it represents a community’s identity and speaks for it. By contrast, it is more difficult to publically fund art in America because it is often communally disembodied and has less connection to the communities that are asked to pay for it. This helps us understand why the NEA, in contrast to most public funding agencies in Europe, once funded individual artists across the country. Locality and community were thought to be irrelevant. This practice inevitably ended in disaster since the artistic perspectives sometimes clashed strongly with the communities that were funding it.

    The NEA’s new Place-Making program is an attempt to compensate for these error, though the real issue is that our country does not have effective systems of local arts funding. Place-making practiced by a national agency is a self-contradictory compromise.

    Would successful public funding in America need to be more local and lead to a more communally embodied art? Would this revive public interest in the arts? Or would this remove art from its highest aesthetic ideals and simply make it more parochial? How can we create strong local cultures in an economic system where large, homogenous mass markets are essential? Does this also define why American art is communally disembodied?

    If Americans ever move toward a public funding system, these are the sorts of questions about communally embodied art and the artist’s relationship to society that will need continual consideration.

    • says

      The problem we are creating in the field is our over use of vague, undefined terminology. One example is the term ‘community. Which community are we talking about? Any large metropolis is made up of a host of individual communities. Even a small town is divided into many different kinds of thinking about art.
      When the current language of arts advocacy says that we need to do a better job of ‘engaging’ the public and ‘including’ a wide ‘diversity’ of opinions do they also mean the Tea Parties idea of art? Should Thomas Kinkade be included in the collection of the Met or Dan Brown’s books be taught in literature classes based on the opinions of the communities that have popularized these works? Do we really want the DuSable Museum of African America History to be more inclusive of other races in their programing and more diverse in what their mission is? I don’t think so.

      In the US most of our arts funding is localized. The NEA awards most of it’s money to states which parse out that money through their local arts organizations. As an artists Michigan I can’t apply for or receive any state or federal grant money unless I go through a local arts organization and they agree with any proposal I make which needs to include them.

      And lets be really clear on our history. The NEA individual artists grants were not killed because “artistic perspectives sometimes clashed strongly with the communities that were funding it.” That is not historical correct.
      Communities weren’t funding NEA grants, the federal government was. And more importantly artistic practices were witch hunted by conservative, religious zealots. Don Wildmon of the American Family Association made it a personal vendetta to attack everything from the television show “All in the Family’ to various art exhibitions that he felt didn’t meet his moral standards. His agenda was picked up by conservative politicians who saw the NEA as a way to attacked democrats and the federal budget. Most of the public didn’t care or weren’t even aware of artistic controversies until politicians brought them to light as political attacks.

      Joseph Campbell once said that that the artistic vision is created and then it is responded to by the folk or community. That response is the interaction between artist and community, but the vision originates with the artist. I believe that this truth is something we are being taught, for various political reasons, to forget.

      • says

        My use of the term communities here means cities and states as opposed to the Federal government. Naturally that includes a vast array of sub-communities, but as political divisions for administration they are useful and well-defined concepts. Large European cities often divide themselves into sub-regions like the 20 arrondissements of Paris–most of which have their own separate cultural agencies. When I lived in Munich there were cultural centers for each of the city’s major quarters. I think its up to arts organizations to define their communities within the regions in which they exist.

        The Maplethorpe controversy evolved during an NEA funded exhibition in Cincinnati that was opposed by local religious groups. Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and its Director were thus indicted on charges of obscenity. Conservative politicians in other states took up this cause, which led to Jesse Helms’ demented yodeling about the dangers of Yankee queers taking over the country.

        So it was a local clash that outsiders were able to exploit because the NEA is Federal.
        Helms and Co. wouldn’t have been so empowered if influential local groups hadn’t objected. Interestingly, when the case reached court, a jury comprised of four working class women acquitted the museum and its Director. This also illustrates the difficulties of defining “community.” Average people in town really weren’t that bothered by the exhibit, just some zealous and politically influential moralizers.

        Ironically, the whole incident shows the weakness of my arguments about localism. Funding based on it can be too parochial. How does one balance local funding with wider perspectives? Selection by committees balanced between the local and national peers?

        The question of artists arriving at visions entirely separate from their social environment is very complex. Sometimes that happens, but in my view, most artistic innovation is culturally isomorphic with the societies in which artists live. Michelangelo’s visions changed the world, but he could not have existed without Renaissance Florence which deeply shaped his thought and worldview. The influences shared between artists and their communities are very complex and seldom a one way street. For what its worth, I develop this idea in an article entitled “Symphony Orchestras and Artist Prophets: Cultural Isomorphism and the Allocation of Power In Music” published by the M.I.T. Press. It can be read here:

        • says

          By the way, in the Maplethorpe trial, concepts of community were a central part of the proceedings. The instructions by Judge F. David J. Albanese to the jury included a three-pronged test of obscenity:
          ”That the average person applying *contemporary community standards* would find that the picture, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest in sex, that the picture depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and that the picture taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

          He gave no definition of “community standards,” which would be virtually impossible. The jury itself was defined as representatives of the community standards and given the right to make the relevant determinations. I think this local concept is also largely consistent with the best ways of administering arts funding. Even if the administrators would likely be educated specialists and not working class, they understand the needs of their community and its artists.

  12. says

    William, this is a key issue. It wasn’t local groups who initially insisted this issue go to trial. Once it was fueled from the outside by conservative politicians and religious zealots it was made into a local issue. It was constructed to be controversial for a reason. To kill the NEA and to kill what conservatives deemed as liberal spending.
    Mapplethorpe’s photograph’s included in his Perfect Moment Exhibition had been exhibited numerous times across the country with no incident. The show had been critically acclaimed in its Philadelphia and Chicago venues and Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art was next on the list to show the work.
    .A year before the exhibition Jessie Helm’s had introduced a bill that attempted to limit any NEA funding for art work deemed immoral. The following year Mapplethorpe’s exhibition opened in Cincinnati and Helme’s was waiting.
    My point -it wasn’t a mass of upset local Cincinnati people that initially demonstrated against the show nor was it a mass of Helme voters who insisted he do something. It was conservative politics looking for a scape goat.

    Why is this detail important? Because it sheds light on how the current NEA became a shell of it’s former self.

    • says

      Very interesting, and consistent with the acquittal by a jury of four working class women who specifically ruled that the work didn’t offend community standards. Is there any place the information you provide is documented?

  13. says

    The Mapplethorpe trial is a good illustration of the unworkability of community standards. He was a national artist, his work was traveling the country, and the hope of the Right was to use the more conservative Ohio standards to undermine what had been successful in the more familiar cultural capitals. Of course no one wants to be rude to one’s own community, but even where I live in southern Indiana there are at least as many people who want to see “The Vagina Monologues” (there was a controversy here over that show some years back) as there are who want to kill it. My fear of leaving everything up to the locality is that we tend to settle on the safe so as not to offend anyone whose support — political or financial — we might need. That’s why tough things like food stamps and welfare and social security are federal business, not local, so that we don’t have to be reduced to evaluating the worthiness of our own neighbors.

    Ironically, William, you and I are on the same side of most of the issues, however this dialogue might have evolved. Of course I would like to see communities provide full support of the arts without a need for federal intervention; I would love to see artists more respected locally and less intimidated, poor, and self-censoring; and I would love to have local arts organizations feeling empowered to produce daring and exciting works that truly generate robust community dialogue. But I think that is difficult to do locally, which is why sometimes the national presence — even leadership — that the NEA has taken in the past by daring to state that something people in Ohio or Indiana might fear is actually worthy art, is critical to artistic and social progress.

    The NEA has had to agree to all kinds of terrible compromises to stay alive, but on balance, we are far better off that it is still with us and has a chance to increase its impact with a new chair soon to be on board.
    I remain idealistic, if only because the other position is too depressing to maintain.

    As to neoliberalism and instrumental arguments, perhaps I’ve spent too much time with politicians and business leaders trying to convince them of the worth of the arts, and they seem to find the intrinsic worth cute but not worth paying for, while test scores and returns on economic investment seem to draw their interest, though I share with you the wish that we didn’t have to always go there.

    • says

      Very interesting thoughts and all very true. Local funding certainly presents problems, but they are hard to define because we have so little experience with it. It’s unfortunate that more studies haven’t been made of European systems to see how they deal with these issues. An exhibition in Essen, Germany of photos by Balthus was recently cancelled after accusations of pedophilia. The charges were led by Die Zeit, a newspaper run by the SPD, Germany’s center left party — an unusual political turn of events.

      Local funding presents many advantages, but it would definitely need to be balanced by including outside peers on the juries that determine programming, and influence from national funding organizations like the NEA and foundations.

  14. says

    Adolph Reed writes in this months Harper’s that the Left needs to realize that there is no one going to bat for them today in our two party political system.

    As an America visual artists I feel the same way. There really is no one going to bat for artists today. Arts organizations aren’t really. I don’t mean to disparage the hard work that they do. Local arts organizations do provide arts education programs for kids and they do have some programs and exhibitions but if you look at the numbers most of the money they receive, one way or the other, goes to support their operations, not the work of artists.
    Arts advocacy groups like American’s for the Art’s have boards and committee and initiatives and they put up bill boards in committees and they ask people to write their senators, but personally I have never benefited, nor do I know of any artists that have ever benefited from the work they do.
    And ever since the NEA stopped providing direct support to artists I don’t really know what there value is any longer. Especially considered that they have been operating on a budget of less than $150 million dollars for years. What can that possibly accomplish? ESPN pays more every year to the NFL to have the NFL’s endorsement. In all honesty, the NEA could be disbanded tomorrow and me and my artists would be no better or worse off for it.

    • says

      It’s true that we have no representation for public arts funding (or for many other issues.) That’s one of the reasons I think it might be worth a try to move to a more local political level – though there too I have serious doubt there would be success. I just have this idea that when it comes to their own city or town, people might have more concern about its cultural health.

      So what do people do when they are, in effect, in a one-party state where they have no representation? I’ve been thinking about the ecological work of Edward Abby and his ideas about monkey-wrenching the system. Green Peace put the concept to good use with some of its interventions (even if the fools who went around setting SUVs on fire didn’t.) Without very courageous civil disobedience, the civil rights movement would not have made any progress.

      The idea of civil disobedience in support of the arts could seem almost ludicrous, but the Gorilla Girls have used it to good effect. I’ve been thinking about their work as a starting point for models of civil disobedience that might awaken consciousness about the neglect of the arts in America. In any case, its time to get mad and not take it anymore.

      That looks like a very good article in Harpers. I’ll have to think about subscribing to the online version.

  15. says

    Seems like some of our discussion about the importance of locality in culture has found an echo in the Washington Post in an article about the closing of the Corcoran Gallery by Philip Kennecott:

    “The arrangement with GWU [George Washington University] and the NGA [National Gallery of Art] pays little attention to the third of the “three c’s” that defined the Corcoran’s mission: the collection, the college and the community. The Corcoran’s greatest strength was its particularly local flavor, its connection to a local community of artists and teachers. Under the same roof, one found world-class exhibitions devoted to Modernism, or the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, but also student exhibitions and work by faculty members. Everyone in Washington is lucky that the National Gallery happens to be planted here and is free; but it isn’t a particularly *local* institution, with a distinct flavor that distinguishes it from other major art museums around the world.”

    (The word “local” marked with asterisks is italicized in the original.)

    Kennecott also echoes our discussion about the ephemeral nature of culture in capitalism:

    “We are so bitterly benumbed by our economy of wealth and wreckage that it’s all too easy to think of unemployment as a trifling consequence of progress. But this doesn’t feel like progress, and the impact on the lives of many dedicated and intelligent people won’t be trifling.”

    The full article is here:

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