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January 9, 2008

Leaving Piss Christ behind

John Stoehr

The day after Christmas, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that included $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The amount was about $20 million more than NEA funding for 2007: $124.5 million.

According to this report by the Akron Beacon Journal, this is the largest increase the once-belabored federal agency has seen in 24 years.

The highest level of NEA's funding was $175.9 million in 1992. But after the fall-out from the taxpayer-sponsored Piss Christ, it seemed the NEA would forever be aligned by social conservatives with urine and the bullwhip lodged firmly in Robert Mapplethorpe's ass.

It's taken nearly two decades, and mountains of change led by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a poet and former corporate executive, but it's finally happened -- the conversation about the arts has grown up.

In other words, we're no longer stuck on poopy jokes.

Perhaps the testimonials by leading artists and administrators like Wynton Marsalis had some impact on members of Congress and the President. But it's also possible, perhaps more likely, that the United States has just gotten savvier when it comes to the arts.

Some writers, like Artsjournal's Doug McLennan, have talked about the rise of an arts culture. But there's also the enormous amount of research that has gone into studying the arts as they relate to medicine, psychology, education, urban renewal, and quality of life.

Perhaps I'm being a bit of a Pollyanna in thinking that we've turned a corner of some kind. Maybe we can set aside the deleterious notion that the arts have to justify themselves somehow -- lately, with reams of paper devoted to economic impact studies. Maybe we can embrace the assumption that the arts are a good thing unto themselves.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

Posted by John Stoehr at January 9, 2008 5:53 PM


Let's not forget the role Laura Bush has no doubt played in positive developments in the arts over the past few years, including NEA funding increases such as this one. I'm not one for fawning over first ladies (and as for the Bush administration, don't even ask), but as a longtime advocate for the arts I can only be grateful to Ms Bush for her part in giving us this silver lining at this particular moment in time.

Posted by: Kit Baker at January 10, 2008 1:35 AM

Instead of looking at the numbers Look at where the money is being allocated. I could be mistaken but I remember plans for a Military Museum one that the Bush Administration has had in plans for over two years and it was included as part of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Posted by: Tom Durham at January 10, 2008 4:54 AM

The NEA increase is astonishing, especially since the Chairman claims that fewer and fewer American are even literate, let alone art savvy. So the fact that he orchestrated a sizable increase is not only miraculous, it's a little mysterious. While the cultural consumer is weilding more influence on the marketplace, this increase in NEA funding shows the current administration is at least in sync enough to invest in that expanding cohort of registered voters. Hey, I'll take it! Thanks for the post.
Patricia Martin
author, RenGen:Renaissance Generation

Posted by: Patricia Martin at January 10, 2008 11:54 AM

I doubt that the conversation or anything else about the arts has "grown up" since the early '90's. But grants, and the atmosphere for the arts in general, have definitely become more conservative. And Laura Bush as advocate for the Deadest Whitest Europen Male still alive, Shakespeare, is emblematic of that change.

Plato's Republic had all art in service to the state. Does the NEA partnering with the Department of Defense suggest an ominous or promising future for the arts?


That depends on the type of artist you are. Many artists are in self-exile to Berlin and elsewhere, finding the present climate in the US much too repressive.

Posted by: nick at January 11, 2008 7:44 AM

Ummm...before getting excited about the nickels and dimes -- no, make that pennies -- being put in the NEA's hat, do the math: The $150 million the NEA received in 1979 was worth more than $434 million in today's dollars. NEA funding peaked in 1992 at $176 million (worth $264 million today). So you have an agency with one-third the buying power it had 30 years ago, and less than two thirds what it was 15 years ago. A $20 million increase is better than nothing, but in the scheme of federal spending, it is an infinitesimal speck of green lint that Washington allowed to fall out of its pocket and into the open violin case of the ever-beggared arts. I don't see that this is something to dance a happy jig over. And arts journalists aren't telling the funding story if they use raw dollars rather than inflation-adjusted dollars for stories making comparisons that date back 15 years and more. In other words, if the next president jacks the NEA back to $176 million and tries to trumpet that he or she has made the agency whole, the real story will be that it's still a whole lot poorer than it used to be, and funding should be at least half a billion or so to be considered comparable to some highwater mark from the past.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at January 11, 2008 4:41 PM

I agree that this increase, in terms of bang for the buck, is insignificant in relation to previous high water marks and government funding as a whole. But wouldn't it indeed be great if this meant that the arts conversation has "grown up", and we can look forward to a day when the NEA and its funding can hold its own in the political maelstrom, and not be so reliant on the patronage of sympathetic politicians or their spouses? I'm not holding my breath, or pretending to have a leg to stand on, but what a nice thought.

Nick - I share your disillusionment about the NEA's out-of-proportion focus on Shakespeare, artistically speaking. But would you agree that, in terms of political strategy, it was a good time for the NEA to make a big populist move? And that this move must have been a factor in securing the increase. And if some of the money goes to a military museum, some will go to funding good artists and art and performance works that are currently out on a limb. Can this be any worse than the pork barrel shenanigans that go on elsewhere in Washington? (unless the display content of said military museum is truly objectionable)

Populism in the arts world seems to be unavoidable these days. I've just finished working in London for two and a half years, where public funding is inexorably - and often blindly - tied to "new audience" targets rooted in the strife of class division. Sort of a "throw spaghetti at the wall, and see where it sticks" approach (ie throw funding at the arts world, and see where New Labour targets and strategies are advanced). Artists I know working in rarified performance mediums told me that even though there's more money flying around, the situation is worse than it was before the early nineties, when arts funding started to rise dramatically. There are lots of complicated reasons for that which are specific to England, but the fact is that throwing money at the arts hasn't proved to be a panacea (witness the current agonies over Arts Council cuts to theatre companies, replaying those of the late 80s - what does that say about who or what has grown up in that country?).

So your point about artists in exile is apposite (not least since I've joined them) - if the political and economic climate is as out of whack as it is now in America, increased funding at this level won't make much difference.

Posted by: Kit Baker at January 13, 2008 4:14 AM

The NEA Four debacle triggered the "decency" statute to be enacted by Congress. The law was eventually argued and upheld before the Supreme Court. With this dismissal of the peer review method of evaluation the agency was essentially neutered in its role as credible arbitrator of art. Under further Congressional pressure the NEA also stopped giving grants to individual artists.

So 20 years ago the NEA was effectively trained to never bite the hand that feeds it, but the ripple effect chilled all public and private art funding in the country to the present day. As Kit suggests, it's hard to say what impact on artists or the production of art the amount of grant money actually has. But when public funding only supports populous, conservative, or "safe" art, without any judgment on quality, then art becomes synonymous with the political pork barrel.

Learning how to beg, rollover, play dead, or other cute tricks to earn a meal or extra treats is a good "political strategy" for a lap dog. Under the current Chairman the NEA has seemingly resigned itself to that role. But the partnership with Department of Defense in a touring production of Macbeth to military bases represents something different. Again, whether this development is promising or ominous depends on whether you think art should be in service to the state or not.

Posted by: nick at January 14, 2008 11:17 AM

Well, Nick, it sounds like you've made your mind up, so I won't pursue any discussion about the NEA...

One final thought, however. Macbeth is actually quite an interesting choice - given the right choice of director it could be as interesting as West Point's invitation to Noam Chomsky to give a lecture, and even more interesting than the screenings of The Battle of Algiers for US soldiers going to Iraq. Just imagine if the production were as full of provocative war imagery as the one I saw in Croatia:


...much would be new, yet much more would be alarmingly familiar. The play, after all, was the story of a bloodthirsty warlord, and parallels with certain kindred spirits still walking the earth a few hundred miles to the east would not be lost on a single audience member. The director Henryk Baranowski decided - clearly with some relish - that the best approach would be to take no prisoners.

From the very start of the performance, we were pitched head first into hell. As Duncan (the excellent Sreten Mokrovic) sat in a white naval officer's uniform puffing at a pipe, Malcolm (Jasmin Novljakovic), machine gun strapped to his shoulder and dressed in combat fatigues, paced a wierd somnambulistic march between two inscrutable soldiers as if he were a wind-up toy constantly playing out the end of its motion. Behind him, three vamps of indeterminate gender clad in lurid disco clothes and donning cheap wigs cavorted on an iron gate as an electric guitar screamed Hendrix-like feedback over the speakers. MacDuff (Vojislav Stojkovic-Stole) appeared on the ramparts above, lurching his way towards this scary bunch, his head thrown back, his feet shuffling - until the very end of the play, it seemed that his every move was bound by invisible ropes of evil. Malcolm interrupted his marching to mock-strangle Duncan from behind as the doomed king continued to puff nonchalantly away at his pipe. As MacDuff dragged himself to center stage and delivered his report from the front, Malcolm leapt forth and held a revolver to his cranium, fearing a false move. Around five minutes had passed before the first word was spoken...

...By the penultimate scenes, the ghosts outnumbered the living, who seemed themselves to be already walking with one foot in the shades. Baranowski continued to dispense with the minor characters, giving their lines to the ghosts of Duncan, Banquo and Lady MacDuff, who in a deadpan informed first Lady Macbeth and then Macbeth of the unrelenting web of doom that was gathering around them. The audience watched from the other side of a twenty-foot-deep moat as Lady Macbeth descended further into madness - surrounded by the people she had sent to their deaths, she was left at the end well and truly alone, pleading "to bed.... to bed...to bed..." over and over, her own litany from hell. Macbeth then appeared on the floor of the dry moat below, playing a lusty variation on "Amazing Grace" on a violin and facing off in his turn the advancing ghosts of Duncan and Banquo. In the middle of the scene came a scream, and suddenly Lady Macbeth was sprawled above in a the gap of a stone wall in her last death throes, her arms and head dangling over the abyss. MacDuff appeared, lying on his back in the grass as Duncan and Banquo had done before him, materializing from his grave, and hoisted a heavy stone up and down above his chest in an echo of the first scene, when Malcolm had forced him to do the very same with his helmet as a sign of submission. Macbeth relieved the stone from MacDuff, thus freeing him from the constraints which had been torturing him from the very first moment of the play, yet condemning himself, Macbeth, to toil with the stone in his stead - his own personal hell, which is where we left him.

MacDuff appeared just once more, bringing Macbeth's head in a dripping plastic bag to Malcolm. Yet no sooner had he delivered the spoils than Malcolm drew a revolver and casually shot him. Any chance at redemption, of Macbeth's demise leading to a better world, had been as brief as MacDuff's few moments of torture-free existence. The play ended as Malcolm, Ross and Lennox, each wearing the dark aviator sunglasses of corrupt power, performed an apocalyptic parody of a Balkan toast, smashing empty bottles on the floor of the courtyard as Malcolm announced his ascension as the latest tyrant. We began in hell, and we ended up even more deeply mired in the very same place.

Posted by: Kit Baker at January 15, 2008 1:10 AM


Yes, Macbeth is totally dependent on director and approach/concept. The production you describe appears to have challenged the political condition of its environment. Likewise, we did our anti-war Ubu Macbeth and Macbeth Project in Argentina at the same time as the NEA/Department of Defense funded tour of their play.


But the conservative and safe approach by Alabama Shakespeare Festival to Macbeth was exactly what the DOD and NEA commissioned.

"Jerry said that we all--cast and crew--had to approach this tour as exactly what it was: serving America's military men and women and their families. We would need to leave our personal politics at the gate and try to deliver as good a show as the circumstances allowed."


Posted by: nick at January 17, 2008 9:03 AM