NEA Hijacked for Political Expedience? No! Yes? Yes! No? Er…Maybe?

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PropagandaDebate topic:

Resolved: Something in the water at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue causes whoever runs the executive branch to slip with regard to developing and disseminating messages shortly after assuming office. Indeed, despite the supreme communicative prowess and salesmanship abilities required in modern America to gain the White House, somehow the well-oiled machine of the campaign trail inevitably yields to the vagaries of governing. Looking back, while he was obviously appointed to the presidency by the Supreme Court, George W. Bush and his team did demonstrate a flair for the tightly controlled message during the 2000 campaign; it was during the post-Sept. 11 and post-Iraq haze that we discovered how few of their messages were believable, how willing they were to hijack any government lever to achieve political, legislative and/or military ends. The resulting lack of trust resides within millions of Americans today.

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Yet it would be manifestly unfair to pin such cynicism on Bush and Bush alone. Although he never won the presidency with a majority of the vote, Bill Clinton’s campaigns were beautifully designed and executed cases of messaging. Once in the White House, however, he too was undone by all the various scandals, political or sexual or otherwise, that do not need to be recounted here. This, too, left Americans divided, demoralized and distrusting. George H.W. Bush and “No New Taxes”; Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, deficits and his refusal to utter the word AIDS; Jimmy Carter and his malaise; Gerald Ford and Whip Inflation Now; Nixon and Watergate; Johnson and Vietnam — we have endured decade after decade of reasons to view our government with eyes askance. But we’re a curious people. During campaigns, we also reach deep down into our resilient American souls and try to side with the candidate we believe will come closest to exemplifying all the greatest attributes of our mythic national spirit. Then, during presidencies, we reach deep into our resilient American souls once again, hopeful that the inevitable cynicism will arrive later than it did the last time around. In the last half-century, however, it always arrives much earlier than our idealism would like.

And so it goes with the Obama Administration. Never in my lifetime have I had such high hopes for a new president, and I cling to those hopes, among other reasons, because the alternative — Republican majorities in the Congress, a Republican in the White House — are repugnant to me: I do not believe the GOP is worthy of the stewardship of my government. That, by the way, is not a function of being liberal and the Republicans being conservative. It’s a function of my belief that the GOP is bereft of new ideas, is intolerant of dissent, is fundamentally incompetent. What’s making Americans crazy at the moment is that the Democrats are hardly models of competence either.

Some 60 million Americans voted for Obama, and the vast majority of those voters see him as charged with cleaning up the stinking mess left by President Bush, so now, more than ever, competence is valued highly and its absence is keenly felt. A large element of that stinking mess centers upon the notion that there are areas of government that must remain unpoliticized at all costs, such as the Justice Department. Frankly, Americans do accept to some degree that the executive branch will attempt to pull certain governmental levers to further their political aims. Just as frankly, however, Americans willingly accept responsibility for curbing that urge, be it through their votes, voices or vitriol. So just as we must never allow a President Nixon to use the Internal Revenue Service to punish his political enemies, we must never allow President Obama to use the National Endowment for the Arts to advance his progressive agenda. Many times in the past nine months I have warned and warned and warned that the NEA must be unmoored from the financial and political shackles of the government because neither party can be trusted to leave artists alone. Far too many of our arts leaders refuse to take that warning seriously.

The following, then, is a cautionary tale. It’s another example of how the extraordinary and flawless messaging of the Obama campaign, one could argue, has now disintegrated into merely ordinary messaging over the eight months of the President’s term. One could further argue that it’s the very ordinariness of the President’s current messaging that is giving him headaches so awful that even the highest quality healthcare on earth cannot assuage them.

Last last week, on Amanda Ameer’s blog Life’s a Pitch, reference was made to a post on Gawker regarding a conference call originating in the nation’s capital between

the NEA’s Director of Communications, Yosi Sergant, White House Office of Public Engagement Deputy Director Buffy Wicks and Nell Abernathy, who directs outreach for United We Serve, the President’s community service initiative.

A long article on the call — and what it may or may not portend — was then reported by Patrick Courrielche, who says he is a filmmaker and marketers, on the website Big Hollywood, a notoriously far-right-wing, anti-government, anti-Obama free-for-all. For context, last February I wrote a piece called “Do We Need a Secretary for the Arts?” for the Fox Forum. Late in the piece, I referred to an ignorant, offensive essay by Burt Prelutsky that was published on the same site. The title of the piece is “A Plea to Unendow the Arts“; I included these two graphs:

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“If an artist can’t be self-sustaining in a capitalist country as large and as rich as America, he should get into another line of work. It’s certainly not the business of the politicians and the bureaucrats, who you notice aren’t spending their own money, to support him and his artistic pipe-dreams….If 300 million of us have decided we don’t wish to underwrite inferior work, where do a handful of senators and congressmen get off wasting millions of our tax dollars to keep these dilettantes in beer and skittles?”

“[I]f the trustees of the MacArthur Foundation see fit to bestow $300,000 in grants on a bunch of weirdos who write Eskimo poetry or build sand castles, that’s their affair…. I can’t imagine why they’d rather give all that money to some beatnik who makes giraffes out of pipe cleaners, and will probably blow the dough on cheap hooch and wild women.”

Six months later, the utter stupidity of those sentences leave me gobsmacked.

Anyway, Courrielche’s piece covers the format, tone and substance of the call. In essence, the idea was to gather in one place “rising artist and art community luminaries…to lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda — health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.” It may sound benign, because, according to Courrielche, “power tends to overreach whenever given the opportunity,” the call represents a dangerous precedent for the American arts world. During the call, he “felt” that by

providing issues as a cynosure for inspiration to a handpicked arts group — a group that played a key role in the President’s election as mentioned throughout the conference call — the National Endowment for the Arts was steering the art community toward creating art on the very issues that are currently under contentious national debate; those being health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation. Could the National Endowment for the Arts be looking to the art community to create an environment amenable to the administration’s positions?

Of course it could. And no, I would never support that. Again, I’ve been advocating the idea of disassociating the NEA from the government entirely, that neither party can be trusted with it. Courrielche then takes a giant leap — one that is powered, ostensibly, by his frothing distaste for government in general, a distaste imbued in the American soul by all those decades of aforementioned lies and half-truths. Trouble is, the leap lacks evidence:

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans…

…We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us…

…Obama has a strong arts agenda, we were told, and has been very supportive of both using and supporting the arts in creative ways to talk about the issues facing the country. We were “selected for a reason,” they told us. We had played a key role in the election and now Obama was putting out the call of service to help create change. We knew “how to make a stink,” and were encouraged to do so.

Courrielche goes on to question whether advancing governmental or legislative objectives would be permitted under the charter of the National Endowment of the Arts. It would not be, of course. So he asks us this question:

…Do you think it is the place of the NEA to encourage the art community to address issues currently under legislative consideration?

After all, he ominously notes:

The NEA is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts. That is right, the largest funder of the arts in the nation — a fact that I’m sure was not lost on those that were on the call, including myself. One of the NEA’s major functions is providing grants to artists and arts organizations. The NEA has also historically shown the ability to attract “matching funds” for the art projects and foundations that they select. So we have the nation’s largest arts funder, which is a federal agency staffed by the administration, with those that they potentially fund together on a conference call discussing taking action on issues under vigorous national debate. Does there appear to be any potential for conflict here?…

…A machine that the NEA helped to create could potentially be wielded by the state to push policy. Through providing guidelines to the art community on what topics to discuss and providing them a step-by-step instruction to apply their art form to these issues, the “nation’s largest annual funder of the arts” is attempting to direct imagery, songs, films, and literature that could create the illusion of a national consensus. This is what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.”

Where, one wonders, are those “step-by-step” instructions? How, exactly, is the NEA “attempting to direct imagery, songs, films, and literature”? Having raised fears of socialism, the right-wing’s usual scare tactic, Courrielche goes on:

…if you are for the issues being pursued by the current administration, you may be inclined to think favorably of what I am labeling “overreach.” What a powerful weapon to fight those that are opposed to our ideas, you may think. For those in this camp I ask you this — will you feel the same when the opposition has access to the same machine? If history is any indication, the pendulum swings both ways. Is persuasion what the originators envisioned when they brought the legislation that created the NEA to the floor of Congress?

As a member of the art community for the past 14 years, I raise these questions only after careful consideration. Many of those on the call are from my hometown. My position here should not be construed as a personal attack on the call participants. Many of those on the call worked tirelessly on the Obama campaign and are proud of their victory. They look at this as an opportunity to be involved directly with the White House, which is an exciting prospect to many in the art world whose experience with the government may be limited to paying taxes and voting.

But the art community must put this excitement aside and ask itself about the proper role of government agencies created to promote the arts. And if put in the wrong hands, could a message machine built by the NEA be used in a nefarious manner not currently foreseeable?

Note the continual stoking of fear, Courrielche’s implication that the NEA is already being used in a nefarious manner, that such nefariousness is well-nigh inevitable. Two more graphs down, Courrielche says as much:

I’m not a “right-wing nut job.” It just goes against my core beliefs to sit quietly while the art community is used by the NEA and the administration to push an agenda other than the one for which it was created. It is not within the National Endowment for the Arts’ original charter to initiate, organize, and tap into the art community to help bring awareness to health care, or energy & environmental issues for that matter; and especially not at a time when it is being vehemently debated. Artists shouldn’t be used as tools of the state to help create a climate amenable to their positions, which is what appears to be happening in this instance. If the art community wants to tackle those issues on its own then fine. But tackling them shouldn’t come as an encouragement from the NEA to those they potentially fund at this coincidental time.

What is interesting, in the meanwhile, is how quickly this piece, tightly reasoned but for the aforementioned leap, has become buzzworthy: the headline of the piece “The National Endowment for the Art of Persuasion?” gets picked up by Gawker, and that, in turn, gets picked up by Amanda Ameer, and that, in turn, gets picked up that Rolando Teco’s Extra Criticum, and then, in turn, gets picked up by George Hunka’s Superfluidities Redux. As longtime readers of this blog are aware, Hunka and I have had our moments, but he was nevertheless kind enough to direct me to his post. After establishing the whys and wherefores of the matter (more concisely than I), Hunka writes:

Nowhere, it should be said, does any NEA figure mention outright that this definition of social relevance would be a criterion for approving or denying an application for funding, but only the most na√Øve observer could deny the inference. From a politically progressive viewpoint, the social utility of a work of art is a valid mark of its value, but it is far from the only criteria of aesthetics. Those works which locate the aesthetic experience not in a political context but in the context of the individual spirit, for example, can’t be said to have any measurable social utility. And it appears that the Obama administration, through the NEA, is not only defining function (discussion) but also content (“health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal,” according to the invitation letter for the teleconference).

And now, returning to journalism, Rob Kendt’s The Wicked Stage is picking up the torch, trying to figure out where, exactly, the invitation for the conference call came from. However, the real crux of the matter may be where the idea from the conference call originated from in the first place. Was it the White House’s idea to pull the levers of the NEA into action? If that is the case, how awful. If that is not the case, it’s more evidence that the Obama campaign, now in the throes of governing, is far off its messaging game.

Earlier this year I asserted that there will be, from the right, a coming assault on the arts. I titled that particular piece “The Coming Backlash Against Artists and Arts Funding.” Judging from Courrielche’s piece, the right-wing could very well use the mere existence of this conference call to launch that assault. Read the comments under Courrielche’s post to gain a renewed sense of the anger, skepticism and hatred just sitting out there, waiting to be harnessed. In a world in which it is acceptable for a gubernatorial candidate in Idaho to make a sarcastic joke about President Obama being assassinated, how much does it really take to hurl artists into the middle of a cold civil war?