The scandal over the conference call(s) at the National Endowment for the Arts has become the Gregory Rasputin of the Obama era: every time the Democrats think the matter is dead and buried or floating in the river, the Republicans keep hope alive.
The latest news came when NEA chair Rocco Landesman (whose served tenure, measured in days, has yet to exceed two digits) sent a letter to Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. According to the Los Angeles Times, Landesman, responding to the concerns of Enzi and nine other GOP senators on the committee — “including whether NEA funds were being used to advance the Obama administration’s legislative agenda on healthcare and other issues” — wrote:
Apart from [now departed communications director Yosi] Sergant’s participation in the conference call, ‘I am unaware of the use of any taxpayer dollars for the…conference call or related activity’….
‘This isolated incident, undertaken without agency approval and prior to my tenure, should in no way tarnish’ the NEA’s achievements and worth to the American public….
Landesman’s response reiterated what he said in a previous written statement on the matter: that Sergant, a former L.A. public relations man who had helped organize and promote artist Shepard Fairey’s pro-Obama poster campaign during the 2008 election, had used “inappropriate” language during the teleconference, but did not overstep any of the legal prohibitions against on-the-job politicking by federal employees.
So now the question is whether either side will raise the stakes. Certainly if the GOP wants to continue its reignition of the culture wars, it will make good on its threat to hearings on the NEA matter on the docket. (Would Majority Leader Harry Reid really acquiesce to such a request?) More likely, Republicans will use their pundits, mouthpieces and other political water carriers to foment even more anti-arts ranting on the airwaves.
In the meantime, the discussion in the blogosphere has become increasingly interesting to follow. Artnet.com, on Oct. 3, published Ben Davis’ well-reasoned essay, “A Defense of the NEA Conference Call: The New Culture Wars.” The piece focuses largely on the grinch that stole the arts’ Christmas, Patrick Courrielche, whose ingenious but flawed reporting on BigHollywood.com kicked off this brouhaha. Here is a small excerpt:
…Courrielche attempts to make his case against NEA in progressive tones, talking about how what he heard made him “uneasy.” “I’m not a ‘right-wing nut job,'” he wrote (before hopping onto the TV show of right-wing nut job Glenn Beck), professing himself to be just a citizen concerned about the baleful effects of Big Government on art. Courrielche talks about keeping art and propaganda separate. He cites Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.
This is either intellectual dishonesty, or a calculated attempt to sow confusion. I lean toward believing that it is the latter. Courrielche did tape the call, so you have to assume he was plotting something in advance…
And there is continuing evidence that Courrielche’s dis- and misinformation campaign has landed on the intellectual craters of moony-eyed conservatives. Here is a post from a blog called Politeia, which takes its content directly from Andrew Breitbart’s aforementioned BigGovernment.com:
Over the last week, Big Hollywood and Big Government have been extensively covering the August 10 conference call between the National Endowment for the Arts and a group of artists – a call on which the artists were encouraged to support President Obama’s agenda, with the tacit promise that they would be handsomely rewarded with government grants.
In other words, the arts face not just a foe of facts, but a foe unresponsive to reasoning and discussion. People like Rob Kendt, associate editor of American Theatre and a longtime blogger at The Wicked Stage, doesn’t cotton to my use of Nazi references when I get really steamed, but here’s my question: When you have a group of people, like the fringe Republicans, who will not distinguish between arguments designed to create political advantages and conceding the truth, who else should those people be compared to? When you have a group of people drawn to act on causes in the most blind, obedient fashion possible, who else springs to mind first? Is the GOP not a toxic cesspool of groupthink?
Until the next flare-up, there is this warning, buried deep in the Los Angeles Times story. It’s part of a quote given to the paper by the arts-friendly Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY):
“It’s outrageous…utter nonsense,” she said this week, characterizing the stormy reaction as an attempt by conservatives to revive the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s that centered on NEA funding of several confrontational visual and performance artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. The outcome was a steep reduction in the agency’s funding, and a virtual end to NEA grants to individual artists.
“This is no different than what we went through before, with [the NEA] as a convenient whipping boy, always accusing them of some nefarious thing they haven’t done,” Slaughter said.