What Could Rocco Landesman Be Up To?

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RoccoThe arts community had every right — still has every right — to celebrate the appointment of Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco Landesman to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Arts.

From the moment he was announced for the job to one of the first interviews he gave after assuming his post, Landesman has been about as visionary and forthright, if not downright swaggering a chair, as the NEA has seen in a generation.

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Still, Landesman’s accession to the NEA chairmanship occurs during one of the most convulsively toxic periods of bipartisanship the U.S. has experienced since the Civil War. (I further assert that I am not engaging in hyperbole here.) The radical right, despite disarray and division within its ranks, despite winning two governorships last week, continues to arm for a new assault on the arts in America. The NEA scandal last summer — resilient as Rasputin and covered extensively by the Clyde Fitch Report — offered enemies of federal-funded art plenty of stockpiles for the battle to come.

It isn’t necessary to recapitulate every jot and tittle of the NEA scandal here: click on the links above if you haven’t yet had your fill. And it is absolutely true that Landesman could not, in all fairness, be held directly liable for events that took place before his chairmanship began, or occurred before he was up to speed running the agency. Still, the CFR has warned all year that the radical right itches for a reason to reignite the culture wars; this post, for one, explored why artists and arts advocates should also be readying themselves for a cultural war. In recent weeks, Landesman quite smartly let out some of the steam from the pressure cooker when, in a letter, he politely told a gang of 10 mildly threatening Republican senators to shut their traps. Hot on the heels of that, he announced an “art works” tour that is specifically designed to tout the essential goodness of the arts and to make an equally compelling case for the fiscal and social benefits of the arts as well. Following the announcement of the tour, the Clyde Fitch Report examined the preliminary itinerary for evidence of political gamesmanship and couldn’t discern one. Regardless, Landesman clearly doesn’t lack an understanding of the grotesque, boiling, partisan environment in which he is operating.

At the same time, Landesman has been launching what some might view as exploratory rockets in the direction of the radical right. It’s as if he aims to learn where armaments are stored, where tripwires are laid. Delivering the keynote address at the recent annual conference of Grantmakers of the Arts, he demonstrated on a national platform a fact of life that Broadway long ago came to grips with: Landesman is no shrinking violet.

He confronted the raging, roiling antipathy of anti-arts Republicans toward the NEA:

I’ve been at the NEA eight weeks and already I have my own litany: the NEA is funding porn in California, the agency has become a propagandist for the Obama Administration programs, and to truly add insult to injury, we’ve been told, vis-√†-vis our share of the stimulus money, that we in the arts don’t even work.

One congressman summed up this view perfectly when he stated, “How can we spend 50 million dollars on the National Endowment for the Arts when we could spend that money creating real jobs like building roads?” I should pause here to note that that $50 million is one six-thousandth of one percent of the money in the stimulus bill. But more importantly, if you are, say, a musician who through long study and practice and talent has risen to play first violin in a symphony orchestra, please understand that although you have two kids to put through college, you don’t have a real job. Discouraging?…

He goaded the radical-right by indulging in gasp-inducing hyperbole about the President — words that Landesman has to know, on some level, will stir up partisan tensions:

This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists….

He suggested that the fine work of his Republican-appointed predecessors gives him the right to situate the NEA in an expansionist mode:

Bill Ivey and Dana Gioia worked tirelessly to build strong relationships on Capitol Hill and to re-establish the NEA as a respected, bipartisan agency with a presence in every state and most Congressional districts. The perception of an NEA Chair cozying up to a select few of the high arts impresarios at galas in New York and Los Angeles is long gone.

….But it’s time now to move the ball down the field (yes, I’m a sucker for any sports metaphor) and it’s difficult to do that if you’re always looking over your shoulder to see who might be about to tackle you.

….So I’m here to tell you today that we have a plan. But since this is America, before you have a plan, you have to have a motto. And it’s not “no news is good news” or the recent “A great nation deserves great art.”

It’s a simple, two-word declaration: “Art works.”

He began testing, once more, the radical right’s attitude toward government-driven arts advocacy — precisely what gave us last summer’s NEA scandal:

….We are opening up a page on the NEA’s web site – www.arts.gov – where each of you, and any of your colleagues can post examples and stories of how art works in your own communities. I will also be posting dispatches from the stops on my tour.

We need to compare notes, we need to get together and find where the best ideas are-in fact we are planning a gathering in the spring on art and neighborhood revitalization and we hope to have your active participation in that-but we need to do more than talk. We need to begin lasting partnerships in this arena, and there is nothing that will give Congress more confidence when appropriations time comes than showing how we-the public and private sectors-are working towards a common purpose.

He dared the radical right, thirsty for an all-out anti-arts war, to use its puppets in the press to launch jihad:

….Some quote-unquote “journalists” have recently accused this agency of losing its independence and becoming a propaganda machine. While I want to state in no uncertain terms that the NEA is not a political agency and that when art becomes propaganda I lose all interest in it, I also want everyone to know that the days of a defensive NEA are over. We have a plan and we are going to, quote, “advocate” for it.

He served notice to the radical right that he has no intention of capitulating whatsoever:

We are grantmakers, not a regulatory or enforcement agency. And will we “advocate” for the President’s agenda as well? If it’s a particular program – e.g. health care reform – no, of course not. But the President picked me for a reason and I decided to go to Washington and sign on with a federal bureaucracy – ugh! – for a reason. And that reason is that within the ethos of this White House, where words like change and hope and aspiration have real meaning, the arts can play a starring role. Whatever might be said on television, radio or blog sites, I have no intention of walking away from the compelling themes of this presidency and a historic opportunity in arts policy.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Landesman has earned himself some interesting press. Factor in some of the gaffes he made at the top of his tenure (will any public figure ever mention the word “Peoria” again?), and one can understand why a recent Wall Street Journal story referred to him as “controversial” in the headline. This, even as the answer to the question “controversial to whom?” remained unasked and unclear.

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The agenda-driven Journal piece, written by Lee Rosenbaum (a.k.a. CultureGrrl on artsjournal.com), is something of a hit job. Rosenbaum knows certain questions will beget certain answers. She also knows that those answers, delivered in tidy, easily digestible paragraphs to the Journal’s radical-right readers, will beget more Landesman “controversy” and, perhaps not so concidentally, act as soldier recruitment for the anti-arts war that may be to come.

Landesman, she writes:

….has no problem with bestowing funds on good rap. Near the start of our conversation, I asked him what new initiatives he was considering.

“There are new forms of music . . . and the NEA should be there. We should be reflecting the reality in our world these days, whether it’s hip-hop, or whatever. There’s a lot going on that the NEA traditionally has no comprehension about.”

“Do you think that hip-hop would be an appropriate area for NEA to fund?” I inquired.

“Absolutely. And mural painting and graffiti are art. There are popular aspects of all the arts that I think shouldn’t be ignored.”

Notice how Rosenbaum’s analysis, immediately following the text above, aims to stoke anti-arts triggers:

Funding hip-hop — the best of which is rhythmically poetic, but commonly punctuated by profanity, violence and/or misogynistic sexuality — could put the previously embattled agency back in the crosshairs of the decency police….

And even if Landesman’s interest in funding “good rap” fails to rile the right, Rosenbaum says that he believes…

…the time has now come to reinstate grants to individual artists — a program eviscerated when NEA ran afoul of Congress during the so-called culture wars. Only grants for writers have continued.

“We’re the National Endowment for the Arts and we should be supporting artists,” he persuasively argues. To achieve this, the former producer of “Angels in America” is willing to make concessions to congressional taste, by deferring to the legislators’ problematic “decency standards.” These require NEA grantmakers to take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

“I’ll live with that,” Mr. Landesman said. “I think there are probably some things where people will say, ‘Go ahead and do that, but not with my tax dollars.'”

So perhaps it is time for this question to be asked: What, exactly, is Landesman up to?

After all, it seems implausible that Landesman doesn’t know how eager the right is to make hay out of straw issues in terms of federal arts funding. It seems equally implausible that Landesman would simply go rogue for the heck of it, or to gain attention for himself. Is everything just optimism — a word Landesman repeatedly used during his keynote?

To what degree does President Obama sanction Landesman being Landesman, what with his visionary views, his forthright style, his downright swagger about the NEA?

Or is it possible that there is no master political plan at all — that Landesman’s simply means to cheerlead for the arts as he thinks best and is content enough, almost sanguine enough, to allow the chips to fall where they may? There’s a powerful argument for this in the sense that Landesman’s most recent predecessors, all decent people, were guilty of a paranoid overcautiousness. They feared bold thoughts or articulating bold views beyond palatable platitudes.

No one can blame those predecessors: the NEA, after all, did come within a hair’s width of being completely defunded nearly 20 years ago. And that is what worries: a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate and an 81-seat Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is not foregone set of circumstances. There is risk in infuriating the radical right, in daring the GOP to make the NEA a wedge issue once again. What happens to Landesman if control of Congress shifts to the Republicans? What would stop them this time from taking the organization out?

The issue is not whether Landesman should be anyone other than who he is. He is, let’s reiterate, a grand, bold leader for this most beleaguered and buffeted of institutions. The issue is whether his speeches and interviews to date have served him most effectively. Indeed, if we cannot argue with reasonable certitude that his current gameplan is the best one available, could the NEA — and American artists as a whole — turn out to be far more vulnerable than we can even know?