New NEA Chair Rocco Landesman Produces Paroxysms and Purrs

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RoccoFollowing his confirmation by Congress as the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, former and probable future Broadway producer and theater owner Rocco Landesman made it evident that the epoch of tiptoe-through-the-tulips NEA leadership is over, and good riddance to it.

Which is to say that the reaction to his first major interview, with the New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin, has been all over the map — a great way for a new debate, a new era, to begin.

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Pogrebin reported, for example, that Landesman

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has little patience for the disdain with which some politicians still seem to view the endowment, more than a decade after the culture wars that nearly destroyed it.

Landesman, according to Pogrebin, segued from disdain to anger regarding the debate over the $50 million in stimulus money for the NEA, taking a swipe at probabl 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who argued on CNBC that

arts money did not belong in the bill. That kind of thinking suggests that “artists don’t have kids to send to college,” Mr. Landesman said, “or food to put on the table, or medical bills to pay.”

But even that isn’t reprehensible — that’s just straight talk against right-wing culture warriors who vigorously defend the First Amendment at town hall meetings, but not at the idea of aiding artists in self-expression through microscopic pennies from the public purse. Landesman, who is largely self-made, brandished some of his free-market bona fides in the latter part of the story, referring to

a program that he called “Our Town,” which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas…. [and] would also help finance public art projects and performances and promote architectural preservation in downtown areas.

Going further, Landesman hinted at

public-private partnerships that enlist developers, corporations and individual investors – largely by getting them “to understand the critical role of art in urban revitalization.”

All of which is, well, not reprehensible, but crystal clear shots across the bow of the right. But unbowed, he went a lot further in the middle of the story with this:

The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.

Holy Larry Kramer, Batman! Wow.

And there was this:

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While Dana Gioia, his immediate predecessor, made a point of spreading endowment funds to every Congressional district, for example, Mr. Landesman said he expected to focus on financing the best art, regardless of location.

“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”

“And frankly,” he added, “there are some institutions on the precipice that should go over it. We might be overbuilt in some cases.”

Well, Batman, I guess the Riddler is out of the batcave. No, it wasn’t the most politic statement I’ve ever heard, but it is perhaps a smart way, as I say, to begin a national discussion about arts funding and, most important, the fiscal impact of the arts. Indeed, it’s statements like this that should incentivize arts leaders like Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, to get off the rhetorical square they’ve been in for the last decade and stop preaching the gospel of nonprofit capacity as something defined solely by real estate. It may hurt the good people of Peoria for their fair town to be ground zero in a discussion of quality vs. geography, but why shouldn’t that discussion occur?

Indeed, the discussion is already underway. Laura Collins-Hughes, on her blog, Critical Difference, has elected to focus on the “gay” comment, which is inartfully worded and, in fact, rather coded speech. Collins-Hughes writes:

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The idea that the arts are gay, and therefore dismissable, is closely related to another notion about the arts: that they are inherently girly. Leaving aside the abundant irony in that assumption, let’s consider for a moment what John Stuart Mill — a feminist way ahead of his time, who believed women should “have the power of gaining their own livelihood” — had to say on the subject back in 1832: “The only difference between the employments of women and those of men will be, that those which partake most of the beautiful, or which require delicacy & taste rather than muscular exertion, will naturally fall to the share of women: all branches of the fine arts in particular.”

In our perception of the arts, we haven’t advanced terribly far from that mindset in the past 177 years. The arts are widely viewed as a milieu best suited to women, and to men with an affinity for beauty, delicacy and taste and an aversion to muscular exertion (read: gay — and, no, I am not endorsing the stereotype, merely articulating it).

She is also making an anthropological analysis, isn’t she? It’s not unlike the perception that most people in the theater are gay. Darlings, I’ve been darting in and around the professional theater for more than 20 years and I can assure you that most people are not gay. It’s all a remnant of the streak of Puritanism that brought immigrants to the New World centuries ago — the idea that representing an action, a fundamental Aristotelian definition of theater, is blasphemous.

(If Landesman is interested in more of what’s at the root of the right’s fear of art, and why there are emotions ranging from ambivalence to antipathy regarding it, he might read Heather S. Nathans’ Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People. Nathans covers the anti-theater movements in Boston, New York and Philadelphia during the time periods cited in the title. This graph strikes me as provocative:

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In 1687, Increase Mather denounced the theater as a “danger to the souls of Men.” Mather’s angry edict came in response to the efforts of tavern owner John Wing to set up a temporary, and certain amateur (as there were no professional companies in America during this period), theater site within his tavern. Mather’s reaction, while extreme in its apprehension of the evils of stage plays, was not out of line with general Puritan sentiments on the theater. As Jean-Christophe Agnew suggests, for the Puritans theater displayed the precariousness of the social identity, by exposing human actions as a series of enacted or pretended behaviors, and therefore as behaviors open to suspicion. For the Puritan, who believed that a man’s character would be known by the “outward signs” of his behavior, this was a dangerous concept.)

And speaking of the other side, everyone should check out the trial balloon a certain news network trotted out as Landesman was being confirmed. Clearly what the new NEA head is doing is launching preemptive strikes — and he could, if he overplays or misplays his hand, wind up as yet one more headache on top of President Obama’s migraine. (I would add, by the way, based on the link I just cited, I repeat that the NEA wars of the early 1990s are going to come back, just as I predicted six months ago.)

Meanwhile, reaction to Landesman’s confirmation and interview is rapidly filling up the Intertubes.

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For example, there’s this effort to invite Landesman to Peoria, which appears to be succeeding. And there’s this blog posting regarding the resurgent right. And there’s this ghastly hate speech oozing from the Washington Examiner. If you haven’t read about the 50 members of Congress railing against some of the NEA’s recent spending, by the way — and this is even more proof that we’re going to have a culture war, and believe me, this one is going to make the last one seem like Kindergarten, click here.

And then there’s Judith A. Dobrzynski’s reaction on her blog, Real Clear Arts, in a post entitled “Landesman’s Big Risk: Cocky Remarks May Come Back to Haunt Him“:

It was straight talk; he said many things that needed saying; with a few remarks, he extracted the cultural world from the defensive crouch arts organizations always seem to be in. Artists do need to be considered in economic policy matters, though Landesman shouldn’t ignore the fact that investing in arts generally doesn’t have as large an economic multiplier effect as investing in manufacturing…

Yet as much as I agree with most of what he said, Landesman took a very big risk with that interview. Washington, as I wrote over the weekend in a commentary for Forbes, demands respect and often chews up people who don’t play by its rules. His remark about Peoria, even if true, will come back to haunt him surer than the “wise Latina” remark messed up Sonia Sotomayor. It’s going to make budget requests and hearings much more difficult.

Indeed. And so, the verdict: a vigorous, outspoken, energetic, visionary NEA chair may well be great for the arts — and it’s high time we had someone with some actual testicles. (That’s a metaphor, folks, not a sexist swipe at Jane Alexander, who frankly saved the agency from extinction in the 1990s.) Something even better would be, as I have proposed, transforming the agency into a public-private entity and eventually freed from federal appropriations and politicization of any kind. In other words, a true endowment. To hell with this hat-in-hand stuff.

Until such enlightened thinking dawns on our arts leaders, Landesman had also better ensure that he acquires, or at the very least refines, his diplomatic skills.