Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grassroots + Power IV: Corruption

I promised I'd get back to my thoughts about the relationship between the grassroots and power, which I started here and continued here and here. The point of those posts were to debunk anonymous comments of an extremely negative tone related to my approval of the 9/11 Day of Service collaboration between Americans for the Arts and Serve.gov (and, extremely indirectly, the National Endowment of the Arts).

To get onto the subject, I saw an article about Disney and the New Orleans Museum of Art from Real Clear Arts that was really a good look at the relationship between artists and corporate entities. The article takes a stance against their upcoming exhibit on the art of Disney animation. The heart of the allegation is here:

According to The Times-Picayune, "Lella Smith, the creative director of Disney's Animation Research Library...selected the art for the exhibit..."

And that was because? NOMA has no curators? (I see several listed on the website.)

NOMA appears to have suspended any critical involvement in the presentation of the exhibit, meaning that it really is a Disney exhibit, physically located in a museum. Will NOMA profit by it? Probably.

It reminded me of Lawrence Lessig's lecture on corruption (which if you haven't seen it, is here). One of the core points in Lessig's lecture is that the appearance of corruption to an institution can be as damaging to the institution as the existence of corruption itself.

So, say for instance, NOMA agreed to allow a Disney executive to curate the exhibit because, I don't know, she's a former NOMA curator herself, and they have a relationship bond that assures them that even though she works for a for-profit company, she'll select the right art for NOMA's exhibit while also satisfying her job for Disney. NOMA could stand by that, insist that although the appearance is corrupt, it isn't. It wouldn't matter. NOMA is an organization for the community, presumably (the first phrase on their website is "Your New Orleans Museum of Art"), so if they're trading their legitimacy even on the belief that their exhibit will be better, they're eroding their ability to reach out to their own audience.

So back to the 9/11 Day of Service. Some questions about the impact of collaborating with Serve.gov about the nature of the collaboration:

  1. To what degree does the government exert power over the grassroots? None at all. The government cannot force any decisions or choices on the grassroots organization.
  2. To what degree does the grassroots organization suspend its critical faculty? None explicitly. No leadership positions are replaced or made subordinate to government leadership (as opposed to NOMA allowing Disney to curate). It may be that starry-eyed liberal artists swallow Obama administration lines because of their belief in Obama's propaganda, and thus are suspending their critical faculties, but that's either happening already or it's not going to happen. Certainly, liberals are capable of criticizing the president. Obviously others aren't. But that has nothing to do with the 9/11 Day of Service.
  3. To what degree does the government influence the grassroots? Clearly, there is some minor degree of influence. The government is trying to maximize the impact of certain organizations it finds beneficial, and it will not exert that influence on organizations it doesn't want to be associated with. An artistic needle exchange project--I don't know, one that collects used needles from drug addicts for use in an art project and gives drug addicts clean needles--will probably not ever appear on Serve.gov. Then again, that project probably won't find much private support either. It sounds like a bad idea. In a way, the government is really only competing in the free market, albeit the free not-for-profit market. The tools it is using are tools that a private foundation could use: a small amount of resources, a cloak of legitimacy, centralized promotion. FringeNYC uses the same tools.
  4. To what degree does the impression of corrupt influence exist? This is a much more complicated question, because it brings in the notion of an organization's audience. If your organization has a mission statement that says something like "Our purpose is to stand up to the power structures that be, to speak truth to power..." then you should not be working with Serve.gov. But then again, you probably wouldn't be, and no one will make you. Remember that the 9/11 Day of Service is in the more limited realm of artistic community service organizations. It is typically thoroughly expected that an artistic community service organization would be working with government leaders to help organize their efforts, because their mission statements are aligned and the above questions can be easily answered with satisfaction.

    Now, I have seen productions that have failed this. For instance, one of my favorite theater companies, Witness Relocation, did a Passover show with a sizable grant from a Jewish organization (I wanted to look up the details but it's not in the "Shows" section of their website). I saw the show, and my first impression was, "Wow, they made this show because they could get money for it." It didn't seem to me that they knew why they wanted to do a show about Passover. The show failed, and it took a little bit of its legitimacy away. If I hadn't seen the show right before that, Bluebird (which also is not on the "Shows" section of their website), I might have written them off has having little-to-no integrity. Bluebird was an excellent show, and it felt like it was needed--even though it too had a cultural grant behind it (if I remember the information correctly).
So what I'm realizing is that a corrupt power relationship between a grassroots organization and a power organization is where:
  • The power organization (government or private) can exert power over the grassroots without the grassroots being able to defend against it
  • The grassroots organization cedes critical faculty or self-control to the power organization
  • The power organization exerts too much indirect influence over the grassroots organization
  • The two organizations have dissonance in their missions and/or audiences
Obviously, corruption is a sliding scale, and not all of these elements have to be present for corruption to begin. But if you're about to collaborate with a power organization, then those are the four points you should test your relationship by.

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