Thursday, January 7, 2010

Grassroots + Power VI: Separation Between Arts and State?

A few months back, I got attacked by some drones from Andrew Breibart's big Hollywood blog because I approved of the Obama administration's realistic approach to arts policy -- basically, we'll provide what distant support we can to whatever is already going on in the field. My sense was that, given the incredible resistance to the arts from many politicians (excluding a few heroes).

At first, I was just irritated, especially by criticism that I hadn't given proper thought to the relationship between the grassroots and government. And then I decided to reflect on the relationship between arts and government for a few posts (starting from here).

The problem at the core of the criticism, which I felt it was necessary to address, was the proper relationship between mass movements and government. The right has shrewdly decided to draw parallels between the mass movements directed by government under Fascism/Nazism, whereas the left sees this government as government directed by mass movements. In the end, of course, neither is true -- my sense of the Obama Administration since it took office is that whereas it is responsive to some of the mass movement's concern, he certainly isn't bound by them, and on the other hand, the idea that the 9/11 National Day of Service indicates that Barack Obama is directly controlling artists is just ridiculous--or that ACORN is a malicious plot directed by Democrats to rig votes in their favor.

I was led to re-reflect this morning on that line of thinking by this post at Butts in Seats, about a recent TED address about a program that uses arts to address controversial concerns. The post ends:

She argues that social leaders who strive for change need to harness the universal language of the arts to bring it about.

My favorite quote: “You have treated the arts as the cherry on the cake. It needs to be the yeast.”
It struck me, suddenly, that although I have often heard the message directed towards artists that art is a powerful vehicle for social change, I had never heard the message directed towards politicians that art is a powerful vehicle of social change. And I wondered what that would look like -- politicians partnering with artists to create social change.

And then I remembered those anonymous flame messages accusing me of being a patsy to Stalinism because I thought it was a good idea for the arts to be included in a government community service program.

In other words, what has happened is that public backlash against political art has created a situation in which we have enforced separation between arts and state. Sure, Obama can go see a show (not without catching some shit) or even invite them to his house (and notice how both are considered historic gestures of support for the arts). But the idea that artists would actually work with politicians on public issues feels absurd (except maybe in the realms of film and music) and the government certainly doesn't lead art events on issues.

I am reminded of Ian's post for arts to become a partisan issues. In a way, he was just articulating something that we've articulated before, that arts needs to have political clout, but specifically he was saying that we need one party or the other to come out and say "Actually, we're the party that supports the arts."

But I wonder if it's deeper than that. Certainly, I know this unique sense of irritation that comes over most audiences if they feel you have too sharp a political "message." I get that too. They'd prefer artists not have political affiliation, but pretend to be simply presenting the world as it is. Brecht must be throwing a hissy fit as I write these words, but I think in American culture, the arts are supposed to be separate from politics.

Is that part of what has made us irrelevant? I don't think arts have to be political to be relevant. But is the fact that we flee from tackling the central issues in American culture? And I don't mean "doing plays about controversial issues." Certainly we can do a controversial play, but we certainly know that we're not actually going to influence events. Whereas there are some cultural events that have an impact.

If a group of talented, intelligent theater people wanted to create a theater event that would actually change health care in this country, what would it look like? I don't know. But I know it wouldn't be a play about a politician torn between the insurance lobby and their past as a doctor. (I can already see the poster: "First Do No Harm," the controversial new play about Health Care, going up at the Roundabout, starring Neil Patrick Harris as the doctor and Julia Roberts as the lobbyist... I should register that at the WGA, just in case).

Do we want this separation between arts and state? Does it give us integrity or make us irrelevant? Can we bridge that gap without becoming irritating, didactic, or -- at worst -- Code Pink?


Anonymous said...

The arts job is to force us to ask questions, deep, hard questions about life, not to give us answers. That's what makes an art work alive! Works of art that "deliver messages" are dead and boring.

The job of politics is to choose an answer to a problem and try to make it happen.

I think the only real way the arts bring about change is by making people ask questions that allow them to see life in a new way that makes coming up with a new answer possible.

Kiley said...

I believe part of what we are talking about is the fundamental nature of consumption in the United States. It is limiting and dangerous to bundle the arts in with the general political marketplace of ideas because of the typical temperament with which consumers tend to consume. Overtly pacifying forms of entertainment diminish the public's capacity to accept stimulation that is overly challenging. Call it the dumbing or the dulling down of the nation if you will.

What I mean is consumers tend to measure new products, services and ideas against that which they are most familiar with, rather than being open to experimenting with something new or unknown. This is despite how potentially beneficially those ideas or experiences might be to them personally or to their collective community. Under this premise, I believe that some / many consumers initially reject most art, consciously or not, particularly that which is not of the immediately pleasing or pacifying nature. Arts ability to prod, provoke, and challenge thus suffers in my mind when it is not wholly support by means external to the marketplace.

If art is to exist at the boundaries of consciousness, and continue to bear a relationship to truth-seeking and truth-saying, so that it can fulfill what has always been perceived as its most valuable function - a critical insight into the human condition - then it must seek to resist over marketization. Of course it will not, nor does not, always succeed. And perhaps only very little art ultimately does: but that little is precious, and without the kind of principled resistance described above, there might be less still.

I appreciate your article and would like to thank you for kicking up such relevant dust! I agree with you that the arts do not have to be political to be relevant, certainly not. But yes - the fact that we flee from tackling the central issues in via any medium, has sadly become a quintessential hallmark of modern American culture. That said, there is always time to change!

Ian Thal said...

I think the issue only becomes controversial when certain government agencies dictate content, but first of all, we need to get away from the notion that "government" or "state" is a monolithic entity.

Certainly, government agencies do employ artists to design and create materials related to particular programs: and that's a non-controversial use, as is commissioning commemorative art that marks specific historical events. (Yes, a lot of that sort of art is boring and uninspiring.)

The real problem is when an agency whose purpose is to fund the arts (i.e. the NEA) starts to tell artists or arts organizations that they are interested in funding art that supports particular political programs. It's one thing for the NEA to fund the New Play Development Program through Arena Stage and its partners, but what if a certain amount of that funding was specifically earmarked for plays that portrayed Bush Administration policies of "Extraordinary Rendition" or waterboarding in a positive light?

Even if I am largely in agreement with President Obama's policies, politicizing the NEA more than it already is sets a dangerous precedent for the Endowment to be either shut down, or used as a propaganda arm for policies I deem nefarious further on down the line.


As a painter that focuses on political themes in his work for several years now, I find this a very important issue to debate. To begin with, there is too much association of the term ‘political art’ with propaganda. Critics who want to abolish artists’ role in understanding political actions and their undercurrents to communicate it to others are, well….censoring art. You can’t have it both ways, embrace freedoms in your Constitution one minute and then decide to give those freedoms according to bipartisan politics. That goes for those politicians who want to use mass movement visual culture as much as those that fear a black President.

So even though I’m an Australian artist (and tell me to shut-up is fine), we have similar problems here. Our Prime Minister Mr Rudd single handedly put pedophilia and naked youths in art together and created mass censorship at the point of a gun that embarrassed us internationally. And I will also confess to doing an illustration for the cover of ACORN’s magazine Social Policy on the No Child Left Behind Act (Spring/Summer, 2007). But I don’t feel compromised and I don’t apologize for that either. That education policy was deeply flawed. Are we so stuck in “the medium is the message” that we have forgotten how to read, see and understand? That should be the criteria – one art work at a time.

Everyone forgets that ordinary people live the political consequences of these grand arguments, so why shouldn’t art deal with them? For those of us who aren’t career-government subsidised, we need audiences, and they know politics and art live together. They don’t need a public intellectual to tell them. I haven’t been patronized by government grants, and I see politicals as a central narrative to the way we experience the world. Seeing all political art as propaganda cuts out a lot of good art.
Carl Gopal

Chandler Branch said...

Good points, Carl.

info said...

Thanks Chandler.