Patronage, Politics, and Art: a First Glimpse at the NEA Micro-Scandal

pisschristAlthough it’s not receiving much press, most likely owing to its complexity and deep factual record, right-wing outlets broke yesterday the “story” that elements of the Obama administration had discussed organizing and funding art to support the President’s agenda. The truth is more complicated — but we’ll get to that.

Not to belabor the “Roman history” introduction, but governments have patronized the arts, for their own purposes, for as long as governments have existed. The scope of the government’s mission as a patron of the arts varies between instances, but always exists to some degree. Augustus’ informal “Circle of Maecenas” planned, funded, then executed a vast image programme ranging from coins, to poems (including the Aeneid), to temples; the Medici funded art as a testimony to their grandeur; and Queen Victoria had Alfred Lord Tennyson, her poet laureate, whose famous works explicated the majestic roots of British hegemony, and tied Victoria’s England to a grandoise mythical past. Just so, Hitler had his propaganda, and so did (do?) we.

America’s link between government and the art world — the National Endowment for the Arts — is best viewed, then, as a variation on a theme. Intended as a neutral government agency, the NEA’s limited mission, at conception, was to foster “artistic excellence,” free of any further qualifiers. Today, the agency’s actual neutrality is questionable, owing to a number of factors that far predate Obama. For example, current law (the “government speech” doctrine, see Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991)) permits the NEA to selectively advance certain viewpoints without intruding upon First Amendment values, thus entitling any given White House to, by exercising the power of appointment, influence the direction of the nation’s art. Perhaps more invidiously, though, courtesy select right-wing organizations like the American Family Association, the NEA is banned from funding any art that does not promote “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American people.” See 20 U.S.C. § 954(d)(1); Finley v. Nat’l Endowment for the Arts, 524 U.S. 569 (1998). While that sounds like a good idea at first blush, consider this: most good art was, at the time of its creation, somewhat sensational. Several of Mozart’s operas — today seen as harmless, or even boring (for shame!!) — inspired riots at their premiere, and were nearly banned by the Austrian government.

More recently, Jeff Koons’ seemingly innocuous works have depended on their apparent simplicity for the propagation of subversive, sexy, and kind of creepy messages; Robert Mapplethorpe raised awareness about gay culture in the AIDS crisis to howls of conservative rage; and Damien Hirst — well, let’s leave him for another day.

If the right’s concern, then, is that the NEA is a “political” organization, where art is polluted by left-wing politics, they’re late to the party, and ignoring their own contributions to the problem. Again, it was the AFA that first wrote into the U.S. Code a definition of “good art” (it must never offend!), and it was the right’s obsession with clamping down on abortion that secured to U.S. government agencies a right to promote partisan agendae. If the NEA has become a monster — alternately boring and propaganda-ish — it is a monster of the right’s own creation, one whose existence they must now endure, or suffer for their lack of foresight.

And so we turn to the instant case. Apparently elements of the NEA, acting quasi-independently, set up a conference call to develop an arts programme dedicated to service in the nation’s interest. Selective quotations from a transcript of the call make the group’s definition of “service” sound narrower and, consequentially, dangerously partisan. How much one should worry about this call is, to me, an open question. Taking the call for the least it’s worth, I suppose artistic integrity has been compromised, but that’s been the case since at least 1996 (with credit for that going to Gingrich, not Clinton). But government patronage, even to partisan ends, has been responsible for great & challenging works, even recently.

Besides, good art is never without an agenda. But if the concern is the explicitness of the agenda, and its traceability to recent government action, then perhaps we should consider leaving art truly to the artists. A good start might be severing the NEA from government influence entirely, terminating the obligation to subjective standards of “decency” along with the last vestiges of political control. I’m ready when you are.


  1. To condense your summation seems to be that yes, the charges appear to be correct, and your defense is that the Right did it first.

    The truth is more complicated…

    Isn’t it funny how it always is with this Presidency?

  2. No; the point was that the NEA was already political, so this shoudln’t be a surprise, especially to social conservatives. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but would guess bad. And things aren’t complicated just with Obama; they are with every president. Just the right seems to delight in oversimplifying things lately.

    1. So, again, if the NEA IS political then the charges by the Right are correct.

      It’s simple enough to say that the NEA is being used for partisan purposes. If Obama had nothing to do with it then say that, but don’t dance around it.

    2. I wasn’t trying to make such a mean partisan point, but rather meant to show it as a problem with the institution rather than a problem with the President, and focus attention on the only real cure.

      1. But, as Truman said, “The buck stops there.”

        1. BREAKING: Obama has failed to fix everything wrong ever inside of six months!

          If you could see me now, I’m struggling to duplicate Lucille Bluth’s devastating eye roll technique from Arrested Development.

          1. He certainly promised to during the election (most campaign promises ever).

            The point is if you’re going to be a fair commentator you can’t just reflect all blame with, “They did it first,” and “it’s the institution, not Obama.”

          2. I read my argument as saying “this is a tough issue with no easy answer, and not to be blamed on any one actor.” If you saw that as a deflection, maybe so, but an accurate one? It should be pretty obvious by now that I’m not going to fault Obama for failing to fix incidental problems which, while interesting, he never specifically addressed.

            Anyways, I don’t see anything really wrong with the NEA seeking out new Shepard Faireys. The horror.

            Also — what do you expect, Mother?? I’M HALF MACHINE.

  3. […] I won’t say that I agree with all of it–if you read the UK’s The Guardian, you know what I mean about an absolute abrogation of any community standards–but it’s true that social cons have some blame for the interpenetration of art and government. The author offers to sever the NEA completely from government; I would rather see the NEA deep-sixed entirely. […]

  4. Obama also hasn’t brought back Arrested Development, which is why I voted for him, dammit.

    As to the art, well, you should know that the only government-sanctioned art should be shitty landscapes with magic Jesus glows coming out of random places like owls’ butts, or whatever it is that Thomas Kinkade is doing these days.

  5. I’m not sure I’m following. If I’m reading this right, you’re saying that the right has done something similar and has laid the groundwork for this by requiring that NEA-funded art be inoffensive and by having other government agencies pursue partisan goals.

    In reverse order, I’m not sure how the second one is relevant. One -expects- that most government agencies will act the way that the party in power wants them to act. That’s the point of government agencies. And it’s not like Republicans limited access to abortion in secret – they often campaign on doing exactly that, and they love to point out their successes. The NEA is different because it’s not supposed to be a typical policy-oriented government agency. It’s more like the NSF – it’s an agency which ought not to care about politics (as an agency; it’s fine if the members of both strongly prefer Democrats).

    The first bothers me not at all. Yes, great art has a tendency to be offensive, and requiring the NEA to maintain decency standards is going to handicap it. But what other option do we have? Forcing people to pay taxes for luxury goods that they find offensive? It’s the worst sort of regressive taxation – the consumers of art (particularly edgy art) tend to be wealthy, and they’re getting their leisure activities subsidized by general taxes. A good minimum requirement on government-funded art, I think, is that it not be something that most citizens would pay money to have not exist. It seems to me that the same reasons which make NEA decency standards a good idea make a political NEA a bad idea – it’s got to be producing something that the vast majority of Americans value.

    To be clear, I’ve no problem with offensive art, but I think it’s a stretch to say that the people who value offensive art have a right to have that art be subsidized by people who hate it.

    If I’m missing something here – if the NEA was used to explicitly advocate against abortion, for example – then I’d be more inclined to say that “Republicans started it”. But the proper response to that is to take steps to make sure that that sort of thing doesn’t happen again, and those responsible for this instance of malfeasance (if malfeasance it was – I’m not that up on the story and haven’t read the transcript) should still be censured.

  6. […] every citizen. Unfortunately, some on the left see it as much to do about nothing, while others pathetically try to find a way to place blame for this at the feet of Republicans. Patrick Courrielche does a […]

  7. Selective quotations from a transcript of the call make the group’s definition of “service” sound narrower and, consequentially, dangerously partisan.

    I think, then, you should point out how a complete reading makes it inoffensive.

    1. If I must write a boring post, i shall.

  8. Thanks, Ames. This basically updates my college thesis. What would be interesting is to compare NEA policy and (relatively small) funding to similar efforts by the Departments of State and Defense for cultural diplomacy. Those programs are much more subject to partisan whims and have a direct “US Government approved” label attached to them.

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