Although 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.