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post #1 of 2 (permalink) Old 01-20-2008, 12:14 PM Thread Starter
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Ars gratia artis?

After the Art Wars
Michael J. Lewis From issue: January 2008
For a brief and amusing interval in 2002 I was a candidate for the position of chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Amusing, for there was never the slightest chance of my being chosen. This was inadvertently made clear by the first question during my interview in the East Wing of the White House. After the preliminary niceties, I was asked to sketch my life and accomplishments. “Of course,” my interviewer prompted helpfully, “we all know about your music.”

Ah yes, my music. Either she was referring to a certain defunct college band, suggesting background checks of shocking omniscience, or more likely she had taken me for the distinguished Welsh composer of film music. At that instant I knew that we were only going through the motions, and that a presumptive nominee was already waiting in the wings. And so he was. That September, Dana Gioia, a translator and poet of considerable distinction, was appointed chairman of the NEA.

To some, the choice may have seemed surprising; poetry is hardly the main channel of contemporary art. Yet it was understandable politically. Literacy had been a favorite theme of the Bush administration, and something of a personal crusade for the First Lady. One could glimpse her hand in the choice of Gioia. But one could also glimpse something else: the lingering aftershocks of the case of the “NEA Four.”

These were the four performance artists whose grants had been withdrawn in 1990 on the grounds of obscenity—an incident that triggered a harsh and protracted cultural battle that nearly destroyed the agency. The battle had been politically bruising to the first President Bush, and the second wished no reprise of it. Steering well clear of the visual arts—the grounds on which the “art wars” of the 1970’s and 80’s had been fought—he chose as non-controversial a chairman as could be imagined. And indeed Gioia’s chairmanship has been notable for its calm, as well as for such undeniably praiseworthy achievements as bringing Shakespeare and jazz performances to high-school students.

It is not only Republicans who have nervously shied away from the visual arts in recent decades. President Clinton, although elected with the rapturous and near unanimous support of the American art world, did much the same. His first NEA chairman was Jane Alexander, the well-known theater and television actress, and his second Bill Ivey, the head of the Country Music Association—each a safe populist choice.

It seems, then, that both Republicans and Democrats had learned the same lesson from the art wars: entanglement with the visual arts could do them no political good, and quite possibly much harm. Whichever party claims the presidency a year from now, this political calculus is unlikely to change. Can anyone believe that a President Hillary Clinton would be any more eager than a President Rudolph Giuliani to be linked publicly to a performance artist like Karen Finley, whose chocolate-dipped nudity made her the most memorable of the NEA Four?

What this means, however, is that the NEA has become a very different entity from what was once envisioned. At its founding in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared: “There is a quality in art which speaks across the gulf dividing man from man and nation from nation, and century from century. . . . The stakes may well be the survival of civilization.” Today the stakes are lower: last year, Gioia informed Congress that the NEA had “set itself the goal of delivering a direct grant to every congressional district in the United States.”
In brief, the NEA has withered in a matter of decades from a self-styled instrument of world peace to a cautious dispenser of largesse whose one inflexible principle is that no grant must ever redound to the administration’s embarrassment. Whether it can regain its early ambition—or whether it should try to—is an open question. But nobody contemplating a reform of this institution should begin without a clear and unsentimental understanding of America’s peculiarly fitful relationship to the arts, particularly the visual arts.

more at: Commentary Online

The biggest problems we are facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all and thats what I intend to reverse.

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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 01-20-2008, 02:03 PM
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If the NEA is too afraid of art and artists to risk controversy, then it should fold. Safe art isn''s always been the dangerous stuff that expands peoples horizons.
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