The NEA, Cont'd

Exasperated as I am by his latest effort, I’m always happy to engage Freddie in debate. He is upset by my recent post on a conference call coordinated by the National Endowment for the Arts. I won’t characterize its content until later in this post since that is a matter in dispute.

This controversy caught my attention via Andrew Breitbart’s sites Big Government and Big Hollywood, where a full transcript is posted. After reading it, I made two rather narrow points. “It is plainly a story that the mainstream media would do well to cover,” I wrote.

And I approvingly quoted Andrew Klavan making this point:

The NEA, according to its own website, is “the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts.” It gives tens of millions of dollars a year in grants to artists and art organizations. It does this, according to the legislation that established it, to “help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” It is there, in other words, to protect artists’ freedom from the corrupting influence of financial deprivation.
The transcript of this phone call proves that the NEA has deeply betrayed that mission.

Those are carefully worded assertions, and I stand behind them. If only Freddie would engage my arguments, rather than the straw man he’s cobbled together by selectively blending various right wing commentary on this issue. That these stories are being discussed on Andrew Breitbart sponsored sites means that the facts in question are being spun in all sorts of hyperbolic ways — a habit I’ve criticized at great length. Nevertheless, Freddie implies that I consider the phone call to be a “horrible piece of unAmerican propaganda currently poisoning our government and causing Lady Liberty to weep bitter tears,” that I “didn’t bother to actually fact check the post” that I linked, that I implied “something really evil was happening” and that I am “opposing service to one’s country and community as tantamount to socialism.”

For the record, all that is utter nonsense that is completely unjustified by the post that I actually wrote. Also wrongheaded is this quintessential example of Freddie’s worst habit:

…the conservatives screaming and carrying on like they’ve found a dead body in Joe Biden’s trunk are actually completely wrong about what they think the call is about. But, yes, the hypocrisy rankles. It does indeed bother me that the ideology responsible for having people sign written pledges declaring their support for President Bush before they see our elected officials speak now complains about this. It does indeed piss me off that a few short years ago, Republicans were routinely doing things like calling for Howard Dean’s hanging for criticizing the war in Iraq, and yet now they stand enraged over this meaningless conference call. It does indeed make me angry that the president himself declared that anti-Iraq war argument “gives comfort to our enemies,” and yet now I read Conor Friedersdorf calling for national prominence on this nothing of a story.

I’m not screaming like I found a dead body in Joe Biden’s trunk, nor did I advocate loyalty pledges to George W. Bush, nor did I call for Howard Dean’s hanging, nor did I declare that anti-war arguments gave comfort to our enemies. But I think that the political philosophy of conservatism offers valuable insights about government and public policy. And some other people who call themselves conservatives did those bad things. So never mind that I disagree with all of those things — somehow Freddie’s view is that I am a hypocrite for objecting to the NEA call. I trust I need not elaborate on why this is illogical.

So why do I think the story deserves national media attention, and that it constitutes a misdeed on the part of the NEA? The biggest reason isn’t that the Obama Administration is trying to use artists to advance a particularly partisan agenda — it is that the White House is co-opting artists to advance any agenda, and the NEA is cooperating. Rather than focusing on its mission to advance good art to the best of its ability, it is engaged in an effort to advance the president and parts of his agenda. I titled my post “The NEA Flirts with Propaganda,” and I stand by that assessment. I don’t mean to suggest that all propaganda advances nefarious ends. “Go vote!” “Read to Your Kids!” “Eat Your Spinach!” I agree with all those messages. But I object to a White House that regards artists as useful tools in advancing whatever anodyne message it wants to get out — and I object to an NEA that exists to produce crappy public service announcements.

Sanjay does a great job fleshing this out:

The NEA is not a tool of (administration) policy, and that’s the scandal here. I realize that this issue isn’t as crucial to some of you young’uns; I remember when the NEA was criticized heavily for funding to Mapplethorpe and “Piss Christ” and the like. Well, for one thing I think most Americans thought that that was “good” censorship. But for another liberals at that time stood for the idea that the NEA is not a policy tool. We fought the idea that conservatives should be interested in gutting it because of the messages of the art it funded, with the belief that the NEA didn’t exist to “message.” The NEA director isn’t supposed to be interested in the messaging of the art: he’s supposed to want to know to whom it’s accessible, if it’s introducing more and more diverse art into a community, if it’s something that can promote arts education, if it’s keeping a classic American form vibrant…
You would tear that up. Conservatives would then be well advised to kill the NEA and NEH and Smithsonian and intellectuals would be deprived of a good argument as to why that’s a bad idea. Now, some of us don’t share the TAS enthusiasm for crapola hipster bands, and the jazz I live on is pretty dependent on organiztions like the NEA, and not really very good for messaging. So I want this bullshit killed, and somebody from the Obama administration fired.
You want to keep kids in school and encourage service and so on with clever art? Use the fucking Ad council. Immediate thought: Jesus, you really do need to read Europe Central or some of Belinsky’s misguided takedowns of non-programmatic art from the late Romantics/early Realists. Those guys thought like you are. Thinking this isn’t a pretty serious deal is failing to realize how much art actually means — which is why we have an NEA.

Beyond that major objection, there are other moments on the call that reflect poorly on the NEA — the call “to push the president and his administration;” the idea that a collective of artists focused on themes determined by the president is compatible with a vibrant art scene; the unquestioned assumption on the call that everyone supported President Obama’s election and shares his broad vision for the direction the country should take.

And yes, Freddie is correct that there wasn’t any quid pro quo being offered, or any threats, but it remains the case that two messages were sent: 1) This is the kind of art the White House would like to see; 2) The White House is in contact with the NEA, and the two entities do work together to advance the president’s agenda. If Freddie doesn’t think those facts will have any impact on the kind of art done by folks who want to get or maintain NEA grants, I think he is naive.