"Glorified PSAs"

Ben Davis defends the NEA conference call in a lengthy post at Artnet. He makes a persuasive case that many critics of the call are misunderstanding or misrepresenting its actual content — and I applaud him for a carefully written, factually informed piece that advances this conversation.

But he goes on to write:

This notorious conference call, in other words, was essentially a pitch for artists to make glorified PSAs about volunteer work. As far as I can tell, the truth is exactly the opposite of the ominous attempt to yoke artists to the Obama Agenda that critics suggest; if anything, the call was an effort to take the inspiration for radical change that led many creative types to vote for Obama and channel it into low-level, local activism.

That sounds about right to me — the call wasn’t about furthering controversial elements of President Obama’s agenda, but it was about deliberately politicizing art — that is to say, encouraging artists to advance particular public policy goals rather than enabling them to spend their time and energy creating works of truth or beauty to the best of their ability.

As Mr. Davis points out, the call encouraged artists with ties to the NEA to focus their energy on “glorified PSAs.” It is that effort that I find objectionable, as should anyone who values art or the autonomy or creative people. As Sanjay so eloquently put it, “You want to keep kids in school and encourage service and so on with clever art? Use the fucking Ad council.”

I appreciate that many other critics of the call are raising different objections, but their wrongheaded arguments don’t change the fact that the call was objectionable. Mr. Davis should acknowledge that, or else rebut the strongest anti-call argument on offer in addition to grappling with the weakest.