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Government support for controversial art

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These paragraphs are extracted from the NYTimes article about the NEA and its new head. One sentence, which I've put in bold, struck me as discussable. I'd really like to have a variety of opinions here.


The immediate spur for those fights was the agency's support for a handful of provocative projects and artists. One of those artists made a name for herself in part by coating her nude body in chocolate during a performance; another took pictures of a urine-immersed crucifix he had constructed. But at the heart of the battles was something deeper: a long-running argument about whether the nation should commit itself financially to development of its most cutting-edge art, whatever form it took.

For now the answer is clearly no. But it was not always that way, and the dividing lines have sometimes broken in unexpected ways. President Richard M. Nixon greatly increased financing for the agency without notable federal say in the art it supported. President Bill Clinton's appointees to head the agency often found themselves shying away from controversial art as they tried to save the endowment from its critics.


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I'll start it off. Yes, I think that the nation should commit itself financially to development of its most cutting-edge art, whatever form it takes.

I know there are problems with this position -- who's making the decisions? Are they giving grants to their friends rather than really looking at the whole field? That bothers me more than if this or that work of art offends a particular group. All art doesn't have to be offensive, but much great art is, and when you let the government get involved in making that decision, I think you're in trouble.

More sinister, to me, in this article is the statement, which I think is true, that even a liberal administration found itself backing away from controversial art because the critics were so harsh and loud and powerful that doing otherwise would have put the NEA in jeopardy. I don't mean to second-guess them, and the NEA was in real jeopardy so they may have made the right decision, but I think one must stand up for what one believes, and that that is the only way to fight the howlers.

Others? Especially those who think that the government should exercise more control in making grants? (That side is often under-represented here.)

[ December 24, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I have mixed feelings about this, but that sentence you highlighted stands out for me. Who says that's the question? It sounds to me like the writer is characterizing things in a very self-serving way. I'm all for helping artists develop an art form, and I've attended performance art (once) and see its value. But the issue for those who oppose funding has to do with objectionable content - as we all know. Who's this guy trying to fool?

Also, I'm really not sure just how necessary and appropriate government help is in many cases. Does Finley really need gov. money so she won't have to work a straight job? Why, so she can brainstorm? I think she coulda thought up the chocolate bit at MacDonalds. And if money is an issue when it comes to presentation, she can present the work in her loft, or some such place, instead of a house like BAM, until she attracts patrons willing to pay out of their own pockets, instead of the taxpayer's. Ballet is a horse of a different color. It truly is very expensive to produce, but it also has proven aesthetic worth (and thus moral worth, it you hold the common belief) and a proven appeal to people who could never afford to attend it without it being subsidized.

I have a lot of sympathy for the government-should-exercise more-control-over-grants side. I see a lot of what I think are absurdly simplistic and cliched and uncharitable ideas and presumptions about people like me, and about others I in large measure sympathize with, in what is supposedly cuttting edge, daring work. I also see what looks like gratuitious "hip," intended offensiveness (and de rigeur, "what me?" denials). How much work critiquing society from a socially conservative perspective does the NEA support, and would the downtown crowd go to bat for it? There is good work like that out there.

But once we start making political judgements, how we can we be fair to all sides? How can we possiblly agree on what fairness is? We can try the community standards approach, but what are community standards in say a place as diverse as Brooklyn?

On the other hand, those who cry "censorship" when it comes to the arts are the same people who support, for example, the post office's refusal to let its employees so much as say "Merry Christmas," for fear of "offending" a non-Christian, or reminding them that they're still in the minority, which supposedly intimidates them or something. I'm all for free speech, and I'm also all for respectful sensitivity. I'm not sure all the left of center voices in this debate really are. wink.gif

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I think your "Merry Christmas" point is well-taken. There are many on the left who are very happy to censor ideas they consider racist, sexist, anti-environment, or pro-religious and see that as furthering the good of society, while viewing those on the right who are aghast at anti-religious, anti-government, anti-values art are considered not only to be fascist pigs, but stupid and ignorant fascist pigs to boot. I do think that's a very fair point.

I trust that there really are people who can look at two squares of black and tell which is art and which is not. I hope they are the ones making the judgments. To me, it's a "who guards the guardians" question. I think we'd all concede that throughout history, there has been art that's considered shocking in its day that is less shocking to succeeding generations. We all look at content first, the underpinnings second, if at all. One hopes the Guardians aren't doing that.

Ken, to be fair to the article, I do think that in Washington this is the way the NEA issue is portrayed by both sides. It's the single unresolved issue. One step up from "Should we support the arts at all?" I remember that controversy from the 1960s during the floods of Florence. There the left/right debate was: Left, how dare you give money to try to save those old statues when people are destitute? We've got copies. Right: poverty will always be with us, but Michaelangelo comes along only once every 3000 years or so. People die anyway, art endures.

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Ken, to be fair to the article, I do think that in Washington this is the way the NEA issue is portrayed by both sides.

OK, well, that shows you how much I know. As Emily Latella (does anyone know how to spell "Latella"?) would say -- "never mind." It is interesting that the political sides seem to have switched positions on this issue since the 60's.

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It did go through quickly, didn't it? I can't imagine, though, that the issue of censorship is dead, especially considering the bent of this administration.

Ken, on side switching, it seems to me that both sides -- left and right -- both want censorship and fight it. I've had so many discussions with colleagues about this -- I really do think I'm in the middle; I can both see and be frustrated with both sides. On the issue of tv and film censorship, I've heard liberals who pooh-pooh the notion that explicit sex might be something that has no place in prime time, or mainstream movies, yet scream foul if there's an unflattering portrayal of a protected group. And I've heard conservatives who would like to take every sex scene out of every movie scoff at the notion that violence has any effect. It seems to me that we all agree that the media has some societal effect. I think there are some who are in denial about this -- YOUR stupid stuff has an effect, but mine, oh, get real. Of course it doesn't. And I don't think that creates a climate for debate.

I think both the left and the right can be anti-art, depending on the debate. On the right you have "we don't want to spend government money on anything" as well as "I am not giving a cent to that trash". On the left, there's also the suspicion that art is elitist, and that starving children should come first smile.gif In the wake of 9/11, if there had been an either/or choice, I don't think the arts would have fared well.

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I have somewhat confused ideas on this, having argued both sides with people! There has always been some sort of government sponsorship of the arts, it seems to me. It is just that so much of the government in previous days was centered on an individual, and his taste ruled. (Yes, or her!) And that government certainly engaged in censorship of some kind--Shakespeare could not have written a pro-Richard III play. The idea that great art cannot survive any sort of restraint is just not true--Verdi was constantly being censured, and managed to produce great works.

The idea that government is obligated to support so called cutting edge works seems in some way say that art has little power--if you argue that the figure you are opposing can support you without fear, then your opposition is weak and ineffective.

Governments nowadays are usually run by bureaucracies, so the idea of individual taste, which helped support so much of our great art, is not there, and art to get grants has to conform to some generalized measurable standard--like so many minorities, so much outreach, etc. Europe has subsidised art to a much greater extent than the US in the 20th century, but it is hardly a Renaissance over there.

I do think government has an obligation to save great works of the past, and I have no problem with the fact that most of them were produced by men! And I do think governments can support the arts in more effective ways that just handing out selected grants. Performing arts need cities, it seems to me, and cheap seats for lots of people. The rush to the suburbs, encouraged by the US government, means the audience is much more scattered and isolated, which makes it harder for the performing arts to experiment and fail.

I also think if there is official support for the arts, the community has to have some general agreement as to the purpose of the arts. It is only fairly recently that the idea became accepted that art should challenge, upset, push the envelope, etc. The old idea of ennobling, comforting, exalting people seems a bit mawkish, but if people don't believe that old idea, they have to make coherent arguments against it.

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It seems to me that government money for the arts is simply a country saying, yes, this is an important part of our national life and deserving of public support and recognition. I don't think we need to get into higher philosophical discussions about whether the art in question is redeeming or exalting -- in fact, I think it's dangerous to do so. Obviously, from time to time some rather egregrious examples of the aesthetically undeserving will arise, but that comes with the territory. There will be a certain amount of "waste" in the same way public funds are "wasted" on scientific experimentation that doesn't pan out.

cargill, I agree with much of what you say, but would point out that many private organizations, at least in this country, often take their cue from what the Feds and states will fund. It's a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, if you will. Often the private sector is as much if not more conservative than the public sector, and the lack of government money and recognition can indeed hinder efforts to obtain funding from other sources.

Mel, I think the article notes that the prime reason the nomination went through so smoothly was simply that the NEA has pulled in its horns so sharply that it's no longer controversial. I doubt that a sudden love for the arts inspired by Sept. 11 had much to do with it, alas.

As for "Merry Christmas" -- Post Office management is not being rendered paranoid by political correctness. I know of a firm where a Christmas tree was placed in the lobby every year. A company honcho of a faith I shall not name here so as not to start religious warfare objected to the tree as an ostentatious Christian display. The tree disappeared.

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dirac, it seems to me that your example only shows that the Post Office is not alone, not that they're acting wisely. I've heard people argue that postal employees represent the U.S. government, and that of course the government should be neutral. Well if so, I'm confused -- does the government mean to smile and wish me a nice day, or avoid my eye and say as little as possible? And if we prohibit government employees from inadvertently expressing religious views, then how can we fund the production of art that overtly or covertly expresses such views?

In regards to European funding of the arts, I once read somewhere that Holland has a warehouse full of unwanted paintings it's paid for! Perhaps it also has a few master works for its money. But certainly good artists can attract private funding more easily than ever. And again, why does a performance artist need government support?

As for that honcho and the Christmas tree, it seems to me that the appropriate way to counter someone's free expression and free speech is to respond with your own, not censor theirs. And I don't know what that tree looked like, but expressions of faith (if that's what a Christmas tree even is) are heartfelt, not ostentatious. smile.gif

[ December 28, 2001: Message edited by: kfw ]

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I didn't mean to imply that I agreed with prohibiting government employees from saying "Merry Christmas," only that in these litigious times it seems to me reasonable (in that particular case) to err on the side of caution. I used the story of the Christmas tree as an example of someone taking that kind of offense to a holiday custom. It would be nice if these things didn't occur, but we live in odd times. However, this is wandering from the topic.....

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My post office has everything. Kwanza, Hanukkah and Christmas all represented. Yet I have a co-worker who as a Jehovah's Witness won't even step forth into a post office because they have an American flag hanging, which is against her religion. We certainly do live in strange times.

Government funding. You'll have to excuse my ignorance on the subject of the NEA, but what exactly or how do they fund? Is a check written for an organization/individual and then left up to that party to see fit how those funds are used?

Maybe they should just have a box on the bottom of our tax returns to check if we want to contribute to the NEA like we do for presidential elections. As individuals can you support one art form, but not another?

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