National Endowment for the Arts chair in the mid-1980'sMost of the art community has been thrilled about the Obama administration increasing NEA funding from $145 million to $161 million and appointing Broadway impresario Rocco Landesman as chairman. Some thought it isn’t enough. The always insightful critic for the LA Times, Christopher Knight, wrote “I was frankly embarrassed by the arts community’s ecstatic recent response to a $50-million temporary bump in the NEA’s budget ... Politeness is one thing, but crumbs are crumbs.”
I have mixed feelings about government support for the arts. I think it’s a good thing for government, and thereby society, to give legitimacy to the arts -- to acknowledge they are worthy of support. And I have personally gained from NEA and NJSCA grants -- always nice. But it’s important to remember that government and the arts have different agendas, and they frequently conflict with each other.
Charles Garabedian, a friend from my Los Angeles days, and someone I believe to be one of the most vital living artists, once told me that artists are the last of the rear guard -- we’re some of the only ones left who believe quality is the most important thing. Government, on the other hand, has pressure to be democratic, to be accessible, middlebrow, conventional, mainstream, inoffensive; whereas art can be challenging, difficult, outrageous and obscure and thereby seen to be elitist. Government has an interest in supporting the status quo and the powerful, hence most support will inevitably go the large institutions and certainly not to controversial or even difficult or obscure art. Of course there are governments and periods that are more or less enlightened and brave, but this is the general tendency.
Check out the 2009 NEA grants to the visual arts to see how cautious the NEA has become. If it was just a matter of the government not funding cutting-edge art it wouldn’t be so bad. Artists (and art galleries) have other means of support, however limited, and anyway, artists have always found a way to continue making their art without government support. But museums are another matter. After the Corcoran Gallery came under attack and cancelled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989 because it was mildly controversial, and after Giuliani threatened the funding of the Brooklyn Museum over its 1999 “Sensation” exhibition, and after many similar “culture wars,” one wonders how much self-censorship is taking place in order for museums to keep their funding. Worse, museums are watering down their programs in an attempt to be more popular and “accessible.” The Dallas Museum had belly-dancing demonstrations during a recent King Tut exhibition for God sake. It sounds fun and democratic and all, but what has that to do with the art? It’s not like belly-dancing offered an insight into Egyptian art of that period; it was just to attract people to the museum.
The government wants quantity for their funding, not necessarily quality. In the early seventies in Los Angeles, when I was just emerging as an artist, I was invited to a docents “New Talent Awards” ceremony that made a profound impression on me. Maurice Tuchman, then curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a smart guy who curated some major exhibitions -- someone who should have known better -- was giving out the awards in the back yard of a beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Tuchman, a Freddie Prinze look-alike, kept calling this a “gala affair,” and he introduced the artists like they were art stars, the docents gushing over them. Alex Smith snuck out, and the rest of the award winners stood cringing with humiliation. I realized then that whatever meaning the work had, however tough it was was, in the eyes of these bright and sincere docents, the meaning would be vitiated into something cool or trendy or, ech -- gala.
Closer to the here and now is the example of the Jersey City studio tour. For most of its history it was artist-run, and artists had an interest in keeping the quality high: they want to be seen in a professional context with other good artists, and people who might be interested in buying art won’t come if there’s not a large proportion of good art to see. Over the years, probably because of volunteer artists burning out, the government took over. The city had an interest in being popular and “democratic,” which in this context meant letting in hobbyists, children’s art, clowns with balloons, etc. And, in Jersey City, it also meant a lot of political advertising for the mayor. All understandable, even fun and righteous perhaps, but not the same thing as a professional artists studio tour.
I don’t begrudge anyone or any institution getting government support, but if they’re going to dance with the devil, I hope they keep their distance.