Through the years, plenty of governments have paid artists to sing the praises of the politically powerful and their programs. No matter how well executed, the collaborative efforts have almost universally struck observers as creepy, and have tainted participating artists as prostitutes willing to peddle their souls to government officials with checkbooks. So, as news seeps out that the National Endowment for the Arts is solicitating art supportive of the Obama administration's ambitious (and controversial) policy agenda, you have to wonder just how the participants can think this will end well.
Writing for Big Hollywood, filmmaker Patrick Courrielche tells of an NEA conference call that was intended “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda - health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.”
Says Courrielche (who is troubled by the scheme):
Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans. ...
We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election.
Given the large role the NEA plays in funding art (It has a $155 million budget this year -- a small sum in absolute terms, but one that makes it a major player in the arts scene), a successful effort to co-opt the artists it supports into propagandizing on behalf of the Obama administration's political agenda could, conceivably, be an effective way of shifting the national poliical environment.
Then again, it might all be wasted effort. Totalitarian governments have long drafted writers, film directors, playwrights and musicians into pro-state efforts, ony to produce clunky tripe that left the audience both bored and more cynical than ever. People often know when somebody is trying to push their buttons. Ideology, ultimately, is no substitute for real art.
But, in the United States, government officeholders aren't really supposed to use official agencies and resources to solicit support for partisan policies. That's a big no-no under the law, as the NEA seems aware, according to comments Courrielche passes along from the conference call.
“This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally?…bare with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely… “
Speak with each other safely? Ugh.
But if the NEA is treading close to the legal line (or crossing over it), any artists who heed the agency's invitation are likely gambling with something more important than the law: their credibility. Any message communicated by art can be good or bad on its own merits if it originates with the artist. But if it's done on behalf of government officials, it's not art anymore.
It's just political advertising.
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