Eminentoes

Art Doesn’t Work

Rocco Landesman, the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, likes to compare his president to the late dictator Julius Caesar. 

By 11.3.09

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Rocco Landesman, the newly minted Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), will soon hit the road to promote "Art Works" -- a six-month fact finding mission that will take the former Broadway producer across the country to remind Americans of the profound importance of art and, presumably, federally subsidizing said art.

The chairman's first stop on this tour of enlightenment, Peoria, Illinois, is instructive though hardly incidental. In August, Landesman, wandering off-script, as the ersatz populist Obama administration occasionally does when ensconced in the friendly confines of Americas' supposed centers of culture, admitted to the New York Times "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman..."

Well. So off Landesman will go to the Midwest to explain himself to Americans inhabiting places without Tony Award-winning theatre companies.

"There is a new president and a new NEA," proclaimed Landesman, on October 21 in a preview of his upcoming voyage, at an arts conference in Brooklyn. "This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists."

Interesting premises. But ones that can be accepted only if you ignore the fact that when he died in 1865 Abraham Lincoln had never published a single book and disregard the penmanship of other president-writers such as Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon and William Clinton.

Discounting the embarrassing historical ignorance of the head of a federal agency and the unfortunate comparison of the president to the dictator perpetuo, what about this new NEA?

If new is defined as unlike George W. Bush, Landesman and company are off to a swinging start. The Obama team's move into the NEA's offices in the Old Post Office Building earlier this year follows a period of relative tranquility in the agency's stormy existence. After decades as a flashpoint in the culture wars, the Bush-era NEA placated liberals by incrementally increasing the agency's funding and pleased conservatives by promoting programs that steered clear of controversy, effectively detoxifying this once notorious federal entity. From 2001 to 2008, the words "censorship" and "de-fund" were seldom heard in regards to the NEA.

What Bush accomplished in eight years, Obama has undone in little more than eight months. In fact, in little less than a year, the new administration has (inadvertently, one hopes) done everything in its power to re-polarize the endowment and reopen the debate over federal funding for the arts.

The opening salvo was an $80 million chunk of the supposed salvation of the U.S. economy -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- for the NEA, $50,000 of which found its way to San Francisco's Frameline film house -- sponsors of "Thundercrack," "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror film, complete with four men, three women and a gorilla." Another $25,000 went to CounterPULSE, weekly hosts of "Perverts Put Out" -- a "long-running pansexual performance series." Stimulating indeed.

When such uses of the public's money generated concern, Landesman, shortly after being sworn in as NEA chief, fumed to the New York Times, "The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay." Why would anyone think such things?

Well, there was that now infamous White House planned NEA-hosted conference call in August during which Yosi Sergant, NEA Communications Director, exhorted the participants (16 of whom had received a total of nearly $2 million from the NEA in the four months prior the call) to use their craft to further the Obama administration's agenda. "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment...," said Sergant. Unsurprisingly, after the call several of the participants signed a public letter supporting Obama's health care reform agenda.

After conservative bloggers pointed out the dubious legality of an independent federal agency leaning on grantees to accomplish political goals and create policy propaganda, Sergant was "reassigned" and eventually resigned from the NEA in September.

These controversies have hardly provoked a rethink or slowdown at the new NEA. In fact, Landesman promises to press on. His goals include an increase in the agency's $155 million budget which, in the middle of a recession, he describes as "pathetic" and a return to individual grants to artists -- the now banished funding formula that paved the way for taxpayer-financed exhibitions of the lurid work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.

He also plans to "lay the groundwork for the most arts-supportive administration since Roosevelt." And if in rejecting the "keep your head down, and build your credibility good grant by good grant" policy of the Bush administration, the NEA reignites the culture wars, so be it.

In the president's parlance, it is an audacious agenda.

But will it play in Peoria?

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About the Author

Ryan L. Cole writes from Indiana.