The Playgoer: The Neutered NEA

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Monday, May 15, 2006

The Neutered NEA

WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott has an interesting review today of an NEA-sponsored exhibit in DC of current "political" art. (Called "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement.") While he concedes some pieces have bite, he takes the opportunity to show up how tame and cowered the Endowment has become.

We've come a long way. Parallel to the art of engagement has been a politics of disengagement, at least when it comes to arts funding. The only reason the NEA could meet in the midst of this exhibition without a firestorm is that, politically, the NEA has disengaged not just from funding this kind of art, but from the people, artists, curators and audiences who are interested in it. The "art of engagement," most of it left-wing and left-coast (the current exhibition is drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art), exists in a different world, utterly removed from the new NEA's focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry.

Will we ever recover from the "culture wars" of the 90s? Maplethorpe, what has thou wrought! Indeed, on "the hill" it is still all chalked up to fault of too many gay and/or blasphemous individual artists.

If ever politicians could play nicely with artists, it would be with this sort of subject [i.e. the "peace is good, violence bad" tone of the present exhibit], but, alas, the divorce seems absolute. Are both parties in this breakup equally guilty? Art, or at least overtly political art, is generally presumed to be the wayward partner, the one that took provocation to the limit, and forced the government (and most everyone else) to abandon the relationship. From a political and pragmatic point of view, that's probably true.

But throughout "The Art of Engagement," you sense a different emotional dynamic. The artists here don't consider the relationship over. They're still talking, if not with politicians, at least at them. They have more hope, when it comes to politics, than most politicians have when it comes to art.

I realize many will never understand why it is indeed reasonable to expect the government to sponsor art that may be critical of it. But without that openness and true freedom, a government is simply a royal patron--endowing flattery. Yes, Moliere made it work. But will we always be graced with enlightened despots...?


freespeechlover said...

And herein lies one of the great transatlantic divides between Britain and the U.S. that makes My Name is Rachel Corrie uncontroversial in Britain. There is political theater in London, and it receives some support from the British government sans strings attached. The funding of MNIRC included the British Council.

In Britain, people still take seriously their major institutions, even as they fear for their becoming part of the U.S. "war machine" as one person suggested to me.

In the U.S., it is getting more difficult to take what major institutions have to say, even some supposedly "progressive" ones like the NYTW, without a gazillion grains of salt.

Anonymous said...


a. Why is it incumbent on art to adopt a critical stance towards the status quo?

b. What, exactly, is *wrong* with art as patron-endowing flattery?

c. It's as foolish to expect no-strings attached funding from the government as to expect it from Coca-Cola. Taking candy from strangers is taking candy from strangers: it's simply a question of *whose* basement you want to be chained up in.

It's naive to assume that the greater "artistic freedom" we have in Europe serves the government any less well than the chastened product served up by the NEA. Moreover, it remains an open question whether government-funded "critique" is more powerful or efficacious than corporate-funded provocation (eg. the Hugo Boss prize).

Unlike the European States, the American government has never seen any political advantage to be gained from patronage of culture. Wishing we were in Europe not only ignores the cards we've actually been dealt; it blinds you, as artists, to the real materials, issues, and possibilities of politics and political art in the USA.

freespeechlover said...

You're misreading me. I do see the landscape here as more contradictory than you think. It's not an either/or for me in that I think contrast can be a useful heuristic and can actually help us to look for things "here" that resemble things elsewhere. Europe is not my utopia in terms of artistic or political freedom of expression.

There used to be a model of private philanthropy in the U.S. dependent on "old money," where patronage was less about expecting something "back," relative to today. There were fewer strings attached to donations; in fact, it would be interested to trace the term, "donor," to watch its twists and turns over time in specific places. Government funding for the arts is always political--what kind of politics and the fact that at other moments, those politics may have been less heavy-handed may be an over generalization, but I think there's something to it. No?

Anonymous said...

to look at this another way: the assumption that the legislative process in the USA is designed to incorporate diversity and tolerance is a misunderstanding, at least as far as pragmatic action. the legislative process is built on the necessity of compromise - which in some instances seems to deliver a similar landscape of variety, but couldn't be more different in terms of motivation: each point on that spectrum only exists because, like an animal in an eco-system, it can carve out a place with its teeth.

this is important because the question with arts funding and the nea so often seems to devolve to an assumption - or an idealism - about what is somehow "owed" to art by an enlightened culture, no matter what the art is or who makes it or what perspective it serves. yet in the context of american legislative politics this is, to quote mr. gonzales, "quaint". art is only owed what it can realistically demand - and in this pragmatic arena, the demand is about market relevance alone (whether with regard to the wallet or ideology seems less crucial).

one can make the argument in a democracy that, if a percentage of one's tax dollars were to go - as they do - to the dept. of defense, and so by extension to the activities at guantanamo bay, it makes perfect reciprocal sense for another (much, much smaller, sure) percentage of tax dollars go toward something the senator hatch or santorums of the land disapprove of, i.e. art that espouses a critical and/or degenerate agenda. but that hasn't happened, first because the art itself is undefended (as opposed to an abstract principle: mapplethorpe was defended in terms of artistic freedom, not because, say, an image of violently constricted testicles was "meaningful") and second because dissent itself is >not< a commodity of value in the society or the political system. it is a country built by and for winners.

besides, one is still waiting for the off-broadway play that espouses a line of thought as radical is V for Vendetta's comment that "sometimes you need to blow up a building to make people listen" - which is only to say that when you're connected to the juice you can say anything, even if you're a stupid comic book movie, and when you're not, declaiming your virtue won't change a thing.

or, okay, to get back to the point at hand: arts organizations ought to look at the situation as it is, where patronage and message are as intertwined as they have ever been, and their independence is dismissed and discounted (as it probably ought to be - for who, in the midst of the paperwork for some hideous tcg-managed nea theatre grant documentation, does not harbor the inkling that they have merely been hoodwinked into a bureaucratic snipe hunt?), and where the funding process is, essentially, always, seeking the imperial. royalist art has a long and complex tradition, and we can learn more from shakespeare, aristophanes, velazquez, and moliere than we can learn from the next wave festival, or a peer-reviewed curated series of developmental workshops, or the spectacle of misguided lefties tearing each other to pieces over last season's slice of royal court agitprop.

freespeechlover said...

hmmm. "misguided lefties tearing each other to pieces over last season's slice of royal court agitprop." That actually sounds like a marketing slogan for the state, whether run by Republicans or Dems. "Lefties"???? Uh, where?

I just saw My Name is Rachel Corrie at the West End Theater in London. I find it curious how many people are already certain that they "know" that the production is "agitprop" or "left" political theater or from the other end, "not really radical theater," etc etc etc without having seen the production.

I have a question for anyone to answer--What do you think makes people certain that they already know what this production "is" before seeing it?

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember the great editorial cartoon of an artist in front of his canvas? The canvas contains a little line drawing of a man in a suit and the letters FUCKING ASSHO. The artist, pen in hand, turns to an onlooker--the very same man he's just drawn--and says, "Give me a grant so I can finish my art."

Kind of captures both the utopian expression of what state-funded art should be free to express, and all of the reasons it will never happen.

Maybe we should all stop beginning these discussions with phrases like "In a truly civilized society...", since there's so much more than the problem with arts funding to remind us that we don't live in one, and talk about how to handle the truly uncivilized real world in which we live.

Anonymous said...

Re: Freespeechlover's question--I think L-S's idea here is more that the *quality* of the Corrie Play is a trivial matter (more on that later), compared with the system of compromises and demands it's embedded *in*, and which other, more blatantly *owned* work --eg Velasquez, Moliere--the Stuart Masques, let's say-- actually makes transparent and available for review.

Why do people go after Corrie w/o seeing it? Because the quality of Corrie is totally beside the point, and it's irritating to see y'all getting distracted by something as trivial as WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS ON STAGE. When Freespeechlover notes that Corrie is "uncontroversial in Britain..." well, there's your problem right there. The NYTW imbroglio was at least a provocation--however mild--to Public Debate; you could practically *see* Theater blinking in the daylight as it stepped out of the cave....

Perhaps the politics of state patronage are more heavy-handed now than formerly--but all that means is that now you can touch & weigh a hand that was there to begin with.

But let's go back to that question of *quality* for a one sense, it doesn't matter at all, because whatever place theater has in american culture is at once so marginal, and so much about the affected, crypto-European rituals of *theater-going* , that whatever content you put onstage is *automatically* self- contained.

And yet we here at CiNE cannot help feeling that quality matters immensely, both to relevance and to effect; and we suspect that quality is a question of *form* as much as of content...and we are pretty sure that the one-person docu-show drama is a format that basically *sucks,* irrespective of content.... and that, paradoxically, theater might become more politically *relevant* if it weren't constantly whoring out its own unique formal apparatus to the unimaginative demands of documentary political grandstanding. Corrie? Exonerated? Laramie? Agh--Wake us when it's over....

freespeechlover said...

You didn't answer my questions, which I find interesting, given your own version of The Pose.

freespeechlover said...

Okay, I take it back. You did answer my question. I think your ideas about "form" and "content" are a bit hypostasized--understandable, given that you're in competition with "theater."

I like your website and ideas. I'm wondering if the "when we see clearly, you will see clearly," is purposely ironic about state power, a play on the authoritarianism of the state/private enterprise system? or am I reading that into it?

Also, can you help me to recall something--was it Joseph Pappe who cancelled a production about Palestinians?

I'm not trying to be cheeky here--my deepest apologies for the invocation of "Europe."

Anonymous said...

I don't know the answer about papp (I'm fully willing to believe he did), but that also touches on part of the MNIRC issue - in its most simplistic terms - in a way that illuminates at least some of what's going on in the US. most self-identified political theatre in the US espouses left-wing arguments to a left-wing audience that already agrees with them, all of whom pat themselves on the back for "putting the truth out there". and sure, it's better than nothing in it's way - and I probably agree with most of the content points too - but in terms of both art and political engagement, these events are by design reductive and congratulatory, not provocative. and it may well be the same case in the UK - there's more aggression in the media there, and the left isn't nearly so apologetic - so one can, abstractly, understand someone from NYTW seeing MNIRC at the royal court, hearing the praise, feeling the love for the play in the audience, and thinking - "ha! this will be great for us too!"

one problem is simply that the left in the UK is not the left in NYC: the left in the UK is pretty uniformly pro-palestinian, but the left in nyc is going to be deeply, deeply split and to some significant degree pro-israel. so to do a play like MNIRC in new york and expect it fit into the political play mold of laramie or the exonerated (where everyone already agrees) is both knee-jerk and utterly blind, and the "trouble" about it doesn't boil down to issues of censorship or undue influence of boards or even timidity of nytw or harassment of that timidity from the editorial pages of the guardian (though any or all of these might be perfectly apt descriptions of what happened). the real issue is a misperception of markets and, perhaps more tellingly, a misperception of the product itself, i.e. how "political theatre" in the US actually functions as a consumable, and to what degree the people serving it up cop to that functionality.

in this sense, the "content" of a play like MNIRC is crucial, but it's crucial precisely because of nytw's initial assumption that the content didn't matter: that what might be plug-and-play in the UK would be the same here. that the play is a UK framing of an young american's experience is probably worth unpacking in its own right, but for now one can simply make the obvious point that, without the intervention of the royal court as a validator, such a pro-palestinian "american" point of view is hardly likely to have found its way to any off-broadway venue, much less nytw.

in a guardian editorial one of the co-authors of MNIRC wondered aloud whether nytw might censor their upcoming lesbian-centric play as well, since they had so obviously proven themselves inveterately spineless. such misplaced vitriol just shows she didn't understand the situation any more than the well-meaning and sandbagged folks at the workshop. why would anyone exert pressure on, picket or back off from a gay-issue play in new york, and at nytw of all places? those issues are dead here (which is to say they are perfectly popular). their bad luck with MNIRC was to stumble onto a political play about whose subject people actually retained strong and divergent opinions. so, you know, the whole thing became embarrassing.

freespeechlover said...

Hmm. Well, the production is coming to New York in September. As to what theater will show it, I don't know, but it is coming, because a number of them are vying for it.

The first person to use the "c" word was Alan Rickman and that appeared in the first article in the New York Times. Katherine Viner followed up in an editorial in the Guardian. The L.A. Times contacted her, not the other way around, which does speak to something you mention--a strong split in the U.S. between east and west coast, not so much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on personal freedom and especially freedom of speech. This is largely a result of "local" history in the S.F. Bay Area--i.e. the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I know that if there is one thing you don't massage or finesse it is free speech. It's because the state (well, maybe not Orange County or the agricultural middle) remembers that battle with deep appreciation for what students fought for and won. THAT, and not just the fact that Rachel is from Washington, is why the production was first secured in Seattle--you can't touch civil liberties out there and not face a real backlash, so I think you may be right about New York.

Although, that makes me wonder about Palestinian and Arab Americans in New York city, because I think there's a fairly decent size community of older and newer immigrants. I think this is why Betty Shamieh and Maysoon Zayid, when interviewed by the NY Times, said that they weren't even part of "the issue." Now, it's not rocket science for the NYTW to realize that IF they're going to consult with a few "Jewish friends" or even gentiles who don't want to hurt their Jewish friends feelings, that they could have simultaneously consulted with a few Arab Americans in their own professional world--namely the theater.

Still, if it had been up to me, I would have started the production on the west coast and moved east. By the time it got to NY, I think the NYTW would have been able to handle it--but definitely not in taking a "leadership" position in the NY theater world.

I think that the Brits did anticipate there would be some controversy in London as well as in the U.S.--why else would they have contacted Jews for Justice for Palestinians to ensure they'd have "political backup" if they needed it?

The interesting question is why the NYTW didn't turn to the Royal Court for advice on how to "handle" the controversial nature of the play--from the Democracy Now interview, it's clear Viner would have been an excellent resource. Viner could have told them, contact your local version of Jews for Justice for Palestinians--and these organizations DO exist in NY city. She could have also steered them toward the NY chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the ACLU, etc. There is a coalition of civil society folks in NY that could have thrown their weight behind this production.

Are the Brits responsible for the NYTW's lack of experience or unwillingness to "bend" regarding their ways of working? What does it mean to say that they "should have known" that there would be some in NY who wouldn't approve of the speech? Maybe they should have assumed that we don't have freedom of speech around Israel in America, although I've seen the production, and to be honest, it's really hard to call it "anti-Israeli," since it's hardly "left wing" theater. Corrie doesn't spew hatred toward Israel at all.

Even if we can say there was cross-cultural misunderstanding, I find the personalization of antagonism toward Viner oddly sexist, since it was Rickman who issued the first charge of censorship.

And that is embarrassing for a country that supposedly prides itself on how "liberated" its women are.

Anonymous said...

The slogan's (heh) a state secret.

however, we'd love freespeechlover's Email address, so we can contact you about future initiatives, and pass your info on to the NSA.

Please contact us at

PeonInChief said...

A couple of other points on the difference between NYC and the West. Some years ago the local ADL managed to alienate most of the left in Northern California, even the Jewish left, when it was discovered that the ADL had been spying for the San Francisco Police Department. Not only was ADL collecting information on Palestinian support groups, but on anti-apartheid activists and even people working on rent control and development issues. So the ADL has very limited credibility on any issue.

Second, even more than in LA, the Jewish community here is remarkable for its lack of religious fervor. And while I doubt that most Jews are pro-Palestinian, Israel is not the central issue among California Jews that it is in the East.

PeonInChief said...

A couple of articles on the arts in Britain:,,1779272,00.html,,1776566,00.html