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George Will on the NEA's bid to politicize the arts

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Even after reading Holy Moly's take, this still seems like a plea for the production of mediocre art because artists seem to have nothing better to do. Reading the above summary, I can't help but think that there are much, much better ways to support and nurture artists at the local level.

And I am confused by Holy Moly's take in that the NEA director of communications was "reassigned" coincidentally with the outrage at this news item. Or has that been reported incorrectly?

Ultimately, the point of the call and of the serve.gov program wasn't to support or nurture production of art as much as a pitch to a bunch of tastemakers to use their skills to supporting community service and to orient cool audiences towards supporting good causes as well. When a hot young graphic designer or video director volunteers to do a poster or video PSA for their local Center for Disease Control about the right way to cough so you don't spread swine flu, or for the local conservation group working to clean up a neighborhood park, creation of great art isn't the point. Many of the people on the call exercise their skills primarily in the fields of advertising & commercial design, which isn't really oriented toward great art either.

I'm not sure what the deal with Yosi's reassignment was. NEA's not really talking about it; I can't imagine it wasn't because of Glen Beck and the phony controversy. My hope is that they're just being smart and tactical letting someone really really boring and uncontroversial take over communications so Yosi can continue to push for his creative ideas from the inside. Yosi wasn't ultimately targeted because he did anything wrong (if that was the case, they'd be going after Buffy and Nell too) but because he's a movement progressive.

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Ultimately, the point of the call and of the serve.gov program wasn't to support or nurture production of art as much as a pitch to a bunch of tastemakers to use their skills to supporting community service and to orient cool audiences towards supporting good causes as well. When a hot young graphic designer or video director volunteers to do a poster or video PSA for their local Center for Disease Control about the right way to cough so you don't spread swine flu, or for the local conservation group working to clean up a neighborhood park, creation of great art isn't the point. Many of the people on the call exercise their skills primarily in the fields of advertising & commercial design, which isn't really oriented toward great art either.

But a representative from the NEA, which presumably is oriented toward great art, was an integral part of the call. And while I didn't read anything in the transcript that would indicate any connection between NEA funding and participation in the serve.gov program, frankly, it looks bad. It was a politically injudicious decision to participate in the first place. Do I think the media has blown this way out of proportion? Absolutely. But Yosi Sargent was unwise to be involved at all.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I don't want artists to produce propaganda, with or without pay, because propaganda is bad art, if it should even be called "art" at all.

That seems like an easy statement to get behind, but isn't it a logical corollary that you don't believe in advertising & commercial design at all?

Ultimately, it's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it--I've worked in enough community service settings to see that bad graphic design and poor communications strategies are at epidemic levels. So many local organizers don't have those skill sets and they end up just making ugly flyers in Microsoft Word with Comic Sans and bad clip art. Getting more creative professionals hooked up with organizations that are doing good work at the local level can only be a good thing.

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I don't want artists to produce propaganda, with or without pay, because propaganda is bad art, if it should even be called "art" at all.

That seems like an easy statement to get behind, but isn't it a logical corollary that you don't believe in advertising & commercial design at all?

Ultimately, it's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it--I've worked in enough community service settings to see that bad graphic design and poor communications strategies are at epidemic levels. So many local organizers don't have those skill sets and they end up just making ugly flyers in Microsoft Word with Comic Sans and bad clip art. Getting more creative professionals hooked up with organizations that are doing good work at the local level can only be a good thing.

I'll buy that. But getting the NEA involved in the process is not a good thing. It's a bad thing. If that phone call had merely roped in a bunch of expert marketers and graphic designers, I don't think anyone would care. Sure, let's produce high quality marketing materials for government service. But marketing materials are not art, and the NEA, which is about art, has no business being involved in any way with government marketing materials.

Obviously some of the greatest works of art, in all media, were of a political nature. But the difference is that individual artists wrote or sang or painted or filmed out of their own convictions, and were dictated to or influenced by no one but themselves. All of that is seriously compromised when artists hop in bed with the government. It didn't work for church leaders in the '80s and '90s, and it won't work for artists in the '00s and beyond. Yosi Sargent's fatal error is that he was there when he shouldn't have been there.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Do I think the media has blown this way out of proportion? Absolutely. But Yosi Sargent was unwise to be involved at all.

I don't necessarily disagree--except that artists themselves had been pushing for more opportunities like this; for an expanded role in all aspects of civic life. Frankly, this all would be solved if the president would just follow Quincy Jones' suggestion of a cabinet-level arts post, so there could be a point person working on that issue but not connected to the granting organizations.

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Ultimately, it's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it--I've worked in enough community service settings to see that bad graphic design and poor communications strategies are at epidemic levels.

Graphic Arts need a public option? I see a really cool Cory Doctorow novel about this on the horizon...

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MLeary, that's precisely NOT what's being advocated here. The point of volunteering is that you get the best people involved without the government having to spend any money AND without the government having any control over the content. The point of leaving it to the local agencies nonprofits and NGOs is that they know what is needed better than the federal gov.

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Hence the Doctorow reference, as it involves something typically concieved of as a commodity/service in one setting being re-engineered as a commodity/service in a much different social contract. That's his schtick.

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Here is the latest retread, which indicates that there is fault on both sides. When is that ever not the case?

Favorite comment beneath that article:

it is really scary to think where we would be without Fox

Posted by: stevedc | Sep 22, 2009 2:39:36 PM

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Tapper's first sentence is way misleading though. There wasn't anything about supporting the president's "agenda"--it was only about this one volunteer initiative.

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...

This is all obviously false to anyone who understands the process by which the NEA distributes money. They're facilitated by a strictly governed process of citizen review panels and advised by the national council on the arts, not by the communications staff. And they don't give money to individual artists (except for some writers). Ever.

Just a few counter points, but nothing substantive to the OP, so feel free to skip.

The NEA doesn't give directly to individuals. They do give to organizations who do give individuals. Probably not directly to programs directed to individuals. I think the individual artist angle to strong arming is unlikely. But until recently the NEA (and influentially other granting organizations) favoured presenting organizations who are free to support individual artists. Been a part of several performance projects where Maya Angelou was a part.

Usually the peer/citizen review panels have little to do with who gets money and more to do with how much they get. By the time it gets to that level of review, the grant recipients have usually already been determined. I would say that there are no government arts granting organizations with citizen review panels that the review panel has a say in who gets the money, but I don't know all the orgs to say that.

Just because this event was not organized by the NEA, because it is probably unlawful for them to do so, that doesn't mean they didn't indirectly encourage. I've been a part of enough projects that the government arts granting agencies weren't allowed to actually participate (for example Georgia in particular has very tight restrictions on what the government employees like the Georgia Council for the Arts staff can say and do to avoid advocating particular projects.) that I would find it hard to believe that some level of involvement or aspect was not driven by NEA staff.

All that said, I am a working artist who is not a fan of nor did I vote for Obama. But my take on this event is, "move along folks, nothing to see here".

Joe

Edited by jfutral

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I do think there is a problem this fake scandal reveals. The government has no point person to set an arts agenda, except for the NEA, which isn't really set up to deal with arts policy stuff, and can get into sticky p.r. situations like this because apparently there's a lot of people who don't understand how the endowment works. What we probably need is an arts & culture czar!

...of course that's not going to happen in this ideological climate.

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Holy Moly! wrote:

: What we probably need is an arts & culture czar!

Heh. I almost said that in an earlier post. Except, coming from me, it would have been a wee bit sarcastic. :)

: Andrew Klavan wrote:

: : Simply by presenting a mission that excluded those who did not support the president

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Well, if it excluded volunteers who had no interest in supporting the president's agenda, then yeah, it would.

Thing is, it doesn't. As I noted, there's conservative groups using serve.gov. There's no ideological agenda there except service itself.

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