I get letters:

From: Miller, Josh
Sent: Wednesday, September 09, 2009 3:38 PM
To: Moss, Ian
Subject: RE: Media Inquiry
Importance: High

Mr. Moss,

Greetings – I hope this message finds you well.

I’m a reporter who is working on a story about two NEA-supported conference calls that purportedly asked artists to create art within major areas of President Obama’s administration, such as health care and the environment.

Have you participated in either one of these calls?

Please contact me at your earliest convenience so we can discuss this matter further. Thanks in advance.

Joshua Rhett Miller
Reporter/News Editor

I thought about writing him back, but instead I decided I’d just respond here. In case you’re joining us late, this story comes from a rather hysterical rant at Breitbart.com’s Big Hollywood blog authored by Patrick Courrielche, who seemed to think that an effort to incorporate artists into the President’s United We Serve initiative was some kind of Machiavellian plot to convince the art community to serve as pawns in Obama’s grand scheme to become dictator of America. Calling it “the making of a machine…initiated by the NEA, to corral artists to address specific issues” that “could potentially be wielded by the state to push policy,” Courrielche asks, “is [it] the place of the NEA to encourage the art community to address issues currently under legislative consideration?”

(As an aside, Courrielche seems positively shocked that the NEA is the “largest arts funder in the country.” Umm….duh? Anyway, the NEA reclaimed that title only recently from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. That’s right, the city of New York until recently provided more arts agency funding for 8 million people than the USA did for its population of 300+ million–and yes, I double-checked the numbers.)

As I reported back in June, this project is the brainchild of the NEA’s Communications Director Yosi Sergant, who served as the liaison between artists and Obama during the campaign and commissioned Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster in that capacity. I don’t know who Courrielche is, but according to his essay he used to be Yosi’s boss. Hmm, a little personal drama perhaps? Anyway, since Courrielche had his say, the story has been picked up all over the right-wing media and almost nowhere else–because it’s a complete non-story. The sinister initiative steamrolled on with a late August conference call featuring actor Kal Penn/Kalpen Modi, which I blogged about here (that’s apparently how our friend Josh found me). Although I wasn’t a participant in the first conference call, which is the one that Courrielche wrote about, I did listen in on the second.

So here’s the scandalous dirt on that talk, exposed for everyone to see. Modi, Americans for the Arts President Robert Lynch, and a representative from the Corporation for National and Community Service led off the call with a series of introductory remarks. Lynch showed himself to be nothing more than a dirty Massachusetts hippie by paying tribute to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who had just passed away that week. We were treated to highly charged partisan instructions like a reminder that any projects we upload should actually be uploaded twice – both on serve.gov and on serve.artsusa.org – so that community art endeavors would be visible within the larger pool of service projects and also collected in one place. Seriously, this is what the call was like. The closest it got to anything political was when a caller asked about the future of the Artist Corps initiative that was promised in Obama’s campaign platform (Modi responded that, while he “wanted to keep the call focused” on the United We Serve campaign, the Artist Corps concept is something that the administration still supports and wants to see happen).

If you don’t believe me, a quick look at the actual projects featured on the serve.artsusa.org website will convince you otherwise. Where are the “major areas of President Obama’s administration?” Is Alison Schwartz’s dancing to raise money for Dancers Responding to AIDS just a cover to convince Max Baucus to support a public option? Is Wynton Marsalis’s jazz education programming a complicated front for clean energy? Clearly, Cultural Crossroads’s four-acre arts farm in Louisiana must be some kind of Librul breeding colony.

So anyway, now Fox wants to write an article about it – yes, the same Fox who has had the hatchet out for the NEA for at least the last six weeks. A quick look at the question I was sent tells you where they get all of their material. The NEA “purportedly” wanted to commission art “within major areas of President Obama’s administration”? It would be kind of hilarious if it weren’t so disingenuous. As usual, Fox and facts don’t mix. For one thing, as far as I can tell, the NEA as an agency has no official role in the initiative whatsoever. Their logo is not on the serve.artsusa.org website; it is mentioned nowhere on the NEA’s website; and no one from the agency participated in the second conference call. Secondly, the push was not for artists to “create” work in line with Obama’s political agenda–the real push was to highlight work that artists are already doing that fits in with the overall United We Serve initiative. Finally, the push didn’t come from Obama–it came from artists: Sergant, and earlier, the group of 60 arts community activists who met with the administration in May and asked to get more involved. If there is a political agenda, it is perhaps that in involving artists explicitly in an initiative of this magnitude, maybe it will help build the arts’ public profile and help convince Congress to move this country’s level of federal arts support a notch upward from “laughably miniscule” to “embarrassingly paltry.” That’s all there is to it. Well, unless you believe that getting out of the house and helping people who are less fortunate than you is a partisan political act. Sadly, this conservative movement seems to believe that caring about anyone who isn’t yourself or directly related to you is something to condemn.

[UPDATE: And just like that, Yosi Sergant gets thrown under the bus. Way to give Glenn Beck more power than he deserves. Arlene Goldbard has more.]

  • Arwen Lowbridge

    Ian – thank you for being so on top of this situation as it continues to develop. What can we do to get this moron thrown off the air? I recently watched "Good Night, and Good Luck" for the first time and find myself longing for someone with substantial clout/power in the mass media to tackle this issue on behalf of the arts community specifically and our national culture overall. As much as I disagree with a lot of what she promotes on her show, someone like Oprah could be a great ally given her reach and influence if we could get her to join the fight.

  • RostockRose

    From north of the border it seems like the Fox network is producing the best science fiction on television these days.

  • Chris Rich

    Oh god not a sloppy Masshole dirty hippy and Faux news in the same piece.

    You outdo yourself. The commonwealth of Massachusetts is a bastion of the most crooked nepotism imaginable.

    Once upon a time, I was able to get Ornette Coleman 20 grand to compose a piece of music here in the heyday of greatness under Mike Dukakis.

    Since then it has been inexorable crooked decline as politicians turned it into a gravy train for contractors at the expense of artists.

    The Faux intrusion is puzzling. Can't they just stick to their playbook and be the Volkishe Boebacher of Amerikkkan corn pone nazism with Glen Beck doing the honors as a stand in for Julius Streicher?

    One day, we too will have our own Nuremberg tribunal and it will be fun.

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