Props go to artnet Magazine’s Ben Davis for being the second member of the professional media to actually do his homework on the NEA conference call controversy, joining the Los Angeles Times‘s Mike Boehm. (Hat tip to Anonymous Commenter.) And what marvelous things he uncovers! You should really read the whole thing, but here are some of the choice passages:

The White House’s reaction has been so craven that it has actually fueled the fire by seeming to admit that it had something to be embarrassed about. Instead of forcefully insisting on the truth, that the infamous call was about such diabolical issues as promoting “preventative health care” and “getting kids library cards” — surely things that most people can get behind — the White House moved to sacrifice Sergant and admit the “appearance of impropriety,” even though this appearance was manufactured by foes of the administration. Thus, Courrielche has been given space to continue his assault, claiming, with no real basis besides his own overactive imagination, that the call asked artists “to address politically controversial issues under contentious national debate.” (NB: Since nothing particularly partisan was actually advanced on the call, Courrielche’s argument depends on the leap that because the art community is liberal, any government contact with it can only be veiled code to unleash the gates of partisan propaganda. I’m serious. That is his argument.)

A far more concise and potent distillation of the matter than I could ever muster. Davis is right to point out that the entire smear rests on speculations about what could have happened, not what demonstrably did happen.

In other words, all Courrielche’s platitudes about protecting the arts from outside manipulation are so much hot air. This guy manipulates artists for a living. Yoking artistic communities to inscrutable institutions is his bread and butter. As a matter of fact, Inform Ventures got caught out in 2005 for precisely the political character of its manipulation. As part of its effort to target the Scion at an urban audience, Inform put together an “unsigned emcee search,” judged by a team of hip-hop pros, to give a “quick taste of what it would be like to have label support,” in Courrielche’s words. After the judges selected rapper Bavu Blakes as a finalist, Inform Ventures turned around and disqualified Blakes when the company discovered that his track, Black Gold, contained the line “Now Bush and bin Laden got so much they rotten,” as well as lines suggesting anti-death-penalty and anti-Iraq-War positions.

Ah, some new information! I had previously noticed that Courrielche’s self-characterization as an independent artist was a convenient distortion, but I had no idea about this business with Scion.

Here’s where it gets extra spicy:

With regard to Courrielche’s mingling of politics and marketing, it is also worth noting the fact that his first major intervention as a conservative art commentator was an essay titled “The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident,” in which he championed the anonymous “Obama / Joker / Socialism” posters that appeared around Los Angeles earlier this year. Somewhat improbably, Courrielche defended the posters as an example of speaking truth to power, dismissing claims that the image was racially provocative and claiming that the artist remained anonymous because he was intimidated by the intolerance of the liberal art establishment.

My own working hypothesis about these posters, on the other hand, would be that they were the product of a calculated right-wing viral marketing campaign organized by a professional — someone like, say, Patrick Courrielche. The image, after all, was appropriated from the internet and then put up in poster form on the streets of L.A., exactly mirroring the trajectory of the Shepard Fairey “Hope” campaign and clearly intended to be picked up as its counterpoint. The “Hope” campaign, of course, was famously organized by. . . Yosi Sergant, the man that Patrick Courrielche got kicked out of his job at the NEA.

WOW! I have to admit it never occurred to me that it could be Courrielche behind the Socialism posters. Total speculation on Davis’s part, of course, but not without some justification. After all, while the creator of the image has been identified as Chicago college student Firas Alkhateeb, the identity of the person who downloaded the image from Flickr, made it into a poster, and started distributing it in downtown LA is still a mystery. Wouldn’t that just take the cake if it were true? After all, this is what this guy does for a living, and it’s not like the hip, urban viral marketing crowd is exactly teeming with conservative libertarians like Courrielche.

And finally, we get some dirt on the relationship between Courrielche and Sergant:

Which brings us to the final question: Why hasn’t Patrick Courrielche owned up to the fact that he has a personal grudge against Yosi Sergant? Because it turns out, in fact, that the two men worked together. […] According to an acquaintance of Sergant’s, Robert Greene, when he met Sergant in 2006, his story was that he had left the Scion campaign because of his increasing commitment to environmentalism and bike culture (Sergant’s strong commitment to biking is almost the first thing mentioned about him in a 2008 L.A. Weekly profile.) On the other hand, the word on the street in L.A. is that the break was bitter, and involved Courrielche accusing Sergant of stealing information from him. Sergant went on to work for a rival lifestyle marketing firm, Evolutionary Media Group, which consulted for the Obama campaign early on.

I’ve been trying to emphasize the personal connection between Courrielche and Sergant ever since I discovered it for myself over a month ago, but Davis and Boehm are the only media figures to pick up on it so far, along with a few bloggers here and there like Dalouge Smith of Dog Days. I don’t know how seriously to take this anonymously-sourced bit about the nature of their break, but it seems clear that there was one. Regardless, the notion that Courrielche is some sort of disinterested, agenda-free observer is completely obliterated by Davis’s multi-pronged investigation.

  • Hey!

    This is a great article, thanks for linking to it. It’s a bracingly succinct and forthright take on this stuff…

    I would just say the stuff about Courridouche possibly being the joker poster instigator is the kind of wildly inappropriate speculating without evidence that we make fun of when the wingnut fever swamp does it. It’s not *quite* Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama’s memoir, but it’s in the same zone. Without any evidence, that sentence really shouldn’t’ve gone in there.

  • I will disagree with you somewhat about the speculation. I think wild speculation is fine so long as it’s clearly labeled as such at all times, as I tried to do in the piece above. And there’s a fine line between speculating and following a lead. Yes, it’s less likely than not that Courrielche really is behind the socialism poster. But Davis’s point about this looking like the work of a professional viral marketeer is a powerful one, I think. It’s enough to warrant further investigation, and if I were a professional journalist I would be checking it out. Alas, my sleuthing skills are pretty much limited to Googling for the time being, and that didn’t turn up too much in this case.

    • Stage Right

      Mr. Moss, YOU may have labeled it as wild speculation, but Mr. Davis, whom you adulate with grand admiration, merely labels the idea of Patrick being the Joker Poster Fiend as “A working hypothesis”. Sounds kind of scientific, doesn’t it? Hardly a disclaimer worthy of a professional and balanced journalist.

      • Well, as long as we’re quoting people, let’s be fair: Davis did not in fact point the finger directly at Courrielche, but rather “someone like” him.

  • Stage Right

    I read the piece you linked to with great interest. It’s pretty hysterical (in both senses of the word)

    My favorite is how the writer describes Patrick as a “Known Conservative” and the evidence is that he donated to Hilary Clinton and to John McCain. This puts him in the “Anyone for Obama” camp and a “Known Conservative”. Now, it seems to me that the most reasonable conclusion to draw here is that Patrick was a Democrat who supported Hilary Clinton. After the primary and after seeing how the Obama Campaign dealt with his candidate (remember the PUMA movement?) he re-evaluated the two candidates left instead of just jumping to the “Anyone but a Republican” camp. As he backed Sen. Clinton in the primary, he clearly favored experience and moderation over charm and vacuous charisma. So given a similar choice in the general election (except this time it was a moderate republican instead of a moderate democrat) he supported Sen. McCain. Isn’t that a little more reasonable?

    • This seems sort of like splitting hairs to me. The point is that he made rather significant donations to two candidates who were not Barack Obama, which implies that he was not a big fan of Obama at any point. With that said, I don’t consider the donations all that important, which is why I didn’t mention them in my write-up. Though you seem to want to imply otherwise, my opinions are in fact not the same as Mr. Davis’s (even if I appreciate the original reporting and thought he put into his piece).

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