3005645604_116169be39_b(photo courtesy Flickr user victoriabernal, Creative Commons license)

So, in case you haven’t noticed, the arts have become a bit of a hot topic in the political arena lately. Though the brouhaha regarding the NEA’s involvement in the United We Serve conference calls seems to have died down a bit since Yosi Sergant fell on his sword, conservatives have been trying to expand the fight to other arenas, like the meeting with arts community activists in May and now, the Obamas’ choice of art to decorate the White House itself. As Janet Brown of Grantmakers for the Arts has pointed out, it’s silly to think this is about anything other than the fact that, in the words of Alan Grayson, “if the President has a BLT tomorrow, the Republicans will try to ban bacon.” For conservatives, this is about fighting Obama wherever and whenever they can, using any pretext possible, to try to slow him down and obstruct any change from happening. And if the arts have to be a casualty of that, clearly they could care less, even if an offspring or two has to suffer for it.

One of my great frustrations of the past couple of months, though, has been that many on the left seemingly could care less as well. A simple comparison of the play that the NEA/Yosi Sergant story received on each side of the aisle will serve to illustrate my point. Every time a “new” revelation from Patrick Courrielche’s closet of secrets came out on Big Hollywood, the story would receive the royal treatment from the conservative elite: front-page posts on Michelle Malkin and Instapundit, live television interviews on Beck and Hannity, extensive, day-after-day coverage from the Washington Times, etc. In contrast, the liberal media pretty much hit the snooze button until people’s heads started to roll. The controversy was virtually invisible on Daily Kos, one of the most popular left-leaning community blogs, despite my own best efforts in cross-posting three articles from Createquity there. Aside from a bit of coverage by Mother Jones and Huffington Post, there was barely any attempt to rally the troops in defense of the NEA on the part of the left until after the damage was already done (and only a halfhearted one even then). I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of artists caring far more about liberal politics than liberal politics cares about them.

And what of the arts blogosphere? When Courrielche’s story first came out, there was a lot of hemming and hawing in our corner that took most of the (as it turned out, borderline delusional) speculation in his original essay at face value — which, in some cases, only served to hand a hatchet to those who were on the lookout for one. This is my second great frustration with how this whole business played out. Look, you can think what you want about the appropriateness or lack thereof of the idea behind getting artists involved in a national community service initiative. But understand this: the Right is not interested in having a reasoned, constructive dialogue with you about the ways in which this concept could have been approached differently or could have delivered better outcomes for the American people. The Right wants an excuse, any excuse at all, to rip the President and anyone involved with his administration to rhetorical (and for some of them, literal) shreds. And if your words end up being that excuse, don’t act all surprised after the fact.

My final frustration relates to the NEA’s own handling of the situation. The communications office appeared completely blindsided by this attack and clearly thought that by stonewalling the inquiries it was suddenly getting from conservative media outlets, the issue would just go away. Instead, the lack of a response just provided more fuel to the fire, hampered the Endowment’s credibility, and gave the story new life every day that clear answers were not forthcoming. Then, by demoting Sergant and ultimately accepting his resignation, the NEA opened itself up to charges of “why are you disciplining him if you’re saying he didn’t do anything wrong?” I obviously wasn’t there, but to me the NEA’s actions during this period look an awful lot like those of an institution paralyzed by fear – ironic, since the great majority of the facts were ultimately on its side.

Taken together, it’s a sad commentary on the state of arts advocacy, both in terms of how others advocate for us and how we advocate for ourselves.

Which leads me to wonder: maybe we have our advocacy strategy all wrong, or at least wrong for this moment in history and this particular political environment. Despite the arts’ best efforts to slink away into nonpartisan anonymity after the culture wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s, we are now finding that the resulting gains in public investment have not only been modest but exceedingly fragile. What this summer has made clear is that conservatives love to pick on the arts. Like bullies of all stripes, they love it because it’s easy. And it’s easy because we’re small, because we’re poorly organized, and because we have no one to defend us – we’re nonpartisan, remember?

I don’t like the increasing polarization in American politics any more than you do, but maybe it’s time for us to recognize that it’s happening whether we like it or not. And given that one side has demonstrated, over and over again, that it is willing to ignore both facts and reason in pursuing its attacks against who we are and what we do, maybe, just maybe, we should think about allying ourselves with the other side in a more formal way.

What might this look like? As nonprofit organizations, most arts groups are limited in the amount of direct lobbying they can do, and they cannot endorse specific candidates. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about seeking a shift in the dialogue of the thought leaders on the left. I’m talking about making the arts a “progressive” issue in the same way that environmentalism, health care, reproductive rights, and labor are considered “progressive” issues. To be sure, this would lose us some fans and invite lots of confrontation, both of which are in a vacuum Very Bad Things. But it would bring with it an advantage, a huge, huge advantage: the machinery, infrastructure, and commitment of one of the two major political parties in the US–the one that at the moment just happens to have led in party identification among voters nationally for the past four years running. This is no small matter. For all the vitriol (and sometimes worse) that has been hurled at abortion-rights supporters since 1973, Roe v. Wade still stands. And where do you think the labor movement would be in this country without the strong support of Democrats through the years?

An alliance between the arts and the left makes a lot of sense on both sides. Most artists themselves identify as anywhere from moderately liberal to borderline Marxist, as do their core audiences. Art production and presentation has historically been concentrated on the coasts, in urban areas, and in town centers, a fact of life decried by some but that nevertheless aligns well with the progressive focus on cities and existing concentrations of progressives. Richard Florida’s “creative class” concept and the arts’ neighborhood-revitalization powers provide us with an opening; it’s up to us to use it wisely. Just as there is a movement of “greening” cities underway, there should be a movement of “arting” cities: providing color, infrastructure, and life to neighborhoods and communities as we clean them up and get them ready for the 21st century. Part of the reason culture conservatives hate the NEA so is because so much art speaks to largely progressive groups: homosexuals, atheists, people of color, the sexually liberated, the alienated, the outsiders. One could even make an argument that art and creativity are inherently progressive values: they require and celebrate a capacity to think critically, to question convention, to consider different viewpoints. Is it time for us to come out of the political closet and show the world who we really are?

  • artsactivist

    irony- yosi sergant was behind the picture you used for this post http://008themovement.org

    one of the things Yosi was working on during his short tenure at the NEA was reaching out to NEA allies, emphasizing this very point. [i am in fact one of those people.] He was clear in our talks that an all out attack on the NEA by those that wanted to use culture as a wedge to smear the President was inevitable. He pointed out that in the two months since he began there were already several attempts.

    Mr. Sergant said that the NEA needed to develop a first line of defense and an effective way to ‘rallying the troops’ so that it wasn’t always on the defensive. He used the examples of service organizations and grantees writing regular opt-eds, online tools for effective campaigns to write ‘letters to editors’ both regionally and nationally, arts bloggers exposing misinformation and identifying non-arts allies to become vocal supporters of the NEA and the arts.

    What happened to Yosi was a shame and should really be a wake up call for all of us. His inexperience in politics and zealousness put him too far out in front. the art community was not ready to step forward, and i fear wont be for some time. The NEA really messed this one up. This was clearly not a fight they were willing to engage in and were satisfied feeding Yosi to the wolves– but they are foolish if they think this will quell the beast.

    i think there are more questions to be asked-

    where are the scores of republican arts supporters that the NEA and Dems have spent soooo many years kowtowing to? Cultural conservatives seem to have disappeared the very moment Obama was elected. A former Bush NEH exec even calls for the de-funding of the NEA without a single rebuff from her peers.

    If we as a community must sacrifice and suffer through impotent programs like The Big Read and bringing Shakespeare to military bases in order to make the NEA ‘bipartisan’ and safe at the expense of money being spent in the areas like audience development, leadership training and highlighting the role artists play in community revitalization… what does the greater arts community get in return? Minuscule budget increases and a ghost town the minute a democrat comes to power?

    Yosi is all but old news now, but this battle wages on. I fear these were just the opening shots of a widening war. This isnt going to be pretty.

  • Interesting post Ian. I wonder whether arts should be a partisan or bipartisan issue. The useful analogy for me is green jobs – it seems that the green jobs movement has been more successful as a bipartisan effort. Thoughts?

  • Tony,
    I have to confess I don’t know enough about the history of the green jobs movement to really answer that question directly. However, I wonder if we’re really talking about a three-stage process here. Before green jobs became a “bipartisan” issue (and frankly, I’m not sure it is all that bipartisan yet at the national level, despite the movement’s best efforts), it was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive cause. The arts are neither of these things now – they are totally invisible in serious discussions of national policy. When they get any attention at all, it is through extreme and active rejection by one of the two parties. So it may be that a bipartisan perch is ultimately best–I would agree with that in theory–but getting there may only be possible in a political environment like this one by earning the passionate commitment of one side, which can then be evangelized to independents and ultimately, some members of the other side.

  • Arts/artists/arts advocacy has been crippled and defensive for three decades now, and the NEA gutted for almost as long. So, what did we expect? I really agree w/you, Ian, that we need a united arts advocacy strategy and that we can’t underestimate those who really, really wish we would go away. I do feel like I’m seeing, not even that far in the distance, a new day for the arts, in terms of artistic expression, from my viewing station. But, unfortunately, it’s pretty disorganized – although highly creative and definitely more democratized. I would be very interested in your ideas about how to “herd the cats” of the art world before we fall too far in the hole of partisanship and politics… Right, it ain’t pretty and I don’t think it’s going to get any prettier in the near future…

  • Rachel C

    I think if you ask the Development Office of most major artistic institutions, you will find they can name you quite a number of valuable ‘conservative’ donors. It’s true that the heart of modern Republican thought is against Big Government, which certainly can include the notion of public dollars (especially at the Federal level) going to the arts. However, as Individuals, Republicans can be huge supporters of the arts with their feet, their hearts, and their pocketbooks.

    Alienating conservative audience members/board members/volunteers/patrons, and artists (yes, they do exist!)…does not seem to me the way to go. The Arts are for everyone. Everyone. How can we best impact our communities if we ally ourselves with only 50% of them?