Monday, March 08, 2004

O Safire! O Humanity!

Didn’t post over the weekend, but I thought I’d write now to address my favorite blowhard, William Safire. His latest opinion piece in the New York Times is on the future of the National Endowment of the Arts. O, perfect juxtapositions of art and politics!

Safire’s piece is arguing in favor of the increase in NEA funding and the start of the “American Masters” series. I have no argument against the American Masters idea (touring performance and arts shows showcasing the best of mainstream American art to communities and especially children all over the country) I think it’s great, although I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the work that came out of it was kind of boring.

What I do have problems with is Safire’s attempt to totally misrepresent the history of the NEA. Safire writes: “We happily hidebound conservatives resist direct funding for the arts on the principle that control of the money ultimately means control of the artist. The U.S. has a better approach: our tax policy encourages diverse private support, by individuals and foundations, of music, theater, dance and the visual arts.” This is a total misrepresentation of the Conservative stance on this issue. The Republican party didn’t go after the NEA 4 because they were worried about censorship, they went after the NEA 4 as an exercise in censorship. Conservatives weren’t worried about government control of the arts, they were worried about government funding of “indecent” art. The tax code is a wonderful thing, but let’s not rewrite the history of the early 90’s and the homophobia and election-engineered panic designed to take out a program that costs the American tax payer $0.64 a year.

Even if he did believe that, he’s wrong, and the controversy over the NEA 4 proves it. If government funding for the arts meant government control of the arts, the NEA 4 never would’ve happened, because they wouldn’t have wanted to offend their patrons. State sponsored art is as old as art itself. The Greeks used state money to promote the arts. That didn’t stop Aristophanes from devoting several plays to ridiculing the government of Athens in the worst invective possible. The only way government funding for the arts controls the arts is when the money stops and the arts go into recession, like we have today.

And as for the tax policy nonsense, private companies cut funding to the arts when the government does. Private funding for the arts exploded during the peak of the NEA, and it has been slowly decreasing ever since. Private funding is not enough. The arts are starving in America. The next generation of American artists has to compete for grants with older, established companies because there is no longer enough money for the more established companies to survive. What this means is that John Jaspers, a promising and innovative choreographer with enough work under his belt that we should be funding him, has to compete with Trisha Brown, the goddess of postmodern choreography, because the TBDC is having just as much trouble staying afloat.

But to Safire, that’s okay. His favorite artists is one who can’t make a living from his art. He writes of the chairman of the NEA: “The chairman, Dana Gioia (JOY-uh), is a major American poet and educator. Like the poets Wallace Stevens (insurance), James Dickey (advertising) and even T. S. Eliot (banking), Gioia made a living in business, as a marketing V.P. at General Foods. He brought both talents — artistic creativity and distribution savvy — to the task of expanding audiences through education and thereby making arts more self-supporting.” I agree that arts education is part of the future of the arts, but the arts will never, ever, be self-supporting. They just won’t. It has never happened in history and it can’t happen now. You can’t be self-sufficient and make a living at the arts, and making a living at the arts is at least part of what we should be supporting. Safire clearly, but surreptitiously, disagrees: he thinks that art should be what you do in your free time. A hobby and, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get recognized like Eliot.

He never stops to think what Stevens and Eliot could’ve accomplished if they were full time writers. The explosion in creativity if artists could make a living doing art is something Safire never really wants to look at.

A couple of grafs later, we get this little gem: “Remember the hoo-ha a while back about the funding of edgy art, offensive to some taxpayers, by the National Endowment for the Arts? That controversy is over. The N.E.A. has raised a banner of education and accessibility to which liberal and conservative can repair.” That "controversy" didn't arise in a vacuum. Conservatives stripped the Endowment of its mandate by forbidding it from funding individual artists, stopped it from funding art that anyone anywhere might consider “offensive” and then gut its funding. All of this over how the Endowment, which relies on three rather arduous tiers of peer review to make its decisions based wholly on artistic merit, chose to spend approximately 1% of its under $150 mil. Budget.

Now we see the result of it: the only way the NEA can get any money is to propose programs that promote instead of challenge the way we see ourselves. But these plays (O’Neill, Williams etc.) would’ve been anathema to Safire if he was writing op-ed pieces back when they were written. Williams, for example, wrote about class, sexuality, spousal abuse, alcoholism and all sorts of other shibboleths that American society wanted to ignore.

What Safire likes about these plays is that he thinks they reinforce conservative values. They are “Spare; daring; profoundly plain-spoken. We are getting far enough away from this to see how much it shapes our revolutionary character and affects our self-image today.”. If we translated these values to government we have: "small government (spare); interventionist (daring); blissfully arrogant (profoundly plain-spoken)" and have the conservative credo. Safire only supports art that he can meld to support his own image of what America should be. (This is leaving alone, for now, the fact that Safire apparently hasn't read a good book since Hemmingway, seen a good dance performance since Martha Graham, or been to the theater since Eugene O'Neill)

Like I said, I support the NEA's "American Masters" program. More money for the arts, and we have a great legacy that school children should be exposed to. As a final thought, here's another way of supporting the arts that I think even Conservatives could get behind: Ticket price subsidies. This is how the Greeks subsidized their arts, and it's one of the ways the government spends its money in Denmark. Support the arts by allowing the citizens to see theater, museum shows, concerts etc. and then having the government pay a large part of the tab through a voucher system. This way, the American People could decide what art to support and the government could get a little further away from the censorship business. It’s not the only thing the government should be doing to support the arts, but it would be a more democratic and more Conservative way of doing it. Of course, then conservatives would have to admit that free choice doesn’t really have anything to do with this. They don’t want Americans seeing Angels in America, they want them going to the orchestra like good citizens, and if they can’t control that, they don’t want any part of it. Who knew they were such Platonists?


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