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Articles from Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics

This Sugar Daddy is Bad for Our Teeth

by Pat Hartman
from Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #1 Spring 1988

Unemployed people can be brainwashed into thinking that a government bureaucracy is the only way to find work. In the real world, there are in every field legions of successful people who never set foot in the State Employment Agency. Like any such entity, its purpose is to serve its own needs and those of the legislature, other agencies, the employers, and only last and incidentally the needs of the ostensible beneficiary of the system, the poor schmuck who just needs a job.

Likewise, many artists accept as a truism that the government is their best and only hope for being paid for their work. Sometimes we accept without challenge the concept that nothing real or meaningful can happen except when backed by officialdom or occurring on public premises.

Among the artists who attended two symposia here some time ago, a need was expressed for more ways for artists to meet each other. While it is true that these meetings themselves provided such an opportunity, there is a danger: the accompanying belief that the city is obligated to provide venues and opportunities. It is true that the city as a whole will benefit if it provides these things. But to think that we must depend on publicly sponsored events to meet other artists and to show our work, is to fall prey to a very insidious mind-set.

As a result of these gatherings a statement was put together, which may come under the heading of well-intentioned but misguided. It may be that the answers to our perceived problems as artists lie not in committee action, not in drafting statements that can only attempt to express the will of so many people. Artists are after all a particularly difficult group to herd into an amorphous mass. Perhaps what we need to concentrate on is finding and creating ways of causing the community to become more aware of each and every one of us as individual artists. Too many times one hears a variation of this: "I've worked with him or her for years and never knew s/he was an artist." Are we ashamed to admit it, or what? Let's emerge from the closet, for heaven's sake. We can make our separate voices heard, and we don't have to wait for some bureaucratic wheels to grind before we do it. To switch metaphors, the cumulative weight of all of us can be much heavier than that of any committee, however dedicated its members.

Here is one example of the difficulty of accomplishing anything within a bureaucratic framework. What ever happened to the Artists' Directory, which has still not appeared as of this writing? And it sure wasn't nice to hear that we'll have to pay for it this time. After all, even with the limited funding available to Arts and Humanities, surely the distribution of such an elementary thing as a directory of local artists should be a priority. Such a resource is needed not only to facilitate collaboration between artists, but for the use of the business community, art show organizers, and individual art patrons.

At the time $2 seemed like a lot. At this point I'd be willing to pay an entrepreneur $5 just to have the Directory on my desk. One motivated person with a personal computer could put this thing together in a night.

These aspects of sugar-daddyism are bad enough, but what about a much more important issue: creative control. R.S. Jaggard, M.D., writes about the medical profession but his words are equally and ominously applicable to the arts. "When the federals give you money, they ask you to hold out your hand to receive that subsidy...Your bare wrist is exposed, and that is where they put on the chains. With the federal government, you do NOT get something for nothing. Whatever you get will come to you complete with controls." This goes for state and city funds, too, and should be memorized by anyone tempted to seek publicly funded subsidies for any purpose.

Profit With Honor

by Pat Hartman
from Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #11 (Fall 1990)

Thomas Jefferson said, "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." The same could be said of art. The solution? Stop funding either opinions or art from tax revenues.

The preferred solution calls for an end to tax-funded support of anything. But even if I can't muster enough libertarian arguments to prove to your conclusive satisfaction that other things - military and medical spending are two examples that come to mind - should not be government funded, any imbecile can prove with one hand tied behind her back that the government should not be funding the arts. There is no constitutional justification for it and no intrinsic, rational reason for it. Most important of all, the hand that holds the purse strings dictates the way the money is spent. That is something that no free people who call themselves artists should tolerate. It's also the reason for the endless debate we've seen in past years.

Of course it could be argued that we're only talking about a miniscule amount of money - a relative drop in the bucket. Last year the National Endowment for the Arts budget was 171 million, compared to a budget of 193 million just to keep military bands going. But the amount is not the point. It it's wrong, it's wrong.

Big Brother and the Scolding Company
One interesting feature of the Mapplethorpe debacle in Cincinnati: members of the grand jury visited the show, came away aghast, and indicted the art center's director. Question: since the show was NEA funded, i.e., paid for with government funds, doesn't this constitute entrapment? How can the government donate money, which implies permission to go ahead with the activity, then turn around and indict people for doing what it gave them permission to do? Fortunately a judge felt the same qualms and threw the case out of court. The same question came up in Philadelphia at the Institute for Contemporary Art, which may lose millions in federal support because it carried the Mapplethorpe exhibit. It had provided the NEA with complete information on the nature of the artist's work, including slides, and was granted the funding. Now, for going ahead with the show, it faces punishment. Isn't that what's called an ex post facto law? Didn't we learn in history class that one of the reasons we fought the Revolution was because of laws that punished people retrospectively for things they did before the laws were in effect?

The upshot of the whole mess is that the legislature approved a watered-down version of the Helms amendment, not as gruesome as the original but still restricting federal assistance for work considered obscene, indecent, blasphemous. (By whom?)

Momentous Moral Musings
Some claim that the issue is sponsorship, not censorship. As long as artists are still free to do what they want on their own time, with their own dime, the federal guidelines are not seen as being overly restrictive. Maybe so. But why not make the whole question moot by refusing to have anything to do with "government" money, which is in actuality loot stolen from your friends and neighbors by the government. It's tainted money, folks, and if you think great and noble art can be created on a stipend of stolen loot, maybe you're not worthy to call yourself a creative soul.

Cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibit by the Corcoran gallery in Washington led to an artist boycott that canceled two other scheduled exhibitions. Annette Lemieux is an artist whose work is subsidized by the NEA. Her canceling does not punish the government, since it already spent the money on her, but does rip off the taxpayers whose money it originally was. What kind of expression of principles is that? It just goes to illustrate that getting mixed up with tainted (stolen) sources of funding can do an artist nothing but bad.

Writer Martha Collins of Massachusetts also suffered an attack of scruples over accepting the $20,000 NEA fellowship she had been awarded. Along with 4,000 other artists who received grants, she was asked to sign a promise to comply with federal guidelines, including anti-obscenity and anti-drug restrictions.

Equivocation and Compromise
A moderate position is that it's no big deal if something objectionable slips through once in a while, as long as it's a small percentage out of the thousands of projects that are funded. On the same principle that it's better for a guilty man to go free than an innocent one to be executed, many people feel comfortable with the idea that something they don't like is funded once in a while, rather than take the risk of denying help to worthy projects.

National columnist Dave Rossie presented another balanced view. "Most Americans, I suspect, do not much care what consenting men do provided they do not do it in public. And chances are they won't care if a talented voyeur wants to photograph those erotic bouts. But I suspect they do draw the line at underwriting the cost of presenting those photographs to the populace in the name of enlightenment."

People for the American Way, on the other hand, commissioned a poll that proved the overwhelming majority of Americans support the NEA.

Rossie went on to lament that these funds are spent on art while so many are homeless, etc. This is a knee-jerk response one hears everywhere. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that the money, if not spent on mounting the art show, would have been used to improve the lot of the homeless.

Unrest in the Rockies
The board members of the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities are appointed by the governor: his own daughter, for instance, and his son, even though Mark Romer's out-of-state residency made him technically ineligible. Board members are supposed to be private citizens who demonstrate some competence and experience in the arts as well as a knowledge of community and state interests. The CCAH is also said to have strict "conflict of interest" rules regarding relationships between members and artists who apply for grants, but apparently there is no problem when it comes to having representatives on the board to look after the interests of the governor. Other board members tend to favor such art as statues of Ben Franklin and life-size sculptures of buffalo - in other words, they are stuck strictly in a representational rut. One member objected to a proposed sculpture for the Auraria Higher Education Center on the grounds that "to me it is not a piece of art." Don't these people know their job is to define what is acceptable in terms of government interests - not to define what is art?

Last year the CCAH awarded 92 grants, including those for bluegrass music, cowboy poetry, Western art, and choral singing - none of which I would pay a nickel to see or hear if the choice were mine. In fact, they may not even be art. (Hey, I'm as qualified as the governor's kin to make that kind of judgment.)

Made an Example Of
Actress Karen Finley has been chosen scapegoat of the year by critics of NEA policy. She has received grants three times to continue working in the field of "social theatre art," giving performances that consist of ranting interminably about the plight of women and smearing her naked body with chocolate as a metaphorical representation of what she really thinks Society covers women with. Cutting-edge art, perhaps; but one can witness as stirring an expression of outrage any Saturday afternoon downtown, as street people denounce the citizens who refuse to empty their pockets. The only redeeming feature of Finley's act is her candor in filling out her latest grant application: the receipt of more NEA funds would permit her "as an artist to continue working" - the only honest answer possible, and the only one that any artist in a similar position should offer.

 

 

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