Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Art: From Left to Right? Open Thread

It's been hard to know what to blog about this past week, given that all I really want to do is read Tyler's next piece...more than usual, he's cookin' with gas over there.

In addition to the steady stream of awesome museum gossip, Tyler reprints a very entertaining
piece on art-world "bad boy" Fred Tomaselli (even though perhaps ultimately overstated, I'd submit [come on T, you know there's more to Fred's work than just drugs]...but that's for another day). Jumping out at me in that piece, given how much time I've spent defending the arts on conservative blogs, though, was this paragraph:

Tomaselli probably would not have been Jesse Helms' first choice for a Hirshhorn lecturer, but the Right has given up on the visual arts part of the culture wars and the Hirshhorn has been asserting itself of late. In roughly the last year the Hirshhorn has hosted I’m-loud-and-I’m-proud leatherdyke Catherine Opie for an artist's talk (complete with discussion of her cutting but without discussion of her Mapplethorpe-inspired 'O' portfolio), held a Cecily Brown show of paintings about the joys of penises and fucking, placed a Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece on the side of their building, and now it has hosted Tomaselli. Maybe we now understand why the outside of the Hirshhorn has only one narrow window. [emphasis mine]
That jumped out at me because if there's one thing I've learned over the last 5 years, it's been not to underestimate the goals of the extreme Right in this country. They're not even close to being content with control of the House, Senate, White House, and now (arguably, firmly) SCOTUS. They have designs on every nook and cranny of society. (See this Wall Street Journal report for proof of their plans to infiltrate one of the last bastions of liberalism left: university politics.)

So to read that they've surrendered on any front, let alone one that seemed to work so well for them in the 90's, came as a bit of a surprise. Has the Right truly given up in the visual arts part of the Culture Wars? Recent developments in the planning for Ground Zero suggests perhaps not entirely, but we don't actually hear Senators denouncing NEA grant recipients these days, and apparently all they had to do was walk over to the Hirshhorn to find objectional work if they wanted to. I suspect what we'd hear from the Libertarian element within the Right at least is that the issue was never what artists make ("this is America, after all" [although that most certainly doesn't imply what it did when I was growing up]), but whether public money should support objectional work. But that's all be beaten to death as well.

Here's what I'm interested in: If the Religious/Extreme Right (and yes, I do see them as one entity now...blame them for the perception if it's not accurate) has been able to so successfully infiltrate not only the Federal government, but also so many other modes of communication (think Rush, Fox, Murdoch's rags, etc.), not to mention the rise in "Christian" rock music and at least attempts at Religious TV programming (Joan of Arcadia, Touched by an Angel, 7th Heavan, etc.) and then movies (The Passion of the Christ), and now wants to infiltrate univerisities' politics (and let's not forget injecting Fundamentalist beliefs into public school curriculums), why do we not see even a hint of an attempt to promote their agenda via Fine Art?

Is Fine Art impenetrable? Or could the time come when conservative doctrines dominated at the MFA programs and led to a rise in young artists making work that the Right would endorse?

I have some ideas on this, but I'll open the thread up for yours.


Blogger Mark said...

The left has been asleep and not even at the wheel, the back seat! It traditionally needs a cause to get focused and excited. The right has been very focused for many years, building their vile platform. I do however see it's limitations. Most Americans want a middle ground and are tiring of the hollow doctran. As far as MFA programs,especially ivy league types, there is already an infiltration, a mind set of sorts, though not extreme right. The graduates seem to dominate the galleries.

10/05/2005 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As far as MFA programs,especially ivy league types, there is already an infiltration, a mind set of sorts, though not extreme right.

How would you describe that mindset though, Mark?

10/05/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

More to my liking than an MFA program at Bob Jones University :) But judge for yourself, what comes out of Yale or Columbia as opposed to Parsons or the California programs as CalArts. There are distinctions

10/05/2005 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Still not sure I'm following you though. Are you arguing that MFA programs should be churning out individuals and not packs of like-minded artists?

10/05/2005 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

That sounds good. I think my underlying point is that there is and always will be some sort of influence with any program. It depends on who is running the show at any given point. Well read, well versed and exposed to as many points of view as possible, even extreme, There is nothing to fear but lazy thinking.

10/05/2005 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Josh said...

I think the right has found that gay marriage and abortion work much better to rile up the party than art or porn. After Clinton left office prosecution of the porn industry for obscenity laws shot up-- until 9/11. Then the justice department completely dropped it (they had something better to do apparently). Only just now are they looking at porn again.

It doesn't mean that art couldn't become a scapegoat again...

10/05/2005 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not so sure about porn only recently being a target Josh. IIRC, Ashcroft made huge strides, even just after 9/11 to focus on it (it was one of his pet peeve crusades, for reasons best left to his therapist to consider, I'd venture).

In fact, speculation runs high that the only reason Gonzales was turning up the heat on the porn industry recently was to pad his conservative credentials for a suspected SCOTUS nomination. Now that he's out of the running for that (or so it seems), let's hope he refocuses those resources on catching terrorists.

Re: art. It would most definitely become a scapegoat again (already has with regard to Ground Zero, imo), if the extreme Right got its way on other issues (i.e., abortion, gays, etc.), and needed another scapegoat, I'm sure.

10/05/2005 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

A Republican Study Committee charged with identifying spending that could be cut to offset the costs of Gulf Coast reconstruction not only identified the NEA and NEH as sources of spending that could be eliminated entirely, they specifically stated that the "general public benefits very little from NEA." This group also called for a half a trillion in cuts to Medicare/Medicaid, so the whole slate of suggested cuts was just GOP wish fulfillment.

Really, I think that the Culture Wars "theatre" at any given moment is a function of conservative political power. When conservatives are dominant in government, as they are now, the issues that emerge are abortion, gay marriage, and adoption by gays. These are all platform issues—they match up with a specific, urgent agenda items.

When conservatives are not dominant, they turn to different issues to gin up controversy (and slur their political opponents). Contemporary art makes for an easy tool to paint the Democratic Party/liberals as decadent, godless, irreverant, antitradition, and all the rest. But once they've used that successfully to obtain more power, that's that—it's not actually an important item on the GOP agenda to eliminate edgy art. They don't actually care; it's just useful for them. I think other issues that fall into this category are evolution (there's a great survey out there of leading conservatives actual beliefs about evolution, which are perfectly orthodox) and academia (not, actually, so liberal as it is said to be, and nevertheless a perpetual source of perfect strawman).

I don't think the GOP will actually ever eliminate NEA funding. I think that A) they know how much of that money actually does make it to constituent community programming, and B) look how much mileage they've gotten out of Piss Christ. They can still play that card!

10/05/2005 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous John Currin said...

Infiltration of the right in the contemporary art world? My friends and I think you're crazy!

10/05/2005 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Kriston said...

Source for the RSC offset cuts is here, btw.

10/05/2005 12:30:00 PM  
Anonymous josh said...

My knowledge about it comes from a fascinating Frontline episode (aren't they all) on porn a few years ago. Various government officials interviewed said that after 9/11 prosecution of porn basically dropped to zero. I only saw something recently about porn being looked at closely again, but I probably missed plenty of other news reports on it.

The frontline show can be streamed from here:

10/05/2005 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'll check that out Josh, thanks!

Could be Ashcroft only tried to turn up the heat on pornographers, and only toward the end of his term as AG (the last four years are someone compressed in my memory, it seems...probably self-defense mechanisms within my brain). I just remember bloggin' about how inappropriate a use of resources it was that Ashcroft was focussing on Porn at that time.

10/05/2005 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I saw a similarly scary wish list on a blog, Kriston. Essentially the only thing this conservative blogger thought we should increase spending for was defense, which given he didn't even suggest any improvements in efficiency or accountability go along with that, told me everything I cared to know about that thinker. I can't find the link now, but Instapundit had recommended it a few weeks ago

10/05/2005 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Todd W. said...

To equate attacks by the Right on the porn industry with attacks on contemporary art strikes me as a bit of a stretch. I know the Left likes to cry "slippery slope", but they are apples and oranges, really.

Could one say that why it seems "the Right has given up on the visual arts part of the culture war" is that it was so successful in its attacks during the 80s? Certainly changes in the funding mechanisms at NEA and NEH have lessened the likelihood that government funding would be directly applied to some of the more egregious examples of sexual art. Or silly examples.

I don't think anyone should "fear" an infiltration of Right-influenced art in the same vein as Ed's examples from popular culture, unless one fears the continuing popularity of Thomas Kinkade! Despite spinning those examples as being part of a planned assault, they are actually created in response to market forces. (As is, oddly and coincidentally, the porn juggernaut in the US.) If anything, Right-leaning sensibilities are generally incompatible with the sensibilities of the fine art establishment (my own being perhaps the exception that proves the rule). Look for instance at the sort of art being championed by the Walton family heirs. Where you do see the influence of the Right (man, that sounds retarded, like I'm aping some 1930s Red pamphlet) is the rapid and growing influence of market forces in what artists produce and which artists are promoted.

In any case, I think one of the interesting findings from the recent RAND study on the visual arts is that government funding of the arts would have greater impact if focused on early arts education rather than direct funding of artists (discontinued at NEA) or even the funding of institutions. Early arts education was found to be the ONLY factor leading to an expansion of the arts audience. So, in this regard, the RSC is generally correct that the general public benefits very little from the current structure of NEA funding. Now that is not necessarily an argument for its discontinuation, only that the current structure is ineffectual.

10/05/2005 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Could one say that why it seems "the Right has given up on the visual arts part of the culture war" is that it was so successful in its attacks during the 80s?

Occam's razor would certainly seem to point toward that.

Despite spinning those examples as being part of a planned assault, they are actually created in response to market forces.

Not entirely sure that's the case with TV, though Todd. Friend of mine in the industry said most of the religious shows have tanked and Hollywood's rethinking others in the works. That suggests to me it wasn't a demand as much as a percieved audience ripe for picking...or...[play menacing music here]...a deliberate attempt to steer us toward the Right (yeah, ok, so it sounds silly when you shine some light on it).

government funding of the arts would have greater impact if focused on early arts education rather than direct funding of artists (discontinued at NEA) or even the funding of institutions.

Actually, I agree with this approach, and have argued on the right-wing blogs that funding artists with galleries and museum exhibitions under their belt seems somewhat like begging for trouble (not that I'm totally against it, just that if the US public is a bit squeamish about spending tax $$ on art, the best use of any of it is missionary work, so to speak, institutions in the heartland, schools, etc...).

10/05/2005 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous John Currin said...

Where you do see the influence of the Right ... is the rapid and growing influence of market forces in what artists produce and which artists are promoted.

Man, I think he might be on to something there.

10/05/2005 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

No question the art world is far more conservative today than thirty years ago. My guess is that it comes from all that debt one is left with after school.
You will have to take my word that it didn't use to be that way. My MFA came with no debt, maybe one of the last, in 1988

One time the counterculture and the art world were one and the same. Both have been co-opted by commercial interests. It is still difficult for old hippies like me to see this happen

You don't need the far right to remove the soul from art, the near right is doing just fine. Maybe that is the reason for their backing off, it worked.

In a previous round of the culture wars I asked a survivor how we should combat it. He said,"You can't, you just wait for them to lose interest and go away."

Otherwise, the (real) terrorists have won

10/05/2005 05:27:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

I think the conservative trend in the country is visible in art. While there still is the porn-provocateur element in art (and that at this point has been so rehashed that it could be considered traditional), many of the young artists are doing very happy, viewer friendly work. Even the angry young work is angry like cartoons are angry - in a charming, distracted sort of way like "daddy took my t-bird away". So much of the work is ruthlessly exploiting comfort zones. And it is amusing, light and very forgetable......

10/05/2005 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous TACKAD said...

i read the article about wyeth and now that you've mentioned it again i had to start laughing.
when you consider all the cheap, schlocky crap that we look at and so sincerely try to admire because of the almighty "concept"
- and here we have a contemporary master of his craft and we're not sure if it's good enough to admire ?????
hey, painting beautiful and thoughtful works - now THERE"S a concept !!!!!!!!

10/07/2005 08:08:00 PM  

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