Thursday, February 03, 2011

Die With Dignity Or Fight With All You've Got Til the Bitter End?

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO, What a Ride!" ---Fake Chinese Doctor.
OK, so one of the largest, most successful, and most celebrated responses to the Great Depression in the US was the creation of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), which had employed millions of Americans for 8 years. Disbanded when WWII ushered in a new era of high employment, the legacy of the WPA is still there for all Americans to enjoy in the form of parks and roads, as well as some truly fantastic art. The spirit of the WPA is well captured in this description of the artworks from this era that have survived until today:
They stand as a reminder of a time in our country’s history when dreams were not allowed to be destroyed by economic disaster. [emphasis mine]
Flash forward to the Great Recession and what is the visionary response to ensure dreams are not destroyed by the current economic disaster? It's summarized in this headline from artinfo.com:
New National Arts Index's Advice to Struggling Nonprofits? "Die With Dignity"
Compare the values that led to the creation of the WPA...
The administration's decision to replace relief with the WPA reflected the values of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his relief administrator, Harry Hopkins. Both believed that relief demoralized the unemployed and produced a condition of dependency. [emphasis mine]
...to those used to conclude that non-profits who are struggling should "die with dignity":
In one of the toughest budgetary climates in modern history, and amid renewed threats from Congressional Republicans to eliminate government art support, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts rolled out its National Arts Index on Monday. Essentially, the measure aims to speak for the arts in a language that even complete philistines might understand, offering a method to track the health of the creative economy in a way that's similar to how Gross Domestic Product tracks the growth of the global economy in general. [emphasis mine]
The Americans for the Arts report's executive summary focuses a great deal on the "demand-side and supply-side solutions to be considered."

But not just the language is different now than it was in 1935, the landscape obviously is too. Even Rocco Landesman, the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the one person in government you would expect to advocate for more support for nonprofit arts organizations, is suggesting we have too much of it:
The Republican Study Committee is gunning for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, having announced a plan last month that would eradicate the 45-year-old organization. But possible extinction isn't the only thing the NEA has to worry about these days. The arts agency's chairman Rocco Landesman has been shocking and enraging people from the right and the left, proposing that the demand for arts organizations (specifically struggling theaters) no longer matches the supply — in effect, that a surplus of arts groups that lack audiences could and should be pruned.
Landesman's argument, like that of Americans for the Arts, stems from some cold, hard number crunching:
"There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?" he asks. "Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often?"
Landesman's proposal seem to boil down to the suggestion that already poorly paid arts administrators of the country should be fired and that artists should take over those jobs and (presumably) work for free (in addition to the other jobs they already have to keep to continue their practice, that is). Again, compare the rationales and values of these two economic hardship responses. FDR was concerned about the "demoralization of the unemployed." Landesman and Americans for the Arts are concerned about improving efficiencies. Their proposals would result in more even people joining the unemployed at a time when jobs are still very hard to come by. Different values for different times, I guess.

Personally, the suggestion that the arts organizations slated for euthanasia (by whom and by what criteria remains to be seen, but if how the Smithsonian capitulated to the GOP is any indication, we're all screwed) should go quietly...with dignity...reflects a total misunderstanding of what drives artists, what drives those who pour their sweat and hopes into creating an arts organization, and what drives those of us who champion them. None of what they do has ever been accomplished taking the easy route. This is not a crowd you'll easily get to march sheeplike to slaughter. If they're gonna pull the plug, I say go out with a bang! You've got nothing to lose at this point. End with the productions or exhibitions you always wanted to do, but were always afraid would upset your government funders.

Remember, dignity isn't something others can bestow on you. It's something you have to claim for yourself.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Terri said...

Okay, this is a tough subject -- yes there needs to be public funding for the arts because arts and culture are significantly intertwined, so each citizen needs to understand the importance of assigning tax dollars to art funding.

Unfortunately, the general public is ashamed of many of the works that get funded (so am I, and I'm a very open-minded artist). It's often hard to make a case for further or additional funding when the popular sentiment is not on board.

I guess that tax dollars for the arts needs better public relations, and more user-friendly art -- and better art education.

(I *am* curious about where the statical ratio of arts administrators to artists came from.... in my experience, about four out of five arts administrators were/are artists to begin with, and that *is* their "day job".)

2/03/2011 07:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the legacy of Koons and Hirst as well as the champions of artistic freedom at all costs. The great successful few and the outspoken agenda pushers have all but destroyed public interest in supporting the arts. In eyes of the public artists are already elitist,detached and entitled, so why back them up with hard to come by resources.

This is an incredibly sad situation, but this is what happens when so many artists have pursued their individual ideals and fancies and failed to consider what relevance their work has to the broader swath of human existence.

I'm personally frustrated by the whole situation, becuase most people have missed the point. The WPA worked because the art directly addressed public and social engagement, and right now too many artists want their own personal projects to be subsidized regardless of the social necessity of their work. For people to support the arts, it has to matter to them and somehow artists have failed to make art matter to a large percentage of the population.

2/03/2011 07:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I find myself agreeing almost wholeheartedly with Anon here. At a certain point any social commentary that existed in a Koons or Hirst piece has evaporated and the work becomes a piece of bling for rich collectors. At the same time I would not want all art to revolve only around social issues. Art for arts sake and art as formal (spacial, compositional, etc.) exploration should still of importance and not sidelined to only social commentary.

2/04/2011 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

Right now I'm reading Phoebe Hoban's dense and engrossing biography of Alice Neel. I just finished a chapter on her involvement in the WPA and Easel Project, in which Will Barnett is quoted as saying the WPA program is what pushed America in general and New York in particular into being the center of the art world. (Sorry I don't have the exact quote; I'm at the office and the book is home on the nightstand.)

What I'm wondering is: If funding of the arts for cultural reasons alone fails to ignite support, perhaps the argument that it's necessary in order for the U.S. to stay competitive on the world stage (think math and science comparisons) would be more compelling. Indeed, with proper funding we could lead, one might even say 'dominate' in the field of art once again.

2/04/2011 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The economy is still a disaster. At some point you just have to face the fact that funding for the arts only serves a very small portion of the population.

You can scream about how the public needs to be educated about art all day. People won't listen if their belly is empty and they can barely afford the cost of fuel to drive to work.

Art has failed in the United States because it has become a game of political rhetoric. Politically left professionals have dominated the arts since at least the 1950s and things have become increasingly more visually polarized in the last decade alone.

The Republicans will continue to go after art funding and their supporters will continue to be OK with it as long as opposing hardline political rhetoric dominates our museums and arts programs.

You have to figure that as much as half of the country does not agree ethically, morally, or socially with the themes that have dominated the so called art world. Does that mean they are stupid? No. They just have a different opinion and it is not being represented by their tax dollars visually.

I read on a blog recently about the idea of compromise concerning this very issue. People who hold jobs because of art funding would serve themselves bettr if they placed their personal views aside and provided a more equal platform of ideas and viewpoints. Until that happens the pubic at large is not going to care if museum doors close.

The concept that one political ideology must win over the other is splitting this country. Museums won't be the first victim of our inability to find compromise.

It is bad when our art institutions have become so politically polarized that boneheads like Glen Beck can attack it for higher ratings. It is time to reflect the true visual history of this country and collective culture. The one-sidedness must stop.

2/04/2011 01:09:00 PM  

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