BACK TO THE FUTURE - FIGHTING THE CULTURAL WARS OF THE 1990s ALL OVER AGAINHello everyone.
“And the beat goes on................“
NEW CULTURAL WARS LOOMING?
Ian Moss recounts Fox News’ misstatement of facts in its “report” on the recent NEA Stimulus money grants wherein (echoes of Maplethorpe) “Fox News identifies three instances of supposedly objectionable programming, all of them in San Francisco: a $25,000 grant to counterPULSE, which has a "pansexual performance series" called Perverts Put Out; another $25,000 to the Symmetry Project, whose dance performance involves nudity; and $50,000 to Frameline, a gay and lesbian film festival and support organization that screened a purportedly pornographic film. “ As Moss points out Fox News got its facts wrong (surprise)on multiple counts. (click here: www.createquity.blogspot.com/ for the story. Scroll down to the August 6th entry.)
UPDATE: 50 Republican Congressmen complain about offensive art funded by the NEA - click here for this story: www.ocala.com/article/20090805/ARTICLES/908051009/NEWS?Title=Stearns-Money-went-to-obscene-art
The particulars aren’t all that important. This isn’t really a “report” as much as it is an ad hominem attack on arts funding – alas, disappointingly reminiscent of the ‘cultural wars’ initiated by the far right wing neo-cons beginning with Mapplethorpe and continuing through to Angels in America. It took the arts sector a decade plus to rebound from those attacks. Bill Ivey, then Dana Gioia, both spent much of their tenures as Chairs of the Endowment convincing Congress that taxpayer support for the arts wasn’t about funding pornography and anti-American sentiments, but rather a good investment in local communities. Bulwarked by numerous economic impact studies – lead by Americans for the Arts – and by the work of people such as Richard Florida, the arts were finally able to win back support arguing that the arts are an important economic engine. Work of those like James Catterall was helpful in showing that the arts are an important part of the education of young people and their job preparedness, and of corporate creativity and competitiveness, a boon to tourism, good for downtown revitalization efforts and to civic life in general. Appealing to our sense of national purpose, the arts successfully pointed out how other nations across the planet understood the value of the arts and its contributions and far out spent us to support arts and culture enterprises.
But the “success” in getting us back to where we already were took a herculean effort and countless man hours and energy spent defending ourselves. The right wing spent relatively little time or energy putting us in that position. They know full well that “facts” aren’t important. Just a few well placed “accusations” and some media coverage, an appeal to highly charged emotions, and we had our backs to the wall, and almost lost the endowment. This Fox “report” is disturbing and alarming because it is arguably part of a much larger new right wing campaign to once again go on the attack – this time part of an effort to do anything that can be done to undermine the Obama and Democratic Administration. I fear this may have been the opening salvo in the new “cultural wars”, and the arts may again be on the defensive. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, of course, as the economic reality is making ‘survival’ problematic to a large percentage of our sector. There is little time, let alone funds and energy, to spend in defense of the arts – particularly against this kind of attack (i.e., taxpayer supported arts = pornography and ant-American sentiment).
I still believe those who make these kinds of baseless attacks are not at all interested in the art the organizations it seeks to attack are, or are not, involved with. I don’t think it was any coincidence in the first Cultural Wars that almost brought down the NEA that the “issue” in most of the attacks was gay related – Mapplethorpe nudes, a gay film festival in Texas, the production of the play Angels Over America in North Carolina - because what the attacks were really about wasn’t taxpayer money or art or pornography, they were about fund raising for the evangelical wing of the Republican party – and nothing has ever been more successful in raising funds from that sector than the specter of gay rights. When the coffers of the right wing are running dry, the time-tested solution is to trot out the threat of gays having equal rights – and it has, for a long time, worked very well. Couple the gay rights issue with the accusation that taxpayer money is spent on anti-American pornography – and, well, the potential for a fund raising bonanza is just too tempting for the right wing to ignore. A new cultural war is an easy way to grab headlines, raise the level of visceral response, and rally their troops.
It hardly matters what the motivation might be. And perhaps then here we are once again. If this is the beginning of a possible new wave of attacks on arts & culture and the NEA in particular, we’re in trouble once again. We will have no choice but to again try to defend ourselves – and waste precious time and resources in the process. But we should keep in mind that in large part the last cultural war, and very likely a new one - is but a means to an end for those who wage it against us. We should remember their real motivation as we brace for the attack and strategize to mount counter arguments. We should NOT make the mistake of thinking we have to mount free speech arguments or defend 'art'. This was, and will be, political. We need to act politically in our defense. One would hope the American society has come a long ways since the last time we fought this kind of war – but recent events suggest we remain a deeply divided country on many levels, that Washington is still a partisan citadel of power struggles and that the bickering is beginning to get nastier and deeper.
There are differences this time around: the Democrats control the government now – but my own experience within the party suggests to me that the Democrats are hardly unified and that many (particularly those in states with closer contests and large GOP and independent voter concentrations) will run as fast as they can from defending the arts against charges that taxpayer money is funding smut or far left wing agendas. As the gay alliances join in the defense of specific projects, that will fuel the argument by the right that the gay agenda is being hoisted on the back of the American taxpayer and intricately tied into the arts. The media, of course, loves this kind of a juicy story – controversy, sex, politics, what seems like scandal, taxpayer money – it’s a wet dream for a national media that hasn’t exhibited much Edward R. Murrow integrity in journalism in a long time. One can see it all over cable news (which really didn’t even exist during the Cultural Wars of the 1990s) with the same enthusiasm and glee they seem to have for Michael Jackson’s death. I think it will be hard for cable news and talk radio not to run with these kinds of charges – it is ready made for their platforms. And those who will make the attacks know this full well - it is a well worn page from their playbook.
Rocco Landesman, the newly Senate confirmed Chair of the Endowment may (sadly) find himself facing new cultural wars as one of the first things on his agenda. The question now is: What can we do to nip this seriously potentially fatal attack in the bud as it were? Can we mobilize to somehow box in those who will make such an attack and neutralize them before they gain the advantage? If they make the attacks at all, will they not already have the advantage? Do we do nothing and hope they don’t move forward on the same track that they have so successfully and frequently gone down before? I personally think we are looking at disaster if we simply wait and see what they do – because I think this is just too good for them to pass up. But what do we do? What can we do?
Maybe it won’t happen – but would you want to bet your life savings (assuming you have any left) on it not happening – again?
In the past I have blogged about our failure as a sector to do much contingency planning to address possible worst case scenarios. I have previously written about what might happen to our performing arts groups were bird flu or some other pandemic occur. And now it would appear we may again face that contingency with the coming of the swine flu winter season. No one knows if this will turn out to be a mild flu that really is incapable of causing much harm or damage or turns out to be a virulent killer that will wreck havoc in certain sub-groups of the population. The government is already advising parents that schools may have to close and that sick children should, in any event, be kept home for at least two weeks. It is also advising people who get sick to stay home and not go out into the community. So even if this flu turns out to be relatively benign, we may face a period in which a relatively sizable percentage of the populace does not go about their normal business, and that will most certainly negatively impact stores and shops, restaurants and movie theaters and any other retail activity that people might have to forego. Even if people alter their behavior for only for a week or two in any given territory where the flu approximates an epidemic breakout level, and that may happen even if people just get regular old flu – what might that do to our performing arts organizations fall or winter schedules? Might not some of those schedules be decimated by empty houses? And how will that impact organizations that are already on the verge of financial collapse?
The answer may well be that there is no point in even discussing what might happen, or what our response might be – because it is too late to do anything anyway. What is the point in scenario planning if you don’t have the resources necessary to execute any kind of meaningful response? Is it not just a waste of time – time we can’t afford? And if a swine flu pandemic, or even just the fear of one, results in performances cancelled or attendance severely curtailed, what could we do in response? We don’t have any national contingency fund for such an emergency and if we had the money to create one we would have already done so – and likely depleted it given the current crisis. Still, at least on a conceptual nature I think some people, somewhere within our sector, ought to discuss these kinds of eventualities and give some consideration to their consequences. That should be somebody’s job. It is in almost every private sector field.
But the possibility of some health crisis curtailing attendance at our events is likely to be isolated to certain areas and (hopefully) won’t be too severe.
The threat of a new cultural wars targeting government funding of the arts however, poses a more serious challenge to us all. This time it may not confine itself to the NEA - it may target state and city funding and the idea of government support for the arts at all. And what will we do if that comes to pass? Do we have a plan? Is there anything we can do? I don’t know – but as the General in the Matthew Broderick movie WAR GAMES (about a boy who tinkered with a computer system and almost launched WW III) said, as he took the war room to Def Con I – the highest level of alert - when the computer tried to find the launch codes on its own: “We may have to fight this thing all over again – and for real this time.”
God help us all.
Will the far right resurrect the cry to eliminate the endowment, or at least decimate its funding, and will that find traction in a Democrat controlled Congress? Or will that threat simply disappear as the Washington DC combatants move on to bigger controversies?
You decide. I know only this: The arts should take the threat seriously. And we should realize this time around that making-the-case for our value is one defense, but without political clout and an "in the trenches" fight to accompany that argument, that strategy is ill-conceived.
Have a good week.