No Censorship of the Arts! (Unless We Trust You)

From the origin of the National Endowment for the Arts during the Johnson administration to the election of President Obama, the arts community was united in its opposition to censorship. The argument that prevailed is that the NEA should not use funding to restrict artistic expression or deny support for art that might offend bourgeois sensibility.

When a significant segment of the public was outraged to learn that the NEA provided funding for Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” the arts community rose as one to decry censorship over efforts to cut funding for his “art.” The arts community was equally upset at the suggestion that government policymakers might influence the content of its artwork. As the art world sees it, the government should pay but remain silent about artistic content.

During the George H. W. Bush administration the NEA made an effort to require grant recipients to sign an anti-obscenity pledge, which sparked a spate of angry comments from the arts community and a generally hostile stance to President Bush.

Now, however, the worm has turned. The NEA under President Obama has expressed a desire to use the agency as a propaganda instrument to promote the administration's positions. And astonishingly, the arts world seems all too amendable to political advocacy as part and parcel of its work.

Patrick Courrielche, a filmmaker, exposed an Obama administration attempt to use the NEA to build support for the president’s agenda. At a White House meeting artists were encouraged to promote arts activities that “can be used for a positive change.” That of course translates into advocacy for presidential policies in health care, environment and energy, education, and community service. As Buffy Wicks, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, noted, “We’re going to come at you with some specific ‘asks’ here.”

One might have assumed that the “asks” to the artistic community would lead to public outrage. After all, the fiercely independent artists are being told that promoting the president’s agenda might result in NEA grants. In fact, it appears that taxpayer money is being employed to enlist artists in a promotional campaign for the president. It is hard to imagine what kind of journalistic explosion would have occurred if the Bush administration had tried anything like this.

NEA funding has always been controversial, since there are critics -- I count myself among them -- who believe the government should not be funding the arts at all. To avoid controversy that emerged from Serrano’s work and Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography, the NEA allocated funds to state and local arts agencies so there would be somewhat less chance controversial decisions would emerge.

But that is changing with the Obama team. The stimulus package, for example, includes an additional $50 million for the arts, presumably to maintain employment in this field. The Examiner, however, points out that seven of the groups receiving this NEA funding had representatives on the Obama campaign’s Arts Policy Committee.

In what seems like the very distant past, the NEA explained that it could not interfere with the artworks of those who received grants from the agency. Dana Gioia, former NEA chairman, said “the NEA does not dictate arts policy to the United States.”

Of course, under President Obama that is precisely what it does. Is a culture czar far-fetched, one who assures us that the arts are needed to enhance presidential actions? Is the Obama team setting the stage for its own Leni Riefenstahl? Where are the artists who celebrate their adversarial role?

Oprah Winfrey recently produced a video urging Americans to take a “presidential pledge” by volunteering “to make a difference.” The lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers says, “I pledge to be of service to Barack Obama.”

Where is artistic defiance when you need it? The comments by the arts community are dripping with hypocrisy. Artistic expression in the Obama era appears to be little more than a compliant political instrument. 1984 may be a quarter of a century in the past, but the sentiments in this book indicate it is back to the future as Obama pays artists to propagandize on his behalf. It is hard to believe this is happening in the United States with the willing acceptance of the artistic community, but there you have it. The ghost of Hermann Goering lives in the Obama White House.