Curators Gonna Curate, Politicos Gonna Politick

Tom McCormack’s lengthy look at the contentious, suspicious history of US government support for the arts is worth reading for itself. But it also got me off my butt to write something that’s been bugging me since attending the Smithsonian’s Flashpoints and Faultlines symposium last week.
I had no plans to go to the symposium, primarily because it seemed like such a transparent attempt to ride out the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” censorship mess by throwing up a cloud of bureaucratic, academic dust. While I could be persuaded that Wayne Clough’s resignation over his egregious mistake might have served to embolden entrenched critics and weaken the institution in advance of a difficult budget battle, I didn’t think a pointless symposium designed to corral the most outraged arts administrators into an auditorium and bore the concern out of them doesn’t help either.
But I had a meeting set up with an attendee which got pushed back, so last Wednesday I ended up attending part of the first, museum directors panel, and most of the second, “Exhibitions in National Museums & Public Institutions,” or the political operatives & appointees panel.
From these panels, various references to earlier sessions, and the subsequent, sparse reporting, it seems clear to me that the art world really needs to rethink the paradigm for its relationship with the federal government, or more specifically, with politics.
Frank Hodsoll was President Reagan’s NEA chairman. He was a foreign service officer and lawyer, later an OMB appointee, and now consults. Not an art guy, but a diplomacy-turned-art/culture policy guy. He talked very openly about his charge to vet NEA grant proposals to weed out potentially troublesome, controversial, or poltiical content. He took credit for personally rejecting or spiking a dozen, maybe 20 [I’m paraphrasing, but the video for the panel is archived now. It starts at around 1:40.] proposals that had otherwise passed the NEA’s established panel review process. One example: a Washington Project for the Arts proposal to project images or text or something onto the Capitol Building, which he was sure would anger some Congressmen.
Hodsoll was the Chairman when the exhibition including Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ and Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective were both approved for partial or tangential NEA funding. He was very forthright that these projects hadn’t been monitored closely enough, and had he been able to scrutinize them, he would have deemed them “inappropriate” and denied them funding.
I guess I was not so amazed that the chairman of the NEA was advocating actively screening and denying grants based on the ideological or political appropriateness of the artwork, but that the NEA was screening out work that might engender controversy or displeasure from congressional representatives. It was a position and policy that rejects not only the possibility that art might have political content or engagement; but also art’s essence as an expression of speech.
Putting it in terms of whether this or that project is deserving of taxpayer support misses the point, at least when such support exists. Hodsoll pointed out that artistic expressions get rejected all the time, “it’s called selection,” by which he meant the NEA’s grant evaluation processes, but also, I think, curation.
And so the tautological calculus that art may receive public funding if it wholly disassociates itself from politics and/or controversial issues, and if it pleases–or at least doesn’t piss off–someone in the government. And if these terms aren’t acceptable, art, artists, and art institutions can deal with the reality that the government has no responsibility or compelling need to support art anyway.
If this argument wasn’t disheartening enough, Hodsoll was followed by Bill Ivey, who was Bill Clinton’s NEA chairman, the guy left holding the mop–or left holding the bag–after the fiercest Helms-led attacks on the NEA. Ivey spent almost half his time laying out the findings of various polls that showed no matter how you slice it, 30-50% of the population does not support the right to free speech.
Never mind that the right being opposed is always someone else’s, and the speech is something they disagree with. With such tenuous support, an inconsistent and unfriendly legal landscape, and the existence of politicians and/or activists who will exploit this rift, Ivey argued, the last, most important thing is to protect the institutions of art, and their funding. [In a perfect segue, the next panelist was Ford Bell who, as president of the American Association of Museum, is basically the art institutions’ lobbyist.
From the far side of long careers as political operatives and appointees–only Bell seems to have ever run for elected office–these men uniformly decried the politics, and the politicizing of art and museums–by others. Just as propaganda is the other guy’s marketing, playing politics is someone else’s common sense policy. The only winning move, we’re told, is not to play. A strange game indeed.
And Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the moderator, opened the panel with a lament that I hear so often, it’s like the Washington art world’s Pledge of Allegiance: “I wish there members of Congress could hear to this.” But they never are.
No wonder the official art world wants to see itself apart from politics; to do otherwise only proves how poorly they do, or how superfluous they are. At least in the nakedest political terms of power and money.
As infuriating or disheartening as these political hands’ assessments may be to an art lover’s ears, they are still important to hear. They’re experienced views from the real, political world of Washington, the world in which money and constituents and lobbying and controversies and demagoguery and negotiation and propagandizing exist. Symbolism is there, too, and dissent, and relationships and persuasion.
If art & museum people thing politics seems intimidating, confusing, or potentially embarrassing, maybe it’s worth recognizing that many non museum people, politicians included, feel the same way about art.
The “Hide/Seek” Wojnarowicz crisis was precipitated by a conservative religious and political activist who had no interest in art, but in changing the political micro-climate during the congressional vote to end Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. Clough reacted to soundbites solicited from political staffers who saw neither the show nor any political downside to criticizing it and the Smithsonian which sponsored it. By so doing, they only raised the political price their opposition would have to pay for their funding levels and priorities.
Throughout the Flashpoints Symposium, speakers referred to Hide/Seek co-curator Jonathan Katz’s rallying cry that Americans would rise up to defend their/our Smithsonian from the threat of budget cuts [or worse.] But that seems as practicable as wishing there were more senators attending your 2-day symposium.
Through the efforts of some combination of, in order of mobilization, directors, boards, curators, artists, educators, marketers, associations, audience and constituents, lobbyists and legislative affairs professionals [that’s everyone, right?] I think the art world needs to make a more compelling political case for itself, and to make it more persistently and productively. I have some sense for how that might happen, but at the moment, it still feels like a major endeavor to accurately understand the problem.