Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why the NEA Affair Matters

neaConor Friedersdorf and Freddie deBoer have had a tit-for-tat over the whole controversy about someone from the National Endowment for the Arts "inappropriate" actions during a conference call last month. The conservative new site Big Government broke the story. Yosi Sargeant, the communications director for the National Endownment for the Arts was part of this conference call and made statements that flirted with the kind of political nonsense that left a nasty taste during the Bush years.

It would be easy to dismiss this story as I believe Freddie did. After all, the allegations came from a partisan website which has an axe to grind. deBoer thinks it's quite rich that conservatives are shocked since they did the same thing very recently:
It does indeed bother me that the ideology responsible for having people sign written pledges declaring their support for President Bush before they see our elected officials speak now complains about this. It does indeed piss me off that a few short years ago, Republicans were routinely doing things like calling for Howard Dean's hanging for criticizing the war in Iraq, and yet now they stand enraged over this meaningless conference call. It does indeed make me angry that the president himself declared that anti-Iraq war argument "gives comfort to our enemies," and yet now I read Conor Friedersdorf calling for national prominence on this nothing of a story. Yes, indeed, it makes me angry that a party and ideology that represented nothing more forcefully or loudly than the notion that dissent was unpatriotic and treasonous, and that supporting the president and his aims were our solemn duties, now turn around and complain about something like this. Yes, that makes me angry.

Of course. all of this did happen. I remember it all and as a Republican, I found it reprehensible. That said, it seems that Freddie is painting to big a brush here, trying to tar and feather anyone that dares to call themselves a conservative. deBoer only has to read some of Conor's past blog posts to know that he is as upset at the current state of conservatism as anyone else. Freddie's condemnation of not just those in the Bush administration or a number of Republicans, but an entire ideology ,is not only simple-minded, it's mean. There are many good conservatives that wanted nothing to do with this behavior. His rant basically condemned us all.

I believe the whole story matters. I don't have anything against the NEA and I'm not looking to bring down the Obama Administration. But it matters because we have an employee of a government agency working in a capacity that was dancing dangerously close to propaganda.

We also have someone who represents an agency that is in the business of giving out money. While there might have not been any intent to influence people, the fact that the communications director of the NEA was on a call with artists where the intent political looks really bad. Seargant should have known better.

If the Obama Administration wants to get artists involved to push their agenda, fine. They can do that through groups like Organizing for America. But leave the NEA out of this. This is a government agency that is supposed to support all Americans, not just the ones that support whoever is in office.

In a response to Freddie, Conor lifts this quote from a commenter:
The NEA is not a tool of (administration) policy, and that’s the scandal here. I realize that this issue isn’t as crucial to some of you young’uns; I remember when the NEA was criticized heavily for funding to Mapplethorpe and “Piss Christ” and the like. Well, for one thing I think most Americans thought that that was “good” censorship. But for another liberals at that time stood for the idea that the NEA is not a policy tool. We fought the idea that conservatives should be interested in gutting it because of the messages of the art it funded, with the belief that the NEA didn’t exist to “message.” The NEA director isn’t supposed to be interested in the messaging of the art: he’s supposed to want to know to whom it’s accessible, if it’s introducing more and more diverse art into a community, if it’s something that can promote arts education, if it’s keeping a classic American form vibrant…

You would tear that up. Conservatives would then be well advised to kill the NEA and NEH and Smithsonian and intellectuals would be deprived of a good argument as to why that’s a bad idea. Now, some of us don’t share the TAS enthusiasm for crapola hipster bands, and the jazz I live on is pretty dependent on organiztions like the NEA, and not really very good for messaging. So I want this bullshit killed, and somebody from the Obama administration fired.

You want to keep kids in school and encourage service and so on with clever art? Use the fucking Ad council. Immediate thought: Jesus, you really do need to read Europe Central or some of Belinsky’s misguided takedowns of non-programmatic art from the late Romantics/early Realists. Those guys thought like you are. Thinking this isn’t a pretty serious deal is failing to realize how much art actually means — which is why we have an NEA.

I was in college when conservatives attacked the NEA in the early 90s for its funding of art that some deemed offensive. It was wrong then for conservatives to try to politicize the NEA then and it's wrong for liberals to try to attempt to do the same thing now.

Let the NEA do what it is good at doing: supporting the arts in America.

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