Politics is full of controversy these days, and although everyone has an opinion about it and the direction our country should be following, our nonprofit status does not allow us to express or endorse an opinion about issues supported by one party, candidate or another.
We can, however, speak about policies that affect us in a positive or negative way and that is part of the discussion I want to have here.
It occurs to me that the arts have been absent from any political discussion over the past 30 years. Something which is a significant issue in other industrialized nations — the preservation of antiquities, advancement of art in education, recognition of art achievement by individuals and the funding of art programs, resources or organizations — has seemed to take a back seat to other seemingly more important issues we have to face.
Thanks to local arts councils and state arts agencies that are modestly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), without whom we would have no resources for the advancement of the arts through education, or the non-academic organizations that focus on the community as a whole to expand the creation, the exhibition, and the proliferation of the arts.
These agencies have taken a hit over the last 30 years from economic downturns, advancement of conservative movements and the unwillingness of political representatives to take a stand that may divide their constituents. Most of this tenuousness comes from the attack on the NEA during the mid-1980s surrounding Robert Maplethorpe, Robert Seranno and other artists given awards by the NEA for significant works. This was met by ultraconservatives in Congress putting up a strong opposition as the art reflected very controversial subject matter that they deemed pornographic, homoerotic and anti-Christian, and undeserving of the awards given them by the NEA.
In a court case against the director of the Corcoran Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Maplethorpe’s work was deemed not child pornography or pornographic at all. The director was acquitted but not without a chilling effect permeating the art world and the mass of state, and especially corporate, donors. The NEA was limited in its scope and awards for individuals was revoked. A contract was given to any organizational recipient that if any art work in their institution was of an excretory or sexual nature they would lose their nonprofit status.
This obviously had a deleterious effect on anyone applying for the grants of the NEA and obliterated the arts for anything but children programs and educational purposes.
Since that time the arts have been relegated to the seen but not heard as part of the American psyche.
Artists live in the shadow of uncertainty and any advancement in the arts is an individual accomplishment not recognized by the country. The general public only remember that something bad happened with the arts and are uncertain what to make of the controversy, leaving funding to be tenuous at best.
So we know that the arts are not represented in any political arena. We also know that the arts and their varied expressions are part of the First Amendment and protected speech. To ask the question, “Do we want the arts to be represented in our political discourse?” asks if we want to make ourselves a new target for the detractors who believe that art is controversial and out of control, and its opinions though free speech can be construed as un-American. The obvious answer would be apparent — that we should stay in the shadows create our work and preserve the cultural heritage of our time without the blessing of our leaders and, more than likely, half of the population of America,
It would be better to have art recognized as the important educational tool it is, and that the advancement of our children’s intellectual potential is dependent on the use of art to develop the skills needed for the proper education of our future doctors, engineers ands scientists, and that arts should be given the utmost support for its value in our educational institutions.
We must accept that the question should not be asked in this political climate. If asked, we could see further erosion of an institution that defines our culture to the world and defines us as something separate from the animals, no matter how noble they are.
Column by Greg Busceme, TASI director