Politics and Art

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 5:26 PM EDT

The NEA conference call nano-scandal has probably gotten all the attention it deserves already, but Conor Friedersdorf brings up an issue I'm curious about.  Ben Davis says the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, "essentially a pitch for artists to make glorified PSAs about volunteer work," and Conor responds:

That sounds about right to me — the call wasn’t about furthering controversial elements of President Obama’s agenda, but it was about deliberately politicizing art — that is to say, encouraging artists to advance particular public policy goals rather than enabling them to spend their time and energy creating works of truth or beauty to the best of their ability....It is that effort that I find objectionable, as should anyone who values art or the autonomy or creative people.

So if this conference call had been with, say, a bunch of educator types, urging them to promote public service among schoolkids, would that have been OK?  Or how about law enforcement groups?  Or veterans groups?

Because I don't quite see the difference.  Artists don't exist on some kind of pristine plane of their own and they don't do their work in a vacuum.  They're all part of the same culture as the rest of us, and they react to it and try to influence it just like everyone else.  In fact, artists themselves probably view their work as more explicitly political, in the broad sense of the term, than practically any group of people outside of politicians themselves and the professional pundit/lobbyist/think tank industry that hovers around them.  The whole idea of "politicizing" art is as redundant as the idea of militarizing the Pentagon.

It seems to me that trying to persuade people to promote public service is either a good idea or it's not.  If it's too heavy handed, it's not.  If there are overtones of political payoff, it's not.  If there are insinuations that people who play along will get more grant money, it's not.  But I have a hard time buying the idea that it's affected one way or another by the allegedly delicate artistic sensibilities of the people involved.