Glenn Beck has another scalp. Yosi Sergant, communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts, stepped down today after Beck and the conservative Washington Times accused him of improperly encouraging artists to support the political goals of the Obama administration.
On August 10th, Sargent joined a conference call with the White House Office of Public Engagement and roughly 75 artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives, according to Patrick Courrielche, an Los-Angeles based art consultant who blogged about the call late last month before appearing on Beck's show. He described the call as "an attempt to recapture the excitement and enthusiasm of the campaign," and use artists as "tools of the state" to support the administration's positions.
Sergant is uniquely vulnerable to those claims. Before joining the endowment, he led the media effort for Shepard Fairey, the street artist who created the "Hope" portrait that helped turn the president into a pop icon.
The call's official purpose was to discuss United We Serve, the White House's (heretofore) uncontroversial push to promote volunteerism and civic engagement. Discussing how the artists could help support the effort, Sargent said, "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's healthcare, education, the environment." Courrielche, a self-described "a skeptic of BIG government," saw in that statement an effort to create artistic support for Obama's policy goals. But those are also areas of volunteerism that are promoted by the government's Corporation for National and Community Service, which participated in the call.
Still, Courrielche claims that the context of the conversation was highly political. On his blog, he says that the "Hope" poster and musician Will.i.am's "Yes We Can" song were presented during the call "as shining examples of our group's clear role in the election." Yet the recordings he has produced so far don't back up that claim (A side note: recording calls in California without the knowlege of those being taped is technically illegal).
Even so, the recordings portray Sargent speaking in a way that is clearly ill-advised for the director of the NEA, an organization that has been a Republican punching bag for decades. Sargent's main problem seems to be an overabundance of enthusiasm:
This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government, what that looks like legally. We're still trying to figure out the laws of putting government websites on Facebook. And the use of Twitter. This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it's being made. So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak with each other safely. And we can really work together to move the needle to get stuff done.
Get the word out. Like I said, this is a community that knows how to make a stink.
And, according to Beck, an unnamed person on the call says:
Through this group we can create stronger community amonst ourselves to get involved in things that we are passionate about, as we did in the campaign. . .We can continue to get involved to do things we care about, but also to push the President and push his administration.
Clearly, Sargent may have crossed the line, especially if the last quote is from him. And yet there are many unanswered questions: Does "making a stink" mean whacking the conservative beehive? Do the "legal issues" Sargent mentions have anything to do with promoting Obama's policies? Possibly, but it would be nice to have more context. Not that the ambiguity made any difference to Beck, who claims the NEA is engaging in Nazi-like propaganda.
The NEA declined to comment to Mother Jones beyond a prepared statement. "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda," acting communications director Victoria Hutter wrote in an email, "and any suggestions to that end are simply false."
Though it may be frustrating to many of Sargent's friends and supporters, his demotion (he's still with the NEA, Hutter added) is not surprising. Few other government programs have been as closely watched and viciously attacked by conservative Republicans in the past 30 years. In Mike Huckabee's race against Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, he famously called the veteran Senator a pornographer because he was an NEA backer. And who could forget Jesse Helms' campaign against the Piss Christ? Sargent was foolish not to realize that the artistic-Democrat conspiracy is a powerful meme in the GOP toolbox. It's sad, but someone in his position has to be almost pathologically careful not to fuel it. And that's got to be especially hard for someone so attached to political art. Yesterday night Sargent simply Tweeted, "it's go time."