Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dancing with the Devil

Lynne Cheney, wife of former (thank God) Vice President Dick Cheney,
National Endowment for the Arts chair in the mid-1980's
Most of the art community has been thrilled about the Obama administration increasing NEA funding from $145 million to $161 million and appointing Broadway impresario Rocco Landesman as chairman. Some thought it isn’t enough. The always insightful critic for the LA Times, Christopher Knight, wrote “I was frankly embarrassed by the arts community’s ecstatic recent response to a $50-million temporary bump in the NEA’s budget ... Politeness is one thing, but crumbs are crumbs.”

I have mixed feelings about government support for the arts. I think it’s a good thing for government, and thereby society, to give legitimacy to the arts -- to acknowledge they are worthy of support. And I have personally gained from NEA and NJSCA grants -- always nice. But it’s important to remember that government and the arts have different agendas, and they frequently conflict with each other.

Charles Garabedian, a friend from my Los Angeles days, and someone I believe to be one of the most vital living artists, once told me that artists are the last of the rear guard -- we’re some of the only ones left who believe quality is the most important thing. Government, on the other hand, has pressure to be democratic, to be accessible, middlebrow, conventional, mainstream, inoffensive; whereas art can be challenging, difficult, outrageous and obscure and thereby seen to be elitist. Government has an interest in supporting the status quo and the powerful, hence most support will inevitably go the large institutions and certainly not to controversial or even difficult or obscure art. Of course there are governments and periods that are more or less enlightened and brave, but this is the general tendency.

Check out the 2009 NEA grants to the visual arts to see how cautious the NEA has become. If it was just a matter of the government not funding cutting-edge art it wouldn’t be so bad. Artists (and art galleries) have other means of support, however limited, and anyway, artists have always found a way to continue making their art without government support. But museums are another matter. After the Corcoran Gallery came under attack and cancelled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989 because it was mildly controversial, and after Giuliani threatened the funding of the Brooklyn Museum over its 1999 “Sensation” exhibition, and after many similar “culture wars,” one wonders how much self-censorship is taking place in order for museums to keep their funding. Worse, museums are watering down their programs in an attempt to be more popular and “accessible.” The Dallas Museum had belly-dancing demonstrations during a recent King Tut exhibition for God sake. It sounds fun and democratic and all, but what has that to do with the art? It’s not like belly-dancing offered an insight into Egyptian art of that period; it was just to attract people to the museum.

The government wants quantity for their funding, not necessarily quality. In the early seventies in Los Angeles, when I was just emerging as an artist, I was invited to a docents “New Talent Awards” ceremony that made a profound impression on me. Maurice Tuchman, then curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a smart guy who curated some major exhibitions -- someone who should have known better -- was giving out the awards in the back yard of a beautiful house in Beverly Hills. Tuchman, a Freddie Prinze look-alike, kept calling this a “gala affair,” and he introduced the artists like they were art stars, the docents gushing over them. Alex Smith snuck out, and the rest of the award winners stood cringing with humiliation. I realized then that whatever meaning the work had, however tough it was was, in the eyes of these bright and sincere docents, the meaning would be vitiated into something cool or trendy or, ech -- gala.

Closer to the here and now is the example of the Jersey City studio tour. For most of its history it was artist-run, and artists had an interest in keeping the quality high: they want to be seen in a professional context with other good artists, and people who might be interested in buying art won’t come if there’s not a large proportion of good art to see. Over the years, probably because of volunteer artists burning out, the government took over. The city had an interest in being popular and “democratic,” which in this context meant letting in hobbyists, children’s art, clowns with balloons, etc. And, in Jersey City, it also meant a lot of political advertising for the mayor. All understandable, even fun and righteous perhaps, but not the same thing as a professional artists studio tour.

I don’t begrudge anyone or any institution getting government support, but if they’re going to dance with the devil, I hope they keep their distance.
You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? From Batman, 1989


Bill in ABQ said...

The best way to keep one's distance from the Devil is not to dance at all.

If one must dance, lead, but don't follow. Or should I say "wallow?"

Anonymous said...

The most egregious political misuse of the studio tour took place in 2000 when the Bret Schundler for Governor campaign hijacked the tour for it’s “Homecoming” event. The Jersey Journal article quoted below describes the event with its clowns and hayrides, along with Charles Kessler’s participation and endorsement. Is this an example of the “good old days” your article refers to? Or was that before Schundler, when Gerry Mccann was mayor?
Homecoming weekend of wonder, fun
Originally appeared in the Jersey Journal on 10/23/00
By Jason Fink
Journal staff writer

On an unseasonably warm fall day, under high blue skies, thousands of current and former Jersey City residents filled the streets of several neighborhoods Saturday to celebrate what Mayor Bret Schundler called "Jersey City's renaissance."
From clowns and hay rides at Exchange Place to historic tours and film screenings Downtown and in Journal Square, the first Jersey City Homecoming weekend seemed to offer something for everyone.
City officials raised more than $130,000 from various corporate sponsors for dozens of events that began Friday afternoon and ended last night.
Billed as a chance for former residents to come back and see the vast changes that have been made throughout the city - particularly on the waterfront - one of the weekend's big draws was the Developers and Non profit Showcase, held in the atrium of the Harborside Financial Center.
Many of the real estate developers that have been in the middle of the construction boom of the past few years joined organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Urban League in setting up tables and passing out literature. Such firms as Mack-Cali, Lefrak, and the Applied Companies of Hoboken even displayed three-dimensional models of future building projects.
"It's really great to see the city realizing it's potential," said Kevin Crane, 53, who grew up on Lexington Avenue but moved to Saddle Brook, in Bergen County, 20 years ago. "I'm thrilled, I'm so proud. This is my home town."
Crane said he was so impressed by the revitalization of the waterfront and the increase in development throughout the city that he and his wife are considering moving back to Jersey City in the next few years.
"It's becoming a little pricey, though," he said. When Schundler, who plans to run for governor next year, addressed the crowd moments later, he echoed some of Crane's impressions of the city's changing face.
"You can't help but be tremendously excited by what's going on in our city," he said, referring to development not only along the waterfront but in the city's interior as well. Schundler cited the rehabilitation of the Curries Woods public housing complex near the Bayonne border and the redevelopment of Journal Square as examples.

Charles Kessler, president and founder of Pro Arts, an organization of about 100 professional artists, stressed the importance of the WALDO district -- where many old warehouses now act as artists' studios -- in making the city attractive to many of its newest and returning residents.
"It's a pathway for the somewhat isolated new development on the waterfront to come into the rest of the city," Kessler said of the former industrial area, where dozens of artists work. The Jersey City Art Tour, an annual event that was combined with the Homecoming this year, also drew significant crowds.
Organizers estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 people visited the dozens of studios opened to the public yesterday and Saturday.
For some artists, it was a chance to recall the days when the waterfront was little more than a few rotting piers and stray dogs roamed the streets.
"It used to be so quiet," said John Varriano, a painter who has kept a studio in a former industrial building on First Street since 1991. "Within five years it was just transformed." But Varriano was not the only one who recalled a time when Jersey City was a different place and the idea of a Homecoming festival seemed remote.

Charles Kessler said...

1. I did a lot of devil dancing in my time. I worked as a community activist pretty much full time for twelve years trying my best to realize a dream of creating a vital art district in a restored warehouse district (i. e. WALDO and PAD). Dancing with the devil is sometimes a necessity, and I am an object lesson in how burnt one can get.

2. No doubt Schundler’s “Homecoming Weekend” took “egregious political” advantage of the popularity of the studio tour, but, in spite of what Jason Fink wrote about it being combined with the tour, it was a separate event, and in any case didn’t water down the quality of the tour itself. In fact it may have increased the number of tour-goers.

3. Finally, how can the article Anonymous so eagerly sites be interpreted as my endorsement of “clowns and hayrides” in the tour? To quote the article: Charles Kessler, president and founder of Pro Arts, an organization of about 100 professional artists, stressed the importance of the WALDO district -- where many old warehouses now act as artists' studios -- in making the city attractive to many of its newest and returning residents. "It's a pathway for the somewhat isolated new development on the waterfront to come into the rest of the city," Kessler said of the former industrial area, where dozens of artists work.