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A Letter to the NEA

by Miles Mathis

poem by Dana Gioia

Jan 20, 2005
Mr. Gioia,

I just read your pamphlet entitled "How the US funds the arts" and would like to make a comment. You state that European agencies create insiders and outsiders, while the NEA does not. However, I also just read the grants awarded this year for the visual arts, and as a visual artist I must say that the awards do not bear out your statement.

Just like last year's awards and every years' awards for the last three decades at least, the list was a list of insiders. I am an outsider, so I should know. I am a realist. I do fairly well in the market now, so I do not really need a grant anymore. But I suffered through many years where even a tiny grant would have been helpful. I applied for grants in the early 90's. I also applied for other help at local and state levels, but received nothing but abuse. The universities ostracized me, the local arts organizations would have nothing to do with me, the newspapers were unfriendly, and the NEA also had no place for me. I am just one of thousands of realists who have been left out of the equation (purposefully) over the past half century. So, despite all its decentralization, the American system is fully capable of creating insiders and outsiders. The American avant garde is the most successful propaganda machine in the history of art, and it has controlled art with a firmer hand than any European agency ever dreamed of, including the Salon.

I was led to read this year's list of awards (despite the fact that I had given up long ago on the NEA) because I now work for the Art Renewal Center, the largest art website in the world. I write a weekly column for them on art and art criticism. The Chairman of ARC was very excited that the NEA had given grants for several museums to do shows of 19th century artists he admires. I was also surprised, so I looked at the grants given to individual artists, to see if any of my realist cohorts had received grants. Nothing in that direction at all, of course, I suppose because the committee for that category is different than the museum committee, or their standards are wholly divergent. NEA visual arts committees have long been openly hostile to realism. A small committee with a small budget can be just as partisan as a large committee with a large budget.

Realists have been forced to open their own schools due to the fact that the art establishment (which took over the universities years ago) is still so hostile to us. For instance, George Washington University just jettisoned its last classes in traditional drawing and painting--they were seen as outdated. The students there will no longer learn any craft at all. This is equivalent to students in the music department not having access to pianos or violins anymore, or students in literature not learning grammar anymore. We have opened our own schools, but we are still swimming against a brisk tide. The schools' enrollments are blooming, but all the institutions, including the media, are still against us. We don't get any public and very little private funding. "Pluralism" is inclusive of everyone but us, it would seem. We continue to exist only because we find buyers ourselves, usually without any help (even from galleries). But we can't go to the universities, we can't teach at the universities, we can't get grants at any level, we can't get into the major media, and (unless our last name is Wyeth) we can't get a museum show. And we certainly aren't picked to sit on NEA committees.

If you had any desire to do something about this situation, I could recommend several who are deserving of sitting on an NEA committee, including Nelson Shanks, Richard Schmid, Jamie Wyeth, Paul Rahilly, Bo Bartlett, and many others.

As credentials for my opinions on art, including this comment, see below for links to my galleries and writings.

Miles Mathis

Jan 30, 2005
Dear Mr. Mathis:

Thank you for your thoughtful response to our monograph about how the U.S. funds the arts. I wanted to respond to a few points in your e-mail.

I'm not sure you know that we have not, unfortunately, been allowed by statute to fund individual visual artists for some time. Our current system supports state and local arts agencies that, in turn, support the artists in their community. The only individual grants awarded are in literature.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, we have tried to create an environment where each school of painting is represented in our panel system. Our panel system is the bedrock of how we distribute grants at this agency. We ensure that the panels have geographic discipline diversity. We ensure that we recruit new experts and laypersons for each panel cycle.

I thought you would be interested to know that a couple of naturalist visual artists have won the National Medal of Arts (administered by this agency), which is the highest public honor to artist in this country--Frederick Hart and John Ruthven, our contemporary Audubon.

My best wishes for your work,

Dana Gioia

Mr. Gioia,

Thank you for your response to my letter. I do realize that you do not fund individual artists directly. Unfortunately, that makes it even harder for marginalized artists, who are marginalized in the first instance at the local level. If an artist is not accepted as part of a local group then he or she cannot qualify for NEA grants, you see. When I was seeking grants I was in Austin, Texas, where all the local and state institutions were and still are avant garde. We realists made up our own little groups and gave ourselves titles in order to apply to the NEA, but we were never successful.

Your panel system may insure geographic diversity, but it hasn't been good at assuring true diversity. Pluralism has so far included everyone but us classicists. I seriously doubt that anyone on your panels is a classical or naturalist or realist painter, or connoisseur of classical painting. If they are they must be miserable, since they are sure to get outvoted everytime. All you have to do is look at the awards actually given. None in the last thirty years has gone to what we would call a traditional painter or sculptor.

Giving Fred Hart a medal after he has clawed his way to the top after a long and in many ways disappointing career (due to lack of opportunity) is not the same as supporting the sort of art he produced. A medal is nice, but its cash value and market value is almost nil. Medals like that are given to people that are already successful, therefore they do not change anything or encourage anything. Real painting and sculpture must have basic support--schools, markets, grants, etc. Currently they have a small piece of the decorative market and that is all. They have no institutional support. The universities are all owned by the avant garde, as are the top museums and galleries. The top magazines likewise.

We at ARC are trying to change this by opening our own schools, offering scholarships, organizing salons, and so on. But the support needs to be much broader. We have an extraordinary number of readers (some 5 million hits a month) but we still have few vocal supporters who are in positions of wealth or power or influence. The NEA, as a democratic institution, should be supporting the art that a majority of people would call art. If your panels were formed from any sort of referendum, we all know that 3 out of every 4 panelists would be realists of some sort. Why is it so hard for you to democratize a federally funded panel or institution? You and I both know the answer--it is only a concern of the right to move art in this direction, and art is not a priority for the right. [Strange fact: I am not on the right except in art--the only piece of the right's agenda I agree with is the democratization of art. I am on the far left but vehemently deny that art should be the political tool of the far left or anyone else].

It seems to me that you are in a position to kick these panels toward the center, and that is all I am suggesting you try to do. Your art, poetry (one of my arts too, by the way), is and long has been in dire straits. But you must recognize that its condition is still far superior historically to painting and sculpture. The avant garde has not been nearly as successful in de-conventionalizing or politizing or formalizing the thing you love most. You have not been forbidden to use words or to make meaningful sentences. Of course you are going to spend most of your energy talking about literacy--that is your own sacred cow--all the work you do is necessary--you are due all praise. But don't forget about us. The US has been completely illiterate to our art for decades, and that illiteracy has been just as damaging to culture as the illiteracy you fight.

Miles Mathis

And a follow up letter:

Mr. Gioia,

I just looked up John Ruthven's personal website, which lists his bio. I have no doubt that you are correct that he received the NMA medal, but it is interesting that he does not mention it on his site.

I also discovered that Frederick Hart was posthumously awarded the medal, which I find terribly sad. I am personally not a great fan of Mr. Hart's work, but it would be good for our movement to have some high-profile members who are not Wyeths (the Wyeths are very private: although they are great artists they are not what one would ask for in leaders). Mr. Hart can no longer be a leader for us, one way or another, and awards, which are about focusing proper attention if they are about anything, should go to the living. Our particular form of art already spends enough time looking to the past. The only place I could find mention of the Frederick Hart medal was on the NEA webiste. His bios at numerous websites do not mention it, although I realize it was quite recent (Sept, 2004). Hopefully they will update soon. If I had won the NMA I think I would have updated the next week, but possibly Hart's grievances against the NEA were even greater than mine, and I suspect that his friends and allies carry that grudge beyond the grave.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.