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by Miles Mathis

After three decades of holding my peace, hoping the National Endowment for the Arts could eventually be of some use to real artists, I have finally given up that hope. It is Obama that has caused me to lose all hope, ironically.

This week, NEA communications director Yosi Sergant was “reassigned” after the contents of a conference call were made public by one of the parties involved in that call. The conference call included the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and about 75 artists organizations throughout the country. In the call, artists were “encouraged to create works in their respective fields that would show support for Obama's domestic agenda in areas such as health care, energy and the environment.”*

Since I am a lefty, an environmentalist, and so on, you will ask why I care. I care because I don't wish to see art turned into another arm of propaganda for the federal government and the masters of banking, oil, corporatism, and military who run it. I don't wish to see this under a Republican administration, and equally I don't wish to see this under a Democratic administration. About the only good thing that could be said of the NEA under Bush is that it was never coopted by the government directly. Bush and Cheney and his criminal cabal would certainly have used the arts as propaganda if they could have, but contemporary art had already been fully coopted by the left. The NEA would have successfully resisted any attempt at control by the Republicans, and the Republicans knew that.

For decades, the Republicans have dealt with the NEA by ignoring it, and by funding it in at the lowest levels they could get away with. But now, the Obama administration sees a use for the NEA. The NEA can be used as one more arm of the propaganda octopus. If the NEA proves useful and compliant in that role, then funding can be increased later.

Already, Obama is finding resistance to that idea. One of the artists in the conference call, Patrick Courrielche, reacted like I am reacting, though it is doubtful that he is a conservative of any kind. Unless he was an undercover agent in a wig and mustache, it is improbable that the NEA would have allowed any conservative to take part in this upper echelon meeting. More likely is that Courrielche is one of the few on the left who has maintained a level of rationality over the decades, and he can see that propaganda is a danger to artists and non-artists, no matter which direction it is coming from.

My fellow artists and other progressives have long seen me as a traitor, and they no doubt see Mr. Courrielche in that light, too, now. They see this as the left's time to move forward aggressively, and since the right has never had any scruples, it is foolish for us to have scruples. After all, propaganda from the right can only be countered by propaganda from the left, right? If Mr. Courrielche and I are not with them, we are with the fascists like Republican senator John Cornyn from Texas, whose complaint in the Senate brought this to a head. I have been hearing that kind of argument since I got involved in these debates in the 80's. Back then I was told that Jesse Helms would agree with me, and that he would probably like my art, too. This is the level of discourse on both sides of the political fence. The left likes to pretend it inhabits some moral high ground, but it doesn't.

Well, I seriously doubt that either Helms or Cornyn would like my art, since it is unlikely that they have living rooms filled with nudes showing off furry bushes. But on this one issue, we do have some common ground. Cornyn has argued that the arts should be free of political manipulation from the White House, and it should. I don't see how any true progressives can argue that art should be manipulated by the federal government, or by any institution, for political reasons.

However, I will make some distinctions that neither the left nor the right ever make. One, Cornyn just happens to be in temporary agreement with me, and he is only in agreement by a sort of accident. His temporary lie puts him in agreement with my truth. Cornyn doesn't really have any problem with propaganda. If he did, he wouldn't be an agent of the current system, which survives with “all propaganda all the time.” Cornyn's entire political life is nothing but a tissue of lies and spins. He only hates to see Obama trying to use the NEA for political gain, but he would have loved to have seen the NEA used for political gain by Bush. The Department of Homeland Security is a pure-bred agency of propaganda, created just for that purpose, and Cornyn supports it with his last breath. Both the Republicans and Democrats support it. If they didn't, they would abolish it. Neither party is against propaganda, they are only against one another's propaganda.

The same can be said for Glenn Beck, that master of propaganda. Beck, like Cornyn and the other neoconservatives who pay his bills, is a professional liar. But even professional liars occasionally get to speak a true sentence, if only by accident. Obama and Sergant are politicizing art and art funding here, and that doesn't become false just because it found its way into Glenn Beck's nasty mouth.

As for the left or the self-styled “progressives”, it is easy for them to accept manipulation from the White House, since political manipulation has been at the heart of the modern project from the beginning. Futurism, from 1909, was a movement of political manipulation, and the avant garde is still mainly Futurist in its foundations. The major critics and academics have demanded that art be political, and the current magazines, shows, and books all continue to press that demand. All contemporary art is judged by its political relevance; all contemporary artists are manipulated from day one of their careers by critics and academics and institutions, so it is miracle, really, that Patrick Courrielche should have survived that initiation with any independence of thought.

Yes, what is most surprising in this latest story is that the propaganda failed. “Propaganda for the left” has been the definition of art for most of the last hundred years, so it is amazing that someone on the inside took exception to this conference call. The question, really, is how did someone who does not accept the current definition of art as politics get invited to be in this meeting?

The Clinton administration never attempted to politicize the NEA like this, but possibly that is because Clinton didn't appoint people to the NEA right out of this campaign. Clinton's biggest appointment was Jane Alexander, whom he appointed as director instead of Deborah Sale, a longtime friend and campaign aide. But Yosi Sergant was appointed due to his work with Shepard Fairey in creating and disseminating the Obama/Hope poster. In the conference call, the poster was used as an example of how artists can make a difference. Apologists for Sergant have claimed that the conference call pushed no legislative agenda, but whose environmental and energy policies were they talking about, then? There can hardly be anything like a non-partisan environmental or energy policy. Beyond that, Sergant has political ties other than to hip-hop. He has also worked for Yitzhak Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel. If Sergant has no qualms about asking for art supporting Obama, we should expect he would have no qualms about asking for art supporting Israel. You see the steep slope we are on.

This is why these new leftists are not truly progressive. Propaganda is not progressive, and these ties between the White House and the NEA are not progressive. As I have shown, we have regressed even since the time of Clinton. With each decade, we are stooping further, which is regression, not progression.

The left wants to dismiss me and no doubt Mr. Courrielche for one reason: we disagree with the propaganda from the left. In their minds, if you are against propaganda from the left, you are on the right. Their thought processes are simple and reductive, and they cannot reason much beyond the length of their eyelashes. But the logic of the situation is with Mr. Courrielche and me. As with free speech, you cannot be in favor of free speech but against letting your opponent speak; likewise, with propaganda, you cannot be against political manipulation by your opponent, but in favor of political manipulation by your ally. It is a matter of consistency. The left is now just as hypocritical, inconsistent, illogical, and corrupt as the right. And that is why the NEA should be permanently put out of reach of both parties and both sides.

In the current political, intellectual and moral climate (which is neither intellectual nor moral), there is absolutely no chance that a government agency will achieve its stated non-partisan goal of helping people. Specifically, there is no chance that the NEA will be of any benefit to any real artist, by encouraging him or her with prizes and grants to do truly exceptional work. The NEA, as it currently operates with regard to living artists and organizations, is not an enabler of excellence; like the Turner Prize in the UK, it is a tool for the continuing deconstruction of art and the artist. Since all critically viable art is now anti-art, the NEA must be anti-art as well. As long as art history remains in this destructive cycle, a government agency for art can only be a misnomer and a nuisance and a financial drain upon the taxpayer. If it also becomes a tool of propaganda, it will be doubly destructive.


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