Is America’s national artistic identity the cultural equivalent of pink slime?
Once upon a time, the United States was known for its radical pioneering spirit and its thirst for intelligent exploration. Investing stateside was the top priority and, in not-so-distant days of yore, when one said “America,” there was a ring of nobility to it. These days, however, the United States is known for pink slime in public school lunchrooms, and it also appears that we have developed a phobia for originality, thoughtfulness, and compassion, along with a tendency to abandon, ignore and/or defund our best and brightest.
In these times, the national identity of America seems to be: cut the fat. We’re eagles, not turkeys, or so we say. and have somehow come to reason that to publicly fund the arts and humanities would lead to some sort of shameful ruin – a squandering of valuable resources on finger paint and Legos, resulting in less food on the table of those in need, or worse, putting our national security in grave danger.
It’s a false dichotomy sold relentlessly by the most odious dissemblers in government and in the mainstream corporate media, and would pass as an interesting idea were it not bogus as hell.
Take this headline from the July 5 print edition of USA Today, which is worth reading if for no other reason than for its blatant distortion of reason and logic. The front page title and tagline: “Defense Cutbacks Hinder Economy: Less Spending on War Saps Growth.”
Forgetting the economic studies that prove military spending is one of the least effective ways to stimulate the economy, the official web site of the United States Air Force (USAF) reports the cost of an F-22 Raptor as $143 million, which is on par with the entire 2012 National Endowment for the Arts budget. And the USAF has 183 F-22 Raptors.
Yes, we need the military. Most definitely, we must have the ability to defend this nation. But the F-22 Raptor is just one fleet of aircraft listed on the USAF web site. There are more than 40 other fleets, with each individual aircraft unit in each fleet costing in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. In at least one circumstance, the cost of a single plane exceeds $1.5 billion. That particular plane in question is called the B-2 Spirit, and USAF has 20.
These data suggest an addiction to violence, and the all-but-abandonment of the artistic enrichment of the culture.
“Artists,” says Tolu Olorunda “must be permanently at war with a society that seeks to limit the imaginations of its people, especially its young.” Olorunda is a young writer and activist (as well as a current fellow at Truthout), who recently gave a talk in Ireland at the Belfast Book Festival and shared his further thoughts in an email exchange.
“Artists aren’t mere accessories in the cultural boutique of a society; they are what defines culture for a society,” says Olorunda, whose new book is entitled “Substance of Truth.”
Quoting two of America’s most famed writers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, Olorunda says it was Ellison who made the point in his collection of essays entitled “Shadow and Act” that “The artist is no freer than the society in which he lives.” And quoting Baldwin, Olorunda says it was Baldwin’s belief that, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is … to make freedom real.” For Baldwin, Olorunda says “art … is a revolutionary act, a production of resistance for transformation.”
Olorunda says that in facing the truth about America’s present sociopolitical incarnation, we discover why there is such a lack of funding in the arts, and why artists of all sorts are treated so poorly:
These tropes, I think, help us explain why funding for the arts has declined steadily as society marched on toward the dark alleys of neoliberalism, where the space of the possible is suffocatingly narrow, linear and self-affirming. This marks of course a terrible detour from the days of the New Deal: which brought us the Federal Writers Project and other visionary initiatives. There seemed a belief that writers and photographers could help citizens re-imagine their societies and regain a sense of hope. How tragic that in our day, when cynicism and fatalism seem to have taken hold of the collective imagination, the very channel through which new life can be created is being stifled and starved: from the erosion of arts in public schools to the de-funding of after-school programs. It’s all terribly apparent: citizens are consumers and thus must accept society in its current neoliberal construct as the best their money can buy: after all, we live in hard times.
We claim we’re a superpower, but a superpower of what: moral decay, hegemony, violence, war profiteering and corporate gluttony? And it’s not just in our politics – social rot is all around, making it high time we got real and faced the fact that we live in a cruel culture of cowardly, soul-numbing ignorance, in which unmitigated aggression, hatred, greed, moral bankruptcy, cynicism, intellectual gridlock, civic arthritis and creative morbidity has replaced aspirations of moderated temperament, generosity of heart, active idealism, variegated and unlimited beauty, truth, mercy, and bold insightful contemplation, and a quest for nuanced, expressive sophistication.
The United States seems stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of social depravity, fueled by misguided and misplaced priorities. Balance has effectively been removed from our collective vocabulary, and virtually everything that we know in our world has been commoditized for biggest, fastest profit, regardless of long-term consequences and costs. That seems to explain the severely anemic NEA budgets over the last ten years, when they have ranged between $115 million and $167 million.
To contextualize how measly this is, of the 500 individuals in this year’s Forbes Highest Paid CEO list, the top 2 enjoy annual salaries of more than this year’s NEA budget.
In 1979, the NEA had more funding than it does today. So, this isn’t a new problem, but one that has gotten worse. (Several top executives at the NEA were sent written requests for interviews for this article. None replied.) The NEA is the single largest arts funder in the United States, and its 2012 budget is $146 million, which comes to spending less than $0.50 per citizen per year.
My fellow Americans, that might just be enough to get you a single handful of hot buttered popcorn, which would have to be eaten on the sidewalk outside a theatre, because once your $0.50 is spent, nothing’s left to purchase a ticket to get in and see a movie.
Contrary to the reality of these facts, conventional wisdom somehow turns truth upside down and manages to pollute our logic, thus convincing much of the populace that arts funding costs too much – that we simply cannot afford the arts – that fabulous art and culture happens in France, Germany, Italy or elsewhere, but not America.
We think ourselves more sensible and pragmatic than those damn Europeans. Right?
So, we have money to spend $30 billion on a fleet of B-2 Spirits, but are somehow supposed to believe that we can only afford to spend 0.05 percent that amount on the 2012 NEA budget?
Seriously, can anyone honestly defend the argument that we’re too poor to fund art and culture in a manner that has at least a modicum of substantive depth and meaning – that we cannot afford to spend, for instance, $10 per person through the NEA?
As with most things, the quantity and quality of art and culture in America is directly tied to funding. The $0.50 per person the NEA is endowed with to dole out on the arts and humanities doesn’t buy much, and we’ll continue to get more of the same, unless there’s push-back.
Art Is No Luxury, but a Form of Communication and a Gesture of Solidarity
“How do we communicate, and how do we build community?” asks Gilbert Sams, a retired civil engineer. Sams was one of the first African-Americans hired by the City and County of San Francisco, and says that “art is a form of communication,” representing “one of the main means” people have to build community in San Francisco and around the world.
Sams says that when it comes to communicating information, far too many Americans don’t know the difference between news and gossip. Sams asks, “What’s the cultural value of that?”
“I grew up seeing Joe Lewis everywhere,” says Sams. “He was more than a boxer.”
“He was a hero,” he says, “as was Booker T. Washington.” But now, “we are imitating the wrong heroes, like rap star gangsters and corrupt corporate banksters.”
“Visual art often follows the morale of the culture,” Sams says. He says whatever images we portray should be considered in discussions on art and culture, because “imagery portrayed” in popular culture matters, a lot.
Art serves to provoke. Primarily it serves to cultivate, stimulate, beautify, unify and inspire intellectual and moral reflection. Beauty, inspiration and moral reflection do not appear to be national priorities.
“The image of Marian Anderson was in every classroom when I was growing up,” says Sams. “She was held in such high esteem.” Sams says that Anderson was the feminine ideal of artistic creativity, representing “music, dignity and grace.”
Doing the right thing is not always the most politically convenient, and yet a leader who stands for what is just and right – holding that commitment higher than ambition for re-election, for instance – can use that personal integrity and power to nurture a society through national crisis.
History includes such visionary acts of courageous guidance. During President Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created. At the time, both the national morale and economy were depressed, and Franklin was wise and bold enough to implement the WPA, which was a federal funding stimulus project that invested generously in public infrastructure and the social fabric of America by putting artists, engineers, writers, dancers, designers, carpenters and other creative people who were out of jobs back to work.
Roosevelt’s WPA was the crown jewel of his administration’s sweeping New Deal, and was put into place during his first term by way of executive orders and laws passed by Congress.
The WPA was unlike anything we’ve seen during the Bush or Obama administrations. It could be said that Bush and Obama have reversed the gains from the Roosevelt era, including the siphoning off trillions in public money from federal coffers to ensure the survival of private banks that now enjoy the spoils of corporate socialism while allowing the rest of the nation to flounder, fighting over crumbs. Instead, the WPA – in addition to investing deeply in public infrastructure projects – included funding projects for artists, writers, poets and playwrights and other creative professionals who used their skill and talents to paint and sculpt our national narrative on the walls of school halls, in local post offices, on billboards on the highways and on the stages of Broadway.
Roosevelt was courageous, wise and humble enough to appreciate and celebrate America’s need to beautify, strengthen, enlighten and entertain itself. He understood that using public monies to prop up private banks would be a radical misallocation of public funds.
During the 1930s, the WPA provided jobs for 8.5 million Americans, and it is widely attributed to pulling this nation out of the Great Depression of the last century.
The New Deal focused on what came to be known as the three R’s: Relief, Recovery and Reform: relief for the poor and the unemployed, recovery of the economy to healthy sustainable levels, and reform of financial industries to prevent a subsequent depression.
One of the most heralded programs of the New Deal was the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the WPA. From the Library of Congress web site on Roosevelt’s WPA and New Deal:
The WPA included a provision for unemployed artists and writers: the Federal Arts Projects. If they were poor enough to qualify, musicians, actors, directors, painters and writers could work directly for the government. The New Deal arts projects made a lasting impact on American cultural life and none contributed more than the Federal Writers’ Project. At its peak, the Writers’ Project employed about 6,500 men and women around the country, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week.
Twenty dollars a week may not seem like much today, but that’s $269 in 2011 dollars, which – even though it’s still not a lot – would make a major difference in the life of an unemployed dancer, writer, illustrator, designer or sculptor with no place to stay and no food to eat – a scenario that too many artists have become increasingly familiar with.
More from the Library of Congress on what the Writers’ Project accomplished:
The Writers’ Project provided jobs for a diverse assortment of unemployed white-collar workers including beginning and experienced writers—those who had always been poor and the newly down and out. Among those Federal Writers who went on to gain national literary reputations were novelists Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, and poet May Swenson. Distinguished African-American writers served literary apprenticeships on the Federal Writers’ Project, including Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.
During the Project’s early years, the Federal Writers produced a series of state guidebooks that offer a flavorful sampling of life in the United States. Now considered classics of Americana, these guides remain the Federal Writers’ Project’s best-known undertaking; many have been reissued in the past decade. But the Federal Writers’ Project also left a hidden legacy. In the late 1930s, Federal Writers recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations and ethnic groups.
Since the Federal Writers themselves were on relief, they were viewed sympathetically and frequently accepted as equals by those they interviewed. Betty Burke recalls feeling that bond with the packing house workers she talked to in Chicago. “We were poor ourselves and these people were, if anything, even poorer, so I was very close to them. I understood every word they said with all my heart.”
With the WPA and other bold New Deal initiatives, Roosevelt’s administration ensured that we all advanced as a nation – most emphatically, the middle class and the poor, not just those on Wall Street. And while guaranteeing food and shelter for all, the WPA licensed artists and writers to build a cohesive cultural narrative that reflected the lives of all Americans.
Our national identity was made manifest in paint, prose and print, with epic murals in elementary schools to illustrate the vast and profound visual narrative, the diverse and rich cultural history of this nation.
Banks don’t make art or create meaning; people do. A vibrant collective ethos is tied to art and other quality-of-life markers, like public funding for education and the humanities. Absent creativity, there are many forms of depravity and poverty that are sure to rise up in their place and take us all down.
Censorship Versus Transformation
The stifling of creative production cannot be overlooked, as artists and their work have always been a high point of contention for political regimes with little appreciation for dissent.
Eastern and Western European modernists discovered this when Adolf Hitler rose to power as the leader of Nazi Germany and Lenin and Stalin rose to power in Russia. From The New Critieron:
The fate of abstract art in Russia in the decade following the Revolution of 1917 proved to be one of the most tragic chapters in the annals of twentieth-century modernism. Its only near rival among the political calamities that beset the modernist movement in the early decades of the century occurred in Germany in the 1930s with the unleashing of Hitler’s war on “degenerate” art.
Sociopolitical censorship is, unfortunately, not something dead and gone. The Australian Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who now finds himself holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London seeking political asylum, can certainly attest to that, and here in the United States, so could Chris Drew.
Drew, a street artist in Chicago who died earlier this year, was the founder of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center. Drew found out rather unceremoniously what the long arm of the law thought about his artistic entrepreneurship. Drew was arrested on December 2, 2009, for selling $1 art patches without a license, and before it was all said and done, wound up being charged with a felony.
A fellow artist and videographer, Nancy Bechtol, continues to document Drew’s strange case. In the video below, Bechtol – who is putting together a documentary about Drew – speaks with Drew’s former attorney, Mark Weinberg, about who Drew was, and the challenges he faced.
Are we afraid of the naked truth, of looking ourselves squarely in the mirror? And is that why we don’t want to be confronted by our chief truth-tellers, our artists?
Does this turning a blind eye to artistic truth explain why, at the United Nations, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” was concealed with a blue drape when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his argument to conquer Iraq?
Was the truth of Picasso’s war painting too contrary to what was later found to be Powell’s deception? Can works of art and other cultural artifacts defuse the prospects of war and other self-induced disasters?
Acclaimed writer and social critic Chris Hedges is not afraid of artistic truth. Hedges wrote in a July 9 op-ed for Truthdig entitled “How to Think“:
Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation—the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty—to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.
The policies our national leadership plan and implement today do not support a life of meaning, though now more than ever, this is what America and its citizens require to pull back from a multitude of disasters which threaten wellness here at home, and around the world.
For it is only an abiding love and respect for ourselves and our neighbors – ensuring in this land of opportunity a place to sleep and food to eat for every American – combined with a deep and vigilant commitment to the enrichment of our collective culture via the arts and humanities, that offers “the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.”