Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Obama’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

From Big Hollywood:
. . . I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to take part in a conference call that invited a group of rising artist and art community luminaries “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda - health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.”

Now admittedly, I’m a skeptic of BIG government. In my view, power tends to overreach whenever given the opportunity. It’s a law of human nature that has very few exceptions. That said, it felt to me that by providing issues as a cynosure for inspiration to a handpicked arts group - a group that played a key role in the President’s election as mentioned throughout the conference call - the National Endowment for the Arts was steering the art community toward creating art on the very issues that are currently under contentious national debate; those being health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation. Could the National Endowment for the Arts be looking to the art community to create an environment amenable to the administration’s positions?

On Thursday August 6th, I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a conference call scheduled for Monday August 10th hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The call would include “a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!”

I learned after the conference call that there were approximately 75 people participating, including many well respected street-artists, filmmakers, art galleries, music venues, musicians and music producers, writers, poets, actors, independent media outlets, marketers, and various other professionals from the creative community. I suppose I was invited because of my work in creating arts initiatives, but being a former employer of the NEA’s Director of Communications was probably a factor as well.

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.

It sounded, how should I phrase it…unusual, that the NEA would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard concerned me.

The people running the conference call and rallying the group to get active on these issues were Yosi Sergant, the Director of Communications for the National Endowment for the Arts; Buffy Wicks, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for United We Serve; Thomas Bates, Vice President of Civic Engagement for Rock the Vote; and Michael Skolnik, Political Director for Russell Simmons.

We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election.

Obama has a strong arts agenda, we were told, and has been very supportive of both using and supporting the arts in creative ways to talk about the issues facing the country. We were “selected for a reason,” they told us. We had played a key role in the election and now Obama was putting out the call of service to help create change. We knew “how to make a stink,” and were encouraged to do so.

Discussed throughout the conference call was a hope that this group would be one that would carry on past the United We Serve campaign to support the President’s initiatives and those issues for which the group was passionate. The making of a machine appeared to be in its infancy, initiated by the NEA, to corral artists to address specific issues. This function was not the original intention for creating the National Endowment for the Arts.

A machine that the NEA helped to create could potentially be wielded by the state to push policy. Through providing guidelines to the art community on what topics to discuss and providing them a step-by-step instruction to apply their art form to these issues, the “nation’s largest annual funder of the arts” is attempting to direct imagery, songs, films, and literature that could create the illusion of a national consensus. This is what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.”

Is the hair on your arms standing up yet?
The traditional NEA arts pork barrel is bad enough. What public purpose does it serve to subsidize art that can’t hack it in the market, and is consumed by culture vulture elitists?

But this is even worse. It’s the use of taxpayer money to push a particular political agenda, to mobilize the arts community for partisan political purposes.

There is a history to this sort of thing.


When confronted about this situation, the NEA simply lied and said the invitations “didn’t come from us.” But a screen capture shows that the e-mails most definitely did come from the NEA.

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Blogger Stefan said...

Pork for the NEA argument I understand and acknowledge the principal you cite - the public should not be forced to support projects it would generally not approve of and as you mention are mainly consumed by the elites. However provided the relatively miniscule amount of funding NEA receives (approximately $150 mil. out of the entire Federal Budget) and some of the good initiatives it produces that have a potential to educate and serve the greater public, in my opinion those benefits outweigh the cost (I agree that “a great nation deserves great art” and government in my opinion should have a very small unbiased role in facilitating that). However, this new role NEA is drifting to is absolutely appalling and I echo your concluding words, Professor. The agency was not created for and should not be pushing administrative agendas. That’s not art, its state sponsored propaganda of the dirties, most covertly kind and NEA should have nothing to do with that. It gives the agency and the institutionalized art community in the US a very bad name. For shame.

10:35 AM  

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