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Politicizing the NEA? I’m Shocked.


No really, I am. At least a little — by the brazenness described in filmmaker Patrick Courrielche’s account of a recent conference call between Obama-administration arts officials and arts-community leaders. Basically, the Obama appointees were trying to enlist the arts community as an army to promote the administration’s domestic agenda, starting with the health-care wars. They’d been “selected for a reason,” the arts types were told: in part, because they know how to “make a stink.” Perhaps these are the folks Obama hopes will defend his health-care plan from the attacks regular Americans have been launching against it at town halls. You sort of have to shake off how pathetic this is in order to see how appalling it is. I mean, there’s the . . .

–stupidity: of thinking that all artists are going to agree with the entire Obama agenda.

–ignorance: of thinking that the purpose of art is to “make a stink.”

–vanity: of believing that Obama’s agenda is worthy of any artist’s creative attention.

–and of course the horrible lack of ethics: in implying in any way to potential applicants for taxpayer-funded grants that they must promote the president’s agenda.

What these appointees have done is over the top. During my tenure as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — the NEA’s sister agency — during the George W. Bush administration, any action resembling this call would have triggered immediate dismissal. But saying things like the following was simply unfathomable: “This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government. What that looks like legally? . . . Bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely . . .” Yet this is precisely what an Obama NEA appointee told the arts leaders on this call.

Courrielche asks: “Is the hair on your arms standing up yet?” Mine’s up.

Is it possible that Obama and his art crew need to be reminded (taught?) that art is important and should not be debased? It sounds like it.

— Lynne Munson is former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and author of Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance.