Feb 18, 2009

This is not a blog post

It's like the Price Is Right, where the cameras sweep the audience while the drum rolls, until...
"Come on down!"
Zoom in on amazed expression, screaming, crying.
Now down the aisle through other screaming, clapping non-winners.
And hold on the podium.

As of this week, we - the American arts community - are the next contestants in the wacky game of government bailouts.
Our dreamy new president and his bad-boy congress gave the NEA some walking-around money from the stimulus package to the tune of $50M. Don't take my word for it: Google "2009 stimulus package arts" for all the opinions and info you could ask for (but finish reading this first!).
Now, forget that this is essentially chump change, a small sliver of a fraction of the total package and equivalent to the combined annual operating budgets of roughly 6 regional theaters (I'm guessing). In this case, it really is the thought that counts. We had to fight for it, the undisputed underdogs, and we won.

You know what this means, don't you? It means now we're on the radar. That fabled golden government egg that always goes to the military or Area 51 or illiterate kids in Yemen? That mean old government that refuses to support the arts in this country like they do in Amsterdam or wherever and how come we don't get the props we deserve from those jerks in Washington?
Well, it ain't Amsterdam, but it's a start. Some good people in DC, along with a lot of very vocal arts advocates, just stood up for us - all of us - and made a difference. And don't think they're not gonna watch where that money goes with hawk-like attention.

So, thank-you notes. First and foremost.

And then it's time to face up to a new, long-dormant idea about the arts: we're part of the marketplace. Someone just put a value (however nominal) on the life of the arts in this country. Artists got to stand front and center among The Big 3 Automakers and the Wall Street scavengers, all with their big puffy hands out, and we got a piece of the pie. The arts directly contribute to the well-being of our society. That statement is a matter of public record now, and it's got the cash to back it up. It's weird to hear someone else say it for once, isn't it?

We are part of the marketplace.

Does this mean we are compelled now to make corporate art for our new BFFs in congress? To kowtow even more to nonprofit funders? Nothing but landscapes, tap dancing and smooth jazz? I hope not. Corporate rock still sucks. Everyone knows that.
But maybe we can step away from the post-modern fraud of art-without-an-audience that helped make the idea of arts funding such a toxic event for so long. Elitist, offensive, impenetrable - all slings and arrows suffered by modern artists and not entirely without cause.

Can we now also revisit, and perhaps de-claw, the concept of "selling out" as an artist? Truly celebrate the craft of art along with the art of art? Is a furniture maker is less of an artist than a wood sculptor? Hard to say. I'd have to see the chair. And the sculpture, I suppose. But really, what's so funny 'bout peace, love and a little populism in your art?

We can no longer afford to deny that what we do has real value, and that value is indeed a commodity that can and should be traded, bartered and appraised like any public consumable. It is the stronger, smarter artist who must navigate the world of commerce according to their own needs and desires instead of simply opting out altogether.

And really, if anyone can do it, we can. Creative thinkers and generative artists who can work collaboratively can do great things for a community. Besides the art itself, things like city planning, infrastructure, law enforcement and neighborhood development would hugely benefit from the artist that decides to come out of their hovels and start to play nice with the other kids. Just, you know, don't forget the sunscreen.

The camera has finally stopped on us.
Amazing, yes. Now we have to head for the podium.

Artists of America, come on down.


Christopher said...

Agreed, and in the next round - to extend your metaphor - we need to make sure we're savvy enough to know what the cost of the shampoo is - that is, to show those nay-sayers in Congress what we can do with $50mm to make an actual difference, both in terms of creating or sustaining employment opportunities for artists, and creating art that actually has some meaning and relevance to the average person.

Hm, "living newspapers" maybe there's an idea that needs to be revisited, especially with local print media going down the tank. Somebody has to keep the public apprised of local issues - why not artists?

flamingbanjo said...

Conservatives will never give up their go-to scapegoat for government pork, i.e. the pennies that go towards supporting the arts. They will always need to claim that Democrats are tax-and-spend freaks and they will always be ready to decry the wastefulness of spending one one-hundredth of one percent of the overall budget on "frivolous" art out of one side of their mouths while signing off on trillion-dollar missile defense systems to defend us against enemies who don't have any missiles with the other. So the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress have done the right thing here, but there will be a price.

As for artists, I am hoping that the twenty-first century will see a step away from the twentieth century's central artistic conceit, namely that art's validity is primarily judged by how much it does something that hasn't been done before. Because the Avant Garde's dominance of art which has characterized the schism between Art and Entertainment since the turn of the last century has everything to do with why the public at large associates the word "art" with words like "pretentious," "condescending" and "no kid of mine is getting a degree in that bullshit."

I am all for populism in Art, if populism means making art for audiences instead of for critics and for granting organizations. Ironically, though, the art that doesn't alienate the hell out of the general population is often the art that doesn't require constant infusions of grant money to thrive. Cause people will actually pay to see it.