Friday, January 20, 2017

On Losing the NEA and the Death of Art

As we join with  our  fellow  Americans   and  look  down  the   barrel of  the  travesty  that  is  the  stolen  Presidency on  this   Inauguration  Day  of 2017 - and if  you're a  Democrat  who  has  been  voting  since  before  2000 and  you  are  reckoning  that  there  have  literally  been  two "stolen" elections  in  your  lifetime - as  an artist  the big  news  for  us  is  the  end of  the  NEA.

It  seems  Mr. Trump  and  his  Republican  cohorts are  eager  to  take  whatever  revenge  they  can  extract  from an artistic  community  that regularly satirizes the extremity  of  their  views.

So on  this  inauguration, with  the  NEA already  on  comparative  life  support  when  compared  to  other  industrialized  countries  in  the  world, we  as  artists  are  in  true  mourning, finally  coming  to  the  realization  that  the  patient  will not  be  revived  this  time.  With health care, women's  rights,  racism, and national  security on  the  forefront  of  everyone's minds, throw in some  immigration  for  distraction, the likelihood that  dismantling  the  NEA will merit  more  than one-time  front  page article  is  high. Their  is a  growing concensus that  Americans  don't  care  about  art and  humanities.

We are relatively easily moved to the  back  of  the  priority bus when it comes  to  discussing  the  upcoming  progressive  battle  with  the  incoming  administration.

How should  we  feel and  react?  Outrage?  Absolutely. Should we pool all of  our resources
to protest this horrendous  dent  to  our  national soul and  character? Clearly!


It  should  be  acknowledged  that  within the  not-for-profit  arts  community  there  is a  division  of  the  "haves"  and  "have-nots", not unlike  our  own  country's  socio-economic  divide.  The National  Endowment  for  the Arts  gave the lion's share of it's  wealth to organizations and institutions across  the  country  that  are  also  served by relatively wealthy  boards.  The NEA served as an  imprimatur of  excellence that  foundations  and large  private philanthropists used to guide their generosity.
Although during the Obama administration there was a mandate to reach out  to  smaller  organizations, the NEA had  few programs that could  make  art  grow for arts sake in  small organizations.

Ever since Robert Mapplethorpe's photography the  right-wing have  pretended they were lone  arbiters  of morals and family  values.  Clearly a backlash against  homosexuality  and  its  acceptance. But  if  we are living in  the  age  of  information, the  Republican Party and  their  new
partners, the  Trumplicans, are in a war  against our access  to  it. So kill the  artists. We'll need  the  lawyers  for  those  lawsuits.

If it cannot be measured  and  put  on a  scale,  giving  money  to  it's  creation is a  subjective.
That's a bad  idea says  the  right  wing and  over  time   the  Democrats  think  so  too, just  so  they  can  get  it  through  Congress.  So as a  reaction  to  this,  art and  artists  have been  bending  over   backwards  to  make  measurement   rubrics  and  assessments  to  try  and  fit  in  to  the  Republican  idea  of  what art  should  be. Over  the  last   30 years  the  NEA

No  matter  how  many  great  works   of art  have  been  aided  by  the  NEA  monies,  there  is  no   doubt  that  the  artistic   soul of  the  nation  is  harmed  by  this  thinking.  It is not  the  thinking  of  artists.  Far  worse,  it  has  literally  eaten  the  lives  and  intellects  of some  of  our  greatest  artists  and  creators  as  they  seek  to  create   work  that  dances  around   some   idea  of  what   is  "safe".   If  an  idea  seems  commercial,  the  not -for-profit  machine  begins to  favor  it  more  than
the  dogged  pursuit  of  excellent  art  for  its  own  sake.

Republicans, as a party,  do not  care  about  artists.  However, Republicans  as  individuals  are  the  greatest  donors  to  the  arts  as  everyone  in  the not  for  profit  world  knows. How  could  this  be  so?  Simple: tenacity and  entrepreneurship  is admired  but  helping  other s is  not . It  is  seen as  weak within the  Republican Party. Yet  they  regularly  flog the  arts  like  a  battered spouse whenever  budgets  are  discussed. The  arts  have been  gaslit  for ages. It's  where  the  right   wing  perfected  their  techniques.

It is time to break the cycle and pull the plug.

Clearly  what  Republicans  do  not  care  about  as a  party  is  quality  and  under  Donal  Trump, possibly  the  American President  with  the  least class  since  Andrew  Jackson (unkind   to Jackson's  memory) - it is  clear  that there is  no  barometer for quality arts in the  White House.  Do we  really  want  someone  making   choices that  effect art in America  who  thinks  Meryl Streep is  overrated?
If you have  no sense  of taste,  you  shouldn't  pick  the  wine.

We  should   pack our  bags  with  dignity and  not  prostrate ourselves  on  the  ground   begging to be noticed  by  Mitch McConnell and   Donald  Trump. Both seem hopelessly  callous, craven individuals who are almost  impregnable  to  reason and  decency.  We  should  begin  creating  as  much  art  as  possible  in any  place  we  can  create  art  to  reflect  the  nature  of  this  administration.  Eventually  the patient  will be  revived  and  when  it  is   it  will  be  leaner  and  healthier  and  it  will  protect  the  true  space  artists  need  to  create  with  more  ferocity.  It  will  demand respect  for artists  and  not  beg  for  approval  from politicians   who  dangle  meager  funding  in front  of  national  treasures   as  if  they  were  giving  children a  lollipop.

We have a  tremendously  dysfunctional  system  of  funding  arts  in our country. As a society  we  need  art. We  as  artists, and our  country as a  society  will not  be  served  by  cutting  arts  funding,  but  neither  will we be  served by groveling  for  pennies  for  the  crown  jewel institutions of  our  country.  Most institutions will  survive. Some  will not.  However  some  were   doomed  to  failure  after years of doing puppy  tricks  for  Republicans.  They  had  lost  touch  with their  own  artistic  core.

In  five years we will begin one of the most prolific artistic eras of this or any other generation  of  Americans.  Now, there are many artists who will be  looking for ward  to NOT  working with Republicans and the Trump administration. When the  nightmare  is over, if we remain true to craft  in  the  dark  times, the  output  will  shimmer  with  the  brilliance  of commitment and audacity.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Art Ghetto

There  is a  good  deal  of  conversation  these  days  about  our  system  favoring  the  1%  to  the  disadvantage  of the 99%.

Anyone pursuing  a livelihood  as an artist in America in 2016 knows this  full well.  I would  suggest  if  you  really look at  economic  changes  in  the  arts you'll see a  road map  for  were  the  country is  headed  as a whole since Washington  politics  frequently  take their  cues  from the  artistic  community.  Simply put, as a general  group, artists  are  amazingly  capable  of  getting  by with being  provided with very little: where better to look for a plan for how  we  could limit  American  society as a  whole.

Art and  artists have been  voluntarily  ghettoized  for many  decades  in  America.


When  one  lives in  the ghetto  of art  it is understood  that  the  only  path  to a  reasonable  livlihood  is through  the  pursuit  of  another  profession.  This is a  necessity  some  artists  wrestle  with , others accept,  some  promote,  but  for  practicing artists, the  idea  of  a "day job"  has  been accepted  for   so  long  that   those  who  sample the art and even the  unions  that  represent  the  artists  have long given  up a  notion  that  art  should  support  artists'  lives.  Writing  that  you  can't  make a living   as  an artist is  as pointless as  writing the  sky is  blue.

In this  accepted  state artists diversify.

Some artists are  able  to  make do on inherited income. Obviously,  those  artists are  living  on wealth not earned. They are  in a completely  separate  category and it is  often  difficult  for artists of such seemingly good fortune to  fit in easily with artists of unequal benefit who navigate less secure  circumstances.

In art  they  often  say you  have  to be  lucky.  Being  lucky and being born into some  wealth
are  often conflated.  However, the tremendous  lifelong  advantage of being born into wealth  is  a  circumstance  of  our  economic system and  the
unequal  benefits it confers  upon the  children of greater socio-economic  means.

There  are  two major  ways  artists diversify for survival:
1) Get one or more  jobs  earning  revenue in another  field.
2) Find a co-habitation partner who earns  revenue  in another  field.

The  necessity to  do one or  the  other for  survival  is so plain and  so  frequently  practiced   it  is  amazing  it  is  not  taught  as  a  principle  of  the   occupation  itself in  one  or  more  of  the  universities  that  take in , literally, billions  of  dollars  every  year  in  revenue  from  students  pursuing  education in  the  arts

The  economics of  art  in America are a  story  of  staggering inequality and and what is an almost medieval system.  It is so accepted that  it  barely deserves attention  when  someone  writes  such  an assertion. "Art is a tough  business."  The  phrase  is  repeated so often and so  frequently  among  practitioners  of  art  throughout  the industry  that  there  is  little  contest of the  statement  being  true both inherently  of  craft  and  occupation.  It  is  as  accepted  as   truth  and I  would   venture  to  speculate  that  across  great  party  lines  of  great  disagreement   in  our  country  you  could  get  wide  agreement   that   the  above  statement  is  true  in America, and  secondarily,  that  it  OUGHT  to be  true  in America and  finally , that  that  is  the  best   for  both  art  and  our  society.  Yet  the  economic  engine regularly  pillages  output  from  eras  when  such a  statement  was  less  true  for  tremendous  profit.

There  are artist unions, true,  but  the  unions   themselves are such  large  organizations, under such  great  assault  for  the bare minimums  they are able  to  provide, the unions  themselves  cannot  see  how  tremendously  disconnected  they are  from the  real lives of  everyday artists. Indeed, in  show  business union  contracts  can  become  the  bane  of a performer's  existence, and  customarily  serve  more as a  filter  to repress economic  competition  from a  grass roots  level.

In  order  to maintain  these  unequal  systems  within  unions which  are  formed  under  the  pretense  of  equality there  are  several key ingredients.  First  performers  must  begin  to  work  very  directly  against  one  another  and  members  of  the  union must  be  convinced  they are  more   entitled  to  benefits  than  n-n-members. They  must  understand  that all actors  who  are  "in" the  union are  their  "brothers  and  sisters"  - a  family  like  connection - and  actors  who  are  not "in" the union  are  not  "in" the  family.  They may  join  the  family  in  the  future  if  they  pass  through a  merit  test  and  cough  up an initiation  fee... Both  of  which  are  arbitrary  filters  to keep a  union's  ranks  of membership low  and  decrease  the  competition  for  jobs.  It has  nothing  to do with  fairness  for  "all artists",  it's  just   fairness   for  those  "whom  we  decide are  artists".   Not  surprisingly  this  creates a non-union work force  which  actually  serves  ultimately as a  competitive  force  for  the  union and  diminishes the  union's  bargaining  power.

The Art  Ghetto is  created as  union members  who  are  entitled  fight  for  opportunities  with  non-union members, and  non-union members  fight  to meet  criteria  to  become  members  of  the  union. Individuals  identifying  with  either  body  as a  family  or  identifying  the  struggle  for  admission into  the  union as a  the  struggle  for  professional  acceptance  are   caught  in  a  whirlpool  of  pointless  activity  that  leads to usually only  the  most  meaningless  of  jobs,  creates  a  vast  community  of  non-working  actors  who  feel  little  to  know   leverage  or  power  in  work circumstances  and  most  importantly  they  create  employees  who  are  slavishly  indebted  to  the   employers  when  the  employers   grant  employment.