Public and Visual Art vs. Cultural Censorship and Government Fortunately, the effects of cultural censorship, of whatever variety, tend to be transitory. Truth has a habit of finding its way into the light-witness, for example, the opening of KGB files to public scrutiny-but too frequently it is long delayed. Unfortunately, not even external cultural censorship and self-censorship exhaust the threats to the free flow of ideas in art. Often when one threat recedes, another steps into its place. Perhaps most insidious of them all is a practice so subtle as to be virtually invisible. Those who perpetuate it are the least likely to be aware even that it exists. This practice is an unconscious suppression of information resulting from the effects of the “conventional wisdom.” In the United States, there is a much different set of circumstances from those that existed in pre-hand over Hong Kong art, for instance. In neither case has overt governmental cultural censorship been a significant factor, but there is a major difference in pressures encouraging self-censorship. America lacks the cultural traditions of deference that characterize other western countries. Also unlike others, it has never had a huge neighbor to placate. Thus there has been little that would lead to deliberate self-censorship. There is decidedly, however, a restriction of information. On many subjects the conventional wisdom in the United States functions at least as effectively to suppress ideas as self-censorship has functioned anywhere else in the world. Regardless of the mechanism at work, the result is the same: a reduction of public understanding. An example from three different sources elaborating on the complex topic of arts, government and society will be illustrative. “Just as truth ultimately serves to create a consensus,” Michael Brenson wrote, “so in the short run does acceptability.” He went on to explain that, “because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable” (Brenson, 86). They also have influence so powerful as to be overwhelming and they do, nevertheless, permit some innovation. In his book Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress, and the Place of the Visual Artist in America, Michael Brenson emphasizes not only on role of government and NEA in cultural life but on education and on the lack of education in the arts in the United States. The weaknesses were the way in which the report perceived artists. There seems to be this myopic understanding of what artists do who they are, and what their function in society is. The book assumes that the artist’s role is to advance the moral good of the community, to bring people together. Perhaps it is. But art is more complex and doesn’t always take as its principal concern the moral opinions of its day. I'm skeptical about this feel-good attitude the book projects. It tends to homogenize sentiment and individual values. It’s also interesting that in a book, which addresses the function of art in people’s lives there is no discussion of aesthetics or beauty. One of the strengths of the book is its assertion that art is in everyday life and that it’s not just in a museum or in a symphony orchestra building. And that we need to realize that it’s not just the well-known artist who needs to be recognized. But is that the NEA’s voice, or is it the forums’? And then some might have problems with specific points the book is trying to make. One thing that makes me sound very Republican, is when the book discusses how corporations need to give money. For me, that’s not the corporations’ job. That’s philanthropy. It’s great if they do it, but the onus is not on them. And the book talks about the American spirit and the common culture, and there’s one passage about a speech in which Clinton says something about America being the beacon of light and liberty? Wake up! This idea stems from an unrealistic and idealistic view of what the real America is. In the last chapter, the book has this challenge to art to act. They say what artists and communities can do. What about what the NEA can do? “The NEA is putting the responsibility and the blame on the artists and their communities. The NEA is beyond scorn in this respect; they have left themselves out completely.”(Brenson, 186) Many describe society in terms of the elite and the citizens at large. According to Weaver (Reading 9), the elite possesses the commitment and skill to make the direct political decisions and require enough people to participate so that they may compete for the support of large and cross sections of the population. However, the author warned: “If the uninformed masses participate in large numbers, democratic self-restraint will break down and peaceful competition among the elite, the central element in the elitist theory, will become impossible” (89). Elite theories are formulated in an attempt to bring democratic theory closer to empirical reality and, in the process, have changed the goal of democracy from broad participation to stability and efficiency. The opponents of elitism in art believe the same is true for participation in cultural activities. Margaret Wyszomirski has provided a more detailed comparison of various participatory behaviors. She compared various forms of political participation with attendance at various cultural activities. Another aspect of participation relevant to both politics and the arts involves acceptance of collective decisions. An important hypothesis of the discussion is that through participation, whether by arguing or voting, individuals are more willing to accept and support group decisions. Continued practice in the decision making process builds skills transferable from one sphere to another. The concept of decision making in the arts ranges from the freedom to choose a specific art form in which to participate to actual voting as a board member of a cultural organization or contributing money as part of the complex decision making chain involving tax policy.
In extending Public and Government debate to the arts, a few limitations must be noted. In most discussions of political theory the concept of the citizen is generally clarified- not so in studies relating to the arts. Participation in our democratic political system, by definition, is open to virtually any adult born in this country or qualified by naturalization. These are the citizens profiled in the various political studies mentioned in this book. All other cultural studies, surveys, and other similar research involve adults without reference to their citizenship status. Since children are not eligible for active political participation, emphasis has been on adults, although the importance of arts education for children has been noted, too. In the various studies, both political and cultural, parallels with other demographic data have been noted. For example, amount of education tends to be positively correlated with increased participation in the arts and with increased sensitivity to democratic principles. Similarly, a 1977 study, produced for the National Endowment for the Arts, analyzed 270 audience studies completed after 1970 and clearly indicated that educational attainment is the single most important variable in the social profile of attending. In a book of Jane Kramer Whose Art Is It, which could be regarded as an essay, author talks about John Ahearn, an artist living in the South Bronx. Kramer describes John as a white male living in a predominantly African American and Hispanic community. His artworks sparked a great controversy not only in the town but the entire city of New York. His intentions were not to offend anyone but he created such a public outcry against his works that will be look backed upon forever. John Ahearn was an active part of the community. South Bronx is known as a place of suffering, poverty, crime, drugs, unemployment, and Aids, but this did not stop Ahearn for making his artworks. His earlier works were plaster portraits of the people that lived there. Some even displayed them in their homes. So he gained acceptance in South Bronx, nobody really minded he was white. The place became home to him. On April 1, 1986, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs began to choose… ”an artist to create a piece in front of a new police station in the 44th Precinct.”(Kramer, 14) With his gained popularity in the town, Ahearn was commissioned to make the sculpture. He believed that his sculptures should be looked upon as guardian angels or saints. He believed that the people in his work should be the everyday, real people. To commemorate a few of the people… having trouble surviving in the street, even if they were trouble themselves. He wanted the police “to acknowledge them, and he wanted the neighbors, seeing them cast in bronze and up on pedestals, to stop and think about who they were and about what he calls their South Bronx attitude” (Kramer, 38). Table 1 shows the fields of art relative attractiveness to private sector funding: Table 1 Relative Attractiveness of Arts Activities to Private Funding Attractive to Less attractive to Unattractive to private sector private sector private sector Major museum Classical theater Avant-garde and inter- exhibitions Modern dance disciplinary Opera Jazz Support of individuals Ballet Design Visual artists' Orchestras Film presentation organizations Larger presenters Folk arts Postmodem dance and performing Public radio Video presentation arts centers New music Museum maintenance Institutions under- Media arts centers Minority organizations taking capital Chamber music Archives and libraries construction Arts education Service organizations Public television Choral music Dance notation Arts presentations Professional training Museum conservation Medium and small presenters Artists' colonies In particular consider what criteria a public arts agency must apply in its grant- making. This table illustrates and leads one to the notion of very important as well as relevant discussion of who or what body should make a decision in grant –making process and distributing public funds. In other words, it is not always easy to establish strict yet reasonable and attainable criteria for various artists who cannot support themselves or need more considerable funds in order to grow professionally and personally. This debate is not new as different individuals, including politicians and philanthropists, have striven to set the right kind of standards for grant- making procedure. The question of who should make the final decisions (panels of experts, public representatives or accountable officials) is a truly difficult one because it comprises a number of complex and serious issues pertaining to both moral and finance. If one sets a task of solving or at least shedding some light on this problem, he or she should consider the following matters. There are numerous issues that are to be taken into account, but, as many critics believe, these four are of foremost significance and importance. First, the bribery and embezzlement of funds is a common issue in the modern society. Such “offerings” do not necessarily have to come in big bags of cash, but can be easily presented as expensive gifts, favors, offerings of free vacation, and practical aid in troublesome situations. Long are gone the times when bribery was easy to spot and control. There are at least hundred considerably honest ways to pay the official who makes a decision in a particular case, especially big or prestigious ones. Second, the ever-changing and growing society doesn’t always perfectly correlates with qualification and experience that the one making a decision possesses. Speaking in open terms, it is almost impossible to determine whether a high official in a public “arts company has still got the necessary qualifications after being in the same position for ten or fifteen years” (Urice 34).
He or she is the one who hires and dismisses employees in times of trouble; chooses the necessary course of running; and finally awards grants to well recognized or completely unknown artists. It is extremely easy to lose the sense of direction over the years because a person is not able to express clear judgement for a prolonged period of time. This or that individual will inevitable get biased and prejudiced on certain issues that surround him or her in the life. What is more, most people try to choose a very agreeable and easy to control immediate staff and consultants who, in turn, won’t probably dare to raise any voice of disappointment or concern. One might think that the above description is somewhat gloomy and unrealistic but it allows an individual to develop a clear understanding of the matter exactly as it appears in real life. The third issue with decisions in grant making process is introduced by Weaver who argues that “outside power and practical influence determine whether artist will receive an aid or not” (95). There are numerous sources of financing various existing finds and grant- making organizations. However, private and governmental structures cover the largest area in the process. Government seems to advance in its ways of controlling the re-distribution of its funds for artists through various policies, laws and procedures, whereas private sector presents a totally different story. For instance, if a wealthy individual sets up a public trust fund, makes his brother, daughter or uncle a director and subsequently decides to influence a decision to endow a grant on a certain individual, this person will have no troubles doing so as his or her power is unquestionable and absolute in such case. Furthermore, different organizations that in some way cooperate with this trust fund and depend on it, will have to adhere to any kind of decisions imposed by the person sponsoring the organization. The fourth issue that definitely should be viewed and analyzed in the situation with arts grant- making is the relevance of one’s particular work or research presented. Many artists are desperate to obtain help from any institution or organization, regardless of their course of action and method or creativity. Some individuals whose work has no direct relevance to the reward specifics offered will try to push, use all their power, connections, and knowledge to receive a particular grant even if their art in no way pertains to the nature of the aid. Although writers, painters and creators should be supported in all possible ways, definite measures and standard are to be established for each and every specific endowment. If an organization offers help to those showing high achievements in music, and architect can not openly make a reasonable claim to “receive any kind of subsidy based on his doing in non- music field” (LeLoup 12). Does public money demand different considerations in funding artistic projects? Such reasoning may seem to be harsh to many critics who argue that public funds should be able to help anyone who needs help with his or artistic process because arts make no boundaries or prejudice between people. Nevertheless, firm control over the distribution of costs is needed in order to impose a professional attitude on various grant- making institutions. Public money demands a unique and different consideration in funding artistic projects because this sector is less controlled and regulated than the governmental one. As it was mentioned earlier, the State exhibits very strict control of its funds and grants due to the great responsibility put on it by people and the sole notion that it is in control of making all important rulings in the country. Public agencies, on the other hand, are less firm due to the fact that they are endowed with considerable freedom of determination and establishment of new tendencies or approaches. These institutions tend to be more relaxed and usually solely concentrate on the definite process rather than the purpose of initial creation of the matter. For instance, many public arts agencies are not concerned with the overall state of political affairs in the country because all their attention is devoted to improving their process of funds distribution. Even though such attitude presents nothing wrong in its core nature, it shows that public money should be approached with great care and support from all parties. A troublesome issue of complete inability to cope with the situation “will come into effect in case of economic or government crisis because public institutions are not self-sufficient (as the State is) but fully depend on the donations, private investors, and government itself” (Douglas 64). That’s why, public arts grant- making organizations have to be regulated on the firmer basis in order to ensure the maximum smoothens of the process of helping various individuals or smaller institutions. Can the sphere of public art contrast artistic freedom with community standards, especially as these relate public art judged pornographic or sacrilegious? The Film “ Obscenity on Trial: The Mapplethorpe Museum Show” that was shown on HBO depicted retrospective of photographer and visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The images in the exhibit were largely critiqued by the art world in terms of overly formalist principles, with little application of the term of obscenity. The film, which was written as a guide and introduction to the exhibit, describes Mapplethorpe'’ work as follows: 1. There is a drama in each photograph; edges are used as the perimeters of a proscenium, with subjects strategically sited within those boundaries and caught at a moment of absolute stasis. Most sitters are portrayed frontally, aligned with the camera lens, in direct eye contact with the photographer and, in turn, the viewer. Nudes generally assume classical poses. 2. This is the language of formalism, a perspective that emphasizes the analysis of form over and above the issues of content or social context.
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The film is reacting to Mapplethorpe’s skill and creative decision-making as a photographer. Remarks range from comments about the composition of the photographs to comparisons of Mapplethorpe’s subjects to traditional forms, such as the classical pose. Regarding Mapplethorpe’s use of homoeroticism and sado-masochistic sexuality, the movie suggests that although his models often are depicted in uncommon sexual acts, the inhabitants of the photographs assume gestures governed by geometry, and they are shown against minimal backgrounds. The film turns, for support to Roland Barthes’s earlier writings about Mapplethorpe’s work. Barthes’s collection of notes on photography, Camera Lucida, identifies certain kinds of photographs as unary. Unary photographs capture the visual image of particular moments, but they do nothing more. They are flat photographs with singular interpretations. The photographer in the case of the unary photo is not an artist and imparts no artistic or creative decisions. Journalistic photography often exemplifies the concept of the unary pornographic or sacrilegious issue that would be classified as totally unacceptable otherwise. In all of the three sources, doesn’t matter if is it is a book or a film the conflict between a commitment to art and a commitment to using art to serve other public agendas is not just a biennial issue. In many of the multicultural, identity-based artistic works and exhibitions of the early nineties, there were layers of disjunction: between the art (non-Western in origin) and the site (often designed for modernism), between the art and many of its audiences, between the personal nature of some of the art and the representational or liberation causes the public opinion and judgement if you will, were asking the exhibition to serve. While the new biennials grow out of the climate that produced exhibitions like these, they also reflect the conflict between the commitment to and the use of art whose narrowness helped make multicultural exhibitions necessary. In New York, hardly anyone informed about art institutions is under the illusion that any of the city’s big museums cares first and foremost for art, no matter how brilliant and sustaining their exhibitions may be or how exemplary they may be in caring for the art entrusted to them. Governmental and public based programs serve institutional and board interests and agendas that are economic, social, and political as much as they are aesthetic. These interests, more than the needs of artists, or of contemporary art, are at the forefront of exhibition programming in powerhouse museums in the United States. Using art in the service of causes that may not be its own is a complicity accepted part of U.S. museum life. The news media not only refuse to question the ideological structures of big museums, but hold up some of them as models of aesthetic responsibility. The more blatant conflict that can exist between commitment to art and commitment to using art should be considered with this recent exhibition history and with museums in mind. Evidence to support the statements made earlier about the Influence and Power in Grants Distribution Decision Making. One might not know it from the political controversies that have attracted public attention, but the NEA has always favored the most venerable-and richest-cultural establishments over the esoteric, the shocking, and the avant-garde. A survey of funding patterns in 1985, 1990, and 1995 clearly reveals this preference. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City has been the single largest recipient of NEA funds, with annual grants between $800,000 and $900,000. Typical grants for other high-profile beneficiaries range from $200,000 to $350,000, awarded year after year and now incorporated into annual budgets. In theater, by far the biggest ongoing grants go to the major presenters and training centers, such as the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts ($305,000, on average, in 1985, 1990, and 1995), the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles ($251,000), the Guthrie Theater in Min- neapolis ($274,000), and the Yale Repertory Theatre ($167,000). This preference for elite establishments should not be surprising, since it is usually the larger, wealthier institutions that have the staff and resources to put together winning grant proposals. The higher the grant amount, the more this pattern holds true. The NEA’s differential treatment of arts institutions confirms economist Friedrich Hayek’s dictum that centralized authority inevitably favors the rich and well-educated because they have greater access to the sites and protocols of power. NEA support for music in the state of Pennsylvania at the height of the NEA’s prowess in 1985 emphatically illustrates this. Grants that year overwhelmingly favored the Philadelphia Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony, which received $290,000 and $280,000, respectively. All the remaining grants that year-to 28 Pennsylvania musical organizations-totaled $301,000. At first blush, six-figure grants to our most revered institutions may appear difficult to replace, and the potential damage from cuts quite dire. But on examination it is hard not to reach the opposite conclusion. The NEA’s largest grants are tiddlywinks to the big players in American culture. Whether the patron is pope, millionaire or modern community center, the artist working in an arena not bounded by personal conscience faces vexing questions about the relationship between artist and the larger society. Kramer thoughtfully tells the complex story of this white artist in a black and Latino community and how that environment informs Ahearn’s artistic vision. When that vision runs into strident criticism from African American and Latino residents and bureaucrats, Ahearn decides to dismantle the sculpture. To whom are publicly subsidized arts activities responsible? The arts fall into the area of humane education.
The study of history, the appreciation of great literature, the practice and criticism of the arts, the understanding of philosophical inquiry- these are the intellectual requirements of a people who would wisely govern themselves. Education in the arts is a necessary part of the training of rational citizens, who are necessary for the proper functioning of a democracy. There is no reason to believe that a democratic system of government, so-called, is any more favorable to the prevalence of art than the systems we call aristocratic, oligarchic, or totalitarian. Although art in itself has little concern with democracy, communism, or any other political system, a government can emphasize various aspects of cultural activities to enhance that very system. Art as propaganda, for example, has been an exceptionally useful tool in totalitarian governments throughout history. The compelling fact remains, however, that the process of art is indifferent, merely the non- political manifestation of the human spirit. Even though politicians may use it or abuse it for their ends, they can neither create it nor control it nor destroy it. The analysis of the concept of participation presented here can be applied to other spheres. In more practical terms, critics contend that government subsidy to the arts is not necessary to artistic achievement, arguing, from a historical point of view, that America’s most notable cultural achievements, and the expansion of its arts institutions, occurred prior to the 1960s, without the aid of government subsidy. Both the theoretical argument cited above and this more practical, historical argument are parts of a conceptual model of the ideal relationship between private and public sector funding of the arts, termed the private-sector-as-leader model. Finally, we need to remember how little American art has ever originated from government grants. Except for sculpture, where 19th-century heroic statuary by the likes of Augustus Saint Gaudens and Anne Whitney came from public commissions, virtually all our best music, literature, painting, dance, and theater sprang from unexpected or unpromising corners. For a long time, artists were itinerant figures, painting portraits and homesteads, staging plays and operas, giving recitals and readings, accumulating a tradition of hardship and irreverent individualism that persists in cultural memory-and reality-to this day. Can certain “publics” exercise a veto power over content matter? Extended arguments for or against government support of the arts in ancient Greece and the Jacksonian period are not examined, but major arguments for and against government’s involvement with the arts during the twentieth century are enumerated. Because this research is based on the hypothesis that the arts are good for society, an extensive examination of the importance of art to society is not provided. Much has already been written justifying the value of cultural pursuits; furthermore, the benefits of participation in the arts may not be a sufficient argument to convince the person who does not already believe that the arts are important to society. It is not wise to provide inspirational message proclaiming the virtues of the live performing arts and their crucial role in the enrichment of human existence. However, a brief description of the societal good argument used by twentieth- century arts advocates in their justification of government’s responsibility toward the arts is provided. In addition, a variety of early economic impact studies of the arts are examined, and survey research provides a profile of individuals whose work involves participation in both the arts and politics. The governmental- leader model stresses that public arts agencies’ decisions do, and should, guide philanthropic decisions in the private sector. It is argued that such guidance is, and should be, based on the expertise of public arts agencies’ grants evaluation panels in identifying those arts organizations and activities that merit support, in that corporations and foundations who seek to fund the arts do not have the background and expertise to make the aesthetic judgments necessary for sound grants decisions. “In addition, public support has added to our nation’s artistic sets in numerous ways”(Brenson, 137) This guidance gains significance from the fact that many programs of public arts agencies are designed to leverage private funding for arts organizations and activities. At a minimum, public arts agencies also follow the principle of not funding the total or even majority of the cost of any project, requiring a substantial private funding match to complement the arts agency grant. An artist should be profoundly committed to the effort to reintegrate art with life, or, in cultures where they have always been integrated, to continue to articulate and expand their connectivity. Sustained attention to the life of an object is no less of a moral act to me than sustained attention to situations and communities artists enable me to enter.
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