It’s hard not to have an ambivalent relationship with political power, no matter how modest. There’s some truth to the notion that the people who most crave it are least reliable when they have it; but no more truth than there is to the idea that those who are negatively oriented to power will never have any, to their detriment.
Barack Obama was such a surprise as a candidate because he broke the mold of the best and brightest eschewing politics out of distaste for the ordeals this ambivalence generates: the unquenchable suspicions, the river of little rewards and punishments, the risk of failure conditioned not on the merits but on the spin.
When ambivalence dominates anything as much as it does our view of politics, the whole enterprise takes on the aspect of a tightrope walk, or a tipsy late-night march down the white line. It’s almost irresistible to pull out the compass that takes as its true north the avoidance of offense, especially of offending the powerful. The counter-phobic tend to over-correct by blurting. Both stories are likely to have the same ending, though: hoist by your own words.
I find myself feeling for Rocco Landesman, the newly confirmed Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s hard to think of smaller quantum of political power than that presidentially appointed post, but he’s been in office for not much more than a week and he’s already managed to attract considerable attention for giving both offense and defense, neither to much positive effect.
Landesman is known for his intelligence and outspokenness. Since he attracted honors and built a fortune as a theatrical producer, both qualities have been seen as assets: quirk and chutzpah, engines of enterprise. Welcome to the public sector, where market assets can be public shortfalls.
First, he treated an interview with the New York Times as if it were a chat over cocktails with pals sharing his prejudices:
“I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman,” he said, referring to two of Chicago’s most prominent theater companies. “There is going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit.”
This would be a foolish statement in any context. Is it ever smart to admit ignorance, then offer an opinion grounded in that admission? It’s amazingly provincial, is it not, rhyming with the kind of chauvinism we heard when George W. Bush declared color war on the French? (I don’t know if the French have beer, but if they do, it’s not as good as Bud!)
It also reveals a stunning lack of sophistication about the meaning of “artistic merit.” I’ve been toiling in the art world for decades now, as you know, dear readers, so I’ve had unlimited opportunities to hear people from well-funded, red-carpet arts enterprises, both public and private, cast aspersions on the commitment to merit of artists who work in small towns, rural communities, inner cities, or other locales characterized, with dog-whistle condescension, as “democratizing.”
That species of complacent ignorance treats it as self-evident that better-funded institutions make better art. But even by those institutions’ own standards, they often strike out—arguably just as often as artists and groups with more modest budgets and locales. I have walked through a great many marble halls, passing third-rate paintings and sculptures whose chief merit—for the institution and the museum-goer alike—was in the spark of recognition evoked by their name-brand wall labels. Well-funded and well-intentioned plays and films close without recouping a fraction of their costs. More than once I have been led by a critic’s ringing praise to obtain theater tickets, then left at intermission—haven’t you?
No one sets out to make bad art, and contrary to elite prejudices, I have never met anyone seriously committed to making art who is indifferent to merit. On the other hand, the art world is choked with people who think their own prejudices ought to rule. In all realms, the successful tend to believe that their own superiority has brought them just desserts, entitling them to serene confidence in their judgments. But actually, the luck of the draw operates in all tax brackets.
For a couple of decades, I worked with a cooperative of filmmakers who banded together to distribute their work. Every six months, they screened a range of films submitted by new people who wanted to join the co-op and the collection. As with all art, some people loved what others hated. Some films were admitted with most members’ approval, and some squeaked through by one vote. Filmmakers never knew the final tally on their own works, just that they’d been approved or rejected. At every meeting, someone took an intense dislike to one of the submitted films, making an impassioned speech about standards and how accepting the film in question would reflect badly on the whole co-op.
Facilitating the discussion, it was sometimes a challenge to keep a straight face: nine times out of ten, the impassioned defender of quality had been admitted to the co-op by one vote—a vote preceded by someone else’s impassioned plea to uphold standards and vote the film down.
I’m all for standards and the right to judge by one’s own lights. Just not the illusion that prior success entitles you to dictate standards for everyone, or that your own judgments embody some universal truth.
When the Times interview with Rocco Landesman came out, I was glad to see him speak out for more funding and more recognition of artists’ work as important to the economy and national recovery. I hoped that seeing his own words in print, he would perceive the dog-whistle elitism in them and make it right.
But unfortunately, casual offense was followed by weak defense. I got a message from the Endowment a few days ago, linking me to a one-minute welcome message from the new NEA Chair. There he drops the dog-whistle terms intended to ameliorate his prior offense: “arts education,” “cultural vitality,” “freedom of expression….”
Then, oops!—”bringing the arts to all Americans,” working “with our partners to help bring quality arts programs to neighborhoods and communities across the country.” It’s possible he wasn’t aware of using the code-language of condescension again; you have to really understand cultural politics to perceive the difference between a missionary policy (bringing the best to the benighted) and one that embodies art’s democratic promise, the understanding that every community and every creator makes culture by infusing the raw materials of life with their gifts, everywhere life is found, money and prestige notwithstanding.
That’s when I started to feel for Landesman. It can’t be any fun to read from a teleprompter the rosary-like incantation that is supposed to reassure people who are watching so closely for signs of progress (or its opposite) that meaning is assigned to every breath. He looks so relieved when he gets through the script!
I really want Rocco Landesman to succeed. I really don’t want four or eight years of another leader at the NEA whose understanding of cultural policy runs the gamut from A to B. I really want him to meet the people, do the reading and watching, interrogate his own assumptions, so that he can speak authentically and powerfully of cultural democracy, leaving behind the snobbery that has so stunted our ability to perceive and support the public interest in art. There are smart people right in his own shop who can do a great deal to educate him.
There’s no winning the offense/defense game: it just goes on and on, one mishap leading to the next, until nobody cares anymore. Will Landesman keep playing till the clock runs out? Will he be one more NEA Chair who stumbles over his own prejudices and therefore does nothing of significance? The game is just beginning. He can seize the moment, recognize that the risk is worth taking (after all, he can always go back to Broadway if it doesn’t work out) and spend the time and energy needed to learn deeply, to think without preconception, and to represent with true integrity. Will he?