What We Mean When We Talk About "The Arts"

Again and again I feel disappointed in and embittered by the national and local dialogues about art these days.

First, the bright side (whic is still pretty dim): when the NEA cut all of its fellowships to individual artists after the “culture wars” of the 1990s, the only two disciplines who continued to receive this prestigious funding were jazz musicians and writers. An interesting choice, when you think about it. The other disciplines were cut after artists like Robert Mapplethorpe photographed African American men in the nude, in various ways, some with fetish gear. The photographs are stunning and unapologetically sexual in nature. Then there was Piss Christ, the sculpture in which a crucifix was placed in a jar of urine, and the performance artist who, while HIV-positive, engaged in acts of cutting on a stage and then floated blood-soaked cloths out over the audience.

The NEA’s decision to retain jazz and literature fellowships in this context seems to imply that the least controversial/most palatable artists work these disciplines.

I will return to this point shortly.

I attended a grant panel discussion involving the disbursement of some tax funds to arts organizations in support of specific projects or performances. I had the good fortune to listen to the panel discuss ballet organizations, a society dedicated to the preservation of barbershop quartet music, and a local cutting-edge theatre group as well as a literary organization.

None of the arts groups were as criticized or reviled as the literary group. “I searched for these poets on the New York Review of Books website,” one panelist said, “and I didn’t get any results. They must not be well known.” The artists in question included a Guggenheim/NEA fellow with 13 books. Another was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Another panelist doubted the choice of venues. “I’ve heard beautiful words spoken in a warehouse,” she noted. “I don’t know why they have to pay for a venue like this for just a reading.” Finally, a panelist concluded, “I got out my calculator and realized that the investment here is $30 per person even though the event itself is free. That just seems really unreasonable for an event that only features a reading and a Q&A session.”

These comments were only the tip of the iceberg. I have a whole slew of zingers tossed out by the panel, but I’ll reserve them because they might reveal the identities of the granting organization and the applicant organization.

Contrast this with their discussion of the ballet, for example, where tickets cost individuals more then $30 and performances consist of—well, they just consist of performances, don’t they? Without context for the art, discussions with the artists, etc. Or the fact that the barbershop quartet group was made up entirely of white senior citizen men—and, by extension, implied the artform was a tradition of white culture—sparked not a single comment at all.

I feel strongly that most Americans perceive literature as something created by dead people. That somehow, these little artifacts pop up in our bookstores and become classics. People don’t believe important literature is still being written in their lifetime because for some reason, the assessment of literary merit, by the wider culture, is posthumous or, at the most optimistic, gray-haired.

That’s why the NEA felt okay continuing to fund artists. Because we don’t rock boats, we don’t push boundaries. Both untrue. And books that do push boundaries? Easily banned by school boards, libraries, etc. We don’t ban other arts as frequently as we ban books. Why is that?

Literature suffers from the same dichotomy that polarizes film audiences—that the majority of publications, like blockbusters, are published based on their ability to sell enormously. Since the most people have the greatest degree of contact with “popular” literature and cinema, it eclipses the rest of the products out there. Art film, like literary fiction and poetry, exists in shadows and alleyways, shunned by masses and harbored like persecuted fugitives by a small contingent of believers. (Please note that something popular can also be literary, although this is exceptional.)

I don’t know how to correct this except by direct advocacy. I know that many writers out there are loathe to discuss their artistic life with strangers (often with good reason!), but isn’t it critical we let the world know that writers are alive and well, publishing books and shaping new generations of writers? We need to get writers out of the office and into the community where people can interact with them, be enriched by them, and understand that literary art isn’t historical by nature—it’s ultimately one of the most contemporary forms of art there is, that it crosses lines between performance and object, that it can be both public and private, that it appeals broadly and narrowly.

Because no one will do it for us.

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