Arts funding: It's all fixed (and everyone prefers it that way)

The trouble with government arts grants

8 minute read
Yeats: Great poet, atrocious citizen.
Yeats: Great poet, atrocious citizen.
Two decades ago I heard the novelist David Slavitt suggest to a stunned panel of regional experts that the way to support art was to give the money to one man and let him pick the winner(s). Period. No screwing with paperwork, no task forces or committees. No accounting measures based on how politicians misspend taxpayer money and designed to dog the way artists spend theirs. Pick somebody who knows what's what this year and hand over the checkbook. Give him or her a deadline and vanish.

The crowd was amused until they realized Slavitt was serious. Then they were mostly appalled at the idea that artists be treated like members of a meritocracy they imagine themselves to constitute anyway. But it made and makes glorious sense and would lead to the elimination of a problem faced by every writer who enters a grant competition or seeks a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts: the empanelling of "blind judges," i.e., people in the arts hired to judge other people in the arts.

Since the arts community is small, however, blind judging is more like blind dating. Rule #1: There is no such thing as blind judging in arts competitions. Just because you blindfold a dog doesn't mean it can't smell you coming.

In the arts pool there are not only fewer people but also a higher percentage of the needful. More to the point, there is no art competition that a conscientious artist won't attempt to fix, and to think otherwise is like believing that the five hungriest dogs in the neighborhood won't fight viciously for the same bone.

Art isn't democratic

Writers and artists generally know that democracy may be an equal playing field but that art is a palace run by tyrants and situated, Vatican-like, in the midst of that field. Beliefs and voting records hardly matter. Artists pursue their own idiosyncratic and openly secular vision, and art itself has no politics. It is the fullest expression of a need for total creative control— an impulse that's anything but social or democratic.

Poets and painters know that society will never owe them anything but its traditional damning indifference. If you scratch an artist you'll find a fascist, as Dante astutely perceived when he situated the palace of the seven liberal arts outside the gates of Hell.

Even if a competition isn't brokered in advance, an artist will want it to be— in his favor. Blind judging is a great idea as long as you're pulling numbered ping-pong balls out of a tube. Artists are always perpetual students as well as born thieves. They see style in details like a cadence or a brushstroke. They look at the world for style and nuance, not plot points. Yeats's inner music was so strong that when he tried to read Wordsworth aloud it came out, his friend the American poet Ezra Pound said, sounding like Yeats.

Mozart at Auschwitz

If these observations sound like yet another rant against the government and especially the NEA, it's not— only on the way they come to their decisions. No doubt the NEA does good. The problem is that the artist's concept of goodness is aesthetic, not moral. From Andres Serrano's Piss Christ to Mozart— who was being played on the Victrolas in Auschwitz while smoke poured from its chimneys— art has always been majestically alienated from the daily disturbances we call our moral lives.

Thus artists appalled by public hunger have no trouble accepting a cash award that will alleviate only their hunger. People win prizes based on standards valued by the prize-givers, and deserving writers and artists, given the laws of chance, have no doubt won NEA grants. Deserving bricklayers and plumbers, given steeper odds, have won state lotteries. But for artists a lottery is tantamount to transformation into mere consumers— a reminder that they are mere citizens just like everyone else.

Let me pass in silence over the adjudicatory process behind the forever goddamed Pew Fellowships awards, possibly the single most mind-bending process since the invention of stink.

OK, let's not. Here's a true story of a Pew grantee of years past.

A phone call to the Pew

A former colleague of mine happened to notice that the Pew Fellowships offered no category for the art he produced. So he picked up the phone and called the Pew and asked for one of the big shots. Short conversation ensues, colleague presses case, big shot is so moved that a category is created on the spot, and big shot invites colleague to submit work. Several months later my colleague— who probably deserved the $50,000 anyway— gets the call from Pew and throws a big party.

Private grants— the Pew Fellowships aside— are different from NEA grants and clearly better. Their superiority is based on their independence from the rarefied aesthetic politics of those invited by the government to hand out our money. Since money is as fungible as dust, the argument that taxpayers "shouldn't support art" is deliciously bogus— like insisting that your grass shouldn't grow into my yard or your snowblower shouldn't blow snow onto my windshield. Government money buys many things I dislike, and the amount spent on art in the first place is a pittance—a tip.

A friend on the panel

Rule #2: Art is and must be overdetermined by human subjectivity. Most art contests are implicitly fixed in the first place because taste is never objective. I myself, some 20 years ago, received several small grants from the state where I then resided. At the time I was convinced that somebody on that state arts panel either knew me or owed me a favor. I had good reason for that suspicion: A woman I knew from years earlier, who'd published nothing up to that point, had won an NEA grant the same year that agency empanelled a former college teacher of hers— the same year it overlooked several other writers with books to their credit.

Only the naive assume that funding agencies know what they're doing. Back in the early '90s the NEA's acting chair, Imelda Radice, made the news when she overrode her panelists and refused to authorize grants "of a sexual nature" that she simply disagreed with.

I'm appalled as anyone else by such blockheaded censorship, but I'd still argue that poor Imelda wasn't and isn't the problem, at least not the whole problem. She was a time-server working for the wrong foundation. What good will it do to remind her that Ulysses was confiscated and banned (the British thought it was German code) or that Huckleberry Finn was, and still is, removed from tax-supported bookshelves (it contains the word "nigger")? Why remind her that Sappho was the first lesbian and Catullus a pornographer by his society's contemporary standards? Imagine Aristophanes' Frogs, where a character defecates on stage, funded by the NEA. Or Nabokov's masterpiece, Lolita, getting past this crowd.

Hart Crane's lucky break

Paid judges are small tyrants working for bigger tyrants; and except when the tyrant is a faceless bureaucracy, some of them did good things. Maecenas, Malatesta, Guggenheim, Pew. None of these patriarchs, as a pal of mine would have put it, was necessarily what you call a nice person. (Old Man Pew, as a near contemporary of his once cracked, was no friend of Jews.) Certainly these founding tycoons didn't win their spot in heaven until they decided to do something with their money other than have it reproduce itself.

Thus the Guggenheim Foundation awarded a fellowship to the heretofore mildly successful poet Hart Crane in 1928, the year that gave birth— some would say mistakenly— to The Bridge. That fellowship had nothing to do with Crane's minority sexual status (he was gay), lousy education (high school dropout) or, for that matter, his actual need (his father invented the Life Saver candy).

Why vote for McCarthy?

Identity politics has introduced a wholly new connotative wing into the category minority— something I find fascinating, since no minority is smaller than the one an artist or a poet occupies. Why did I cast my first vote for Gene McCarthy 40 years ago except that, as my wife reminded me, it might be my only chance to vote for a poet?

Every other year or so I come into professional contact with Yeats through his Autobiographies, possibly the most disturbing and valuable life-writing ever done by a great poet. "Intellectual freedom and social equality are incompatible," Yeats said, speaking as an Irishman who had matured his Irish vision in a borrowed language.

The poet was a fascist

Yeats too wasn't necessarily what you'd call a nice man. He supported fascism and the savage eugenic policies that emerged in the 1930s and culminated in the holocaust; he felt nothing but contempt for the "working man"; he found Walt Whitman's work ultimately lacking "the vision of evil"— the sense of life as a constant struggle. Naturally, Yeats abhorred democracy.

It's possible that no truly vital art will emerge until artists and poets, especially, stop being consumers. At the same time, artists—and poets, especially— need contact with governance that is more vital, more direct than what you gain through the filing of grant applications, which is a consumer's reflex.

A consumer is a statistical entity defined by purchasing power. A citizen is something different. For an artist to be the former is as deadly as the consumer's forgetting that he is not really the latter. It is what continues to make the grotesque difference.♦

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