General 8-18-2003

The Column: The Thousand Points of Blight

Andrew Knighton proposes a new strategy for artists faced with this year's draconian funding cuts.

Andrew Knighton

A kind of bittersweet blurb recently came across the Associated Press wire. It read:

“In a June 30 story about government funding of the arts, The Associated Press reported erroneously that President Bush in his budget for fiscal 2004 asked Congress for $118.5 billion for the National Endowment for the Arts. Bush’s request was for $118.5 million.”

It is tempting to take flight into fantasies about retracting so many other things that the AP has reported lately, but the issue raised by the correction in fact demands serious, immediate attention. Its two short sentences offer an inadvertent glimpse of the gap between how things are and how they could be. But if the news about arts funding that the correction delivers indicates a generalized state of artistic emergency, it calls not for wishful thinking, but rather for the devising of a cultural strategy.

The evisceration of government arts funding is, of course, not exclusive to the federal level. Despite the protests of at least a thousand people at the capitol in February, Minnesota predictably placed a disproportionate burden of the statewide belt-tightening on arts producers and institutions: a 32 percent rollback in funding for the State Arts Board. That cut would have succeeded in reducing the state’s once-vaunted arts outlays to a figure more in keeping with national averages, except that the cuts elsewhere have been in some cases even more rash. Last year, 42 states saw reductions in arts funding, and this year’s round of proposed reductions has seen attempts to completely eliminate state arts funding in Arizona and New Jersey; last week’s news brought with it the horrifying word of the near-total dissolution of California’s state arts council, its budget slashed by 95 percent. Nathanael West’s dictum about California being a place where people go to die looks more apt than ever.

It would seem that unless an artist moonlights as a terror war snitch with inside information about Saddam’s whereabouts — or is working on a commission for Halliburton — our political functionaries really cannot be bothered by the needs of culture. The priorities are simply elsewhere: no more transparent illustration is available than that of the attention lavished on a couple of smoldering oil fields in southern Iraq while the national library and museum were surrendered to the post-war free-for-all, their collections looted and destroyed. We keep getting told that, like the sprouting refinery plumes that announce the renewed momentum of Iraq’s oil industry, a thousand points of light will soon sputter into flame here at home, illuminating yet another Bush administration’s cultural policy with the robust glow of faith-based loopholes and charitable philanthropy from the rich and guilty.

But again the numbers are harrowing. Charitable giving in the last years of the 1990s dropped ten percent statewide, and on the national scale, where the total amount currently hovers around twelve billion dollars, the impact of the recession has not only diminished the aggregate sums, but has also transformed the way in which money is given. Increasingly, foundation money is no longer distributed through immediate good-faith transfusions, but through more conservative disbursements staggered over the long term. This is part of the reason why — despite the crowing of optimistic interpreters of economic data about some recent statistical tidbits — a lag between the promised economic recovery and the consequent cultural recovery will continue to undermine the vitality of charitable giving for years to come. The arts sector will, unfortunately, be among the last to recover, if it ever does.

By way of rhetorical comparison, one might consider the way that other Western countries appear to recognize the positive results to be derived from arts spending (the Netherlands ponies up some $400 million a year). Even in strictly economic terms, heaps of evidence demonstrate that such funding ultimately pays dividends as a stimulus to community development, small business enterprise, and general quality of life. One is therefore tempted to conclude that the situation in the States is not merely an economic issue but also, crucially, a matter of the distribution of cultural power. Any situation in which cultural producers find themselves more dependent on a dwindling set of resources directly consolidates that power. In this respect it is instructive to note that the budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities this year included a special $25 million package — a huge sum, given the numbers we’re dealing with — dedicated to a project called “We the People.” An effort to alleviate what the Bush administration considers a dangerous case of “historical amnesia,” the initiative seeks to revitalize educational programs for the study and understanding of American history and identity. Rest assured that this task is in capable hands — the press release announcing the initial “We the People” reading list was issued under the imprimatur of that noted defender of cultural freedoms, Lynne Cheney.

So much for the facts; what may matter more is interpreting and using them. Claims that you can’t have art without arts funding do have some justification in the grisly economic realities of late capitalism. But often this argument serves as a partial evasion of the underlying issue: we have to put our reformist moaning aside and confront the idea that maybe the chief problem faced by the arts right now isn’t the lack of funds, but rather the lack of imagination. You don’t have to be a Nietzschean to feel queasy at the indignity of waiting around for a charitable handout. And given the hostility of many cultural producers to the perceived taint of economic complicity, what better time than now to explore new ways of decisively severing ties with Green George and his cronies?

The kind of strategy I’m talking about here is thus not one that demands the reinstatement of funding and state recognition of the arts. That approach alone only means more dependence on institutions, diminished cultural freedom, and guaranteed future disappointments. What I want to advocate is an ongoing and general project geared toward increasing the autonomy and self-determination of arts communities — the beginnings of a worldview in which we learn to support each other and validate our own work. While money may be in short supply, other indispensable resources — technological, communicative, social — are more abundant than ever.

As Holland Cotter pointed out in the New York Times back in January, one possible way of dealing with these straitened times is by embracing the collectivization of artistic practice. Such a strategy not only diffuses economic imperatives among loosely affiliated producers, but furthermore promises to introduce new models of artistic community in the spirit of the countercultural projects of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from institutions and the market. Today, thanks to the increased mobility of people and ideas through communication and transportation networks, these collectivizations can, for the first time in human history, be truly global, mobile, and immediate.

I’d like to add to Cotter’s argument that the most important part of this strategy, especially in a culture like ours — so steeped in myths about individuality, romantic genius, and self-interest — is also the simplest: accepting that art is always fundamentally collective anyway. Art requires a network of producers, critics, institutions, and spectators to be what it is. It is only by amplifying these inherent collective strengths that we can do something more than muddle through the current economic squalls, and instead build a community that is stronger and more responsive to our desires. To grace my inaugural column for with a more personal note: I’m looking forward to being a component in that collective machinery, writing once a month about the relationships between society, culture, and the arts. And, hopefully, my next installment of The Column will succeed in getting underway without need for a correction.