Oops! Big oops. The conference call between the White House and the National Endowments for the Arts has dealt damage to the reputation of both the Obama administration and the NEA. Details of the conference call were made public through release of a transcript and audio on the BigHollywood website. On the call White House staffer Buffy Wicks thanked the artists for all the work they had done together the past two years. And NEA staff member Yosi Sergeant gave advice on where artists applying for grants could focus their efforts–on four areas identified as priorities including health care, education and the environment.
What’s the problem with all this? For some, they wouldn’t see a problem, but the idea of spending tax money on artists and in the process of determining who will get tax money and who won’t suggesting how they could help the administration carry its key messages, is, well, just a little stinky. There are a whole lot of people who don’t really like the idea of spending tax dollars on funding artists anyways and this will give them as much fodder as Mapelthorpe did a number of years ago. In that way, this conference call is immensely damaging to the NEA.
But it is also damaging to the Obama administration in a perhaps more insidious way. Asking artists to direct their work toward political causes or issues, and tying even remotely indirectly to securing funding, is dancing with propaganda. Propaganda and the intentional high-jacking of a nation’s cultural apparatus is what we expect from totalitarian regimes. Chavez comes to mind as does those German and Russian bad guys from 70 years ago. But we don’t expect this kind of thinking from an ethical, democratic, elected official. Again, something stinky here.
How is the White House dealing with this? Good and bad. White House spokesperson Bill Burton did the president no favors by offering this:
“The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement. “To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it.”
That doesn’t even come close to anything like a sincere apology and recognition as to what this looks like. On the good side, the news headlines are filled with stories about the White House issuing new guidelines to agencies in awarding federal grants. That’s also only half good. NEA is not any agency. We should not need clarification about ethical behavior in cases like this–I suspect the guidelines we had were plenty clear. Obama needs some Obama magic to deal with this which no doubt will fill the conservative airwaves for a while even with Acorn in their sights. He should fire those involved and send a clear message that their actions did not reflect his view of how federal grants should be doled out and neither do they reflect his view of how the White House should deal with artists.