Taking Culture Out of the Culture Wars

So it seems that the Big Government blog and Big Hollywood blog have been making big noise in the blogosphere about the NEA, the White House and artists. They have turned a small conversation to encourage “volunteerism in America” into a conspiracy of grants for political support. Of course, anyone who has any real working knowledge about the NEA knows how distorted and false these allegations are.

A meeting at the White House with community arts activists, arts funders, and “regular” artists who were not rich and famous seemed like the opportunity for the serfs to dine in the lord’s castle. How glorious. One minute, we’re elated that someone in government (anyone…could have been Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians or Independents) recognized the importance of artists at the community level. The invitation alone elevated artists who work with school kids, with the poor and with the elderly and gave credibility to community storytellers, visual artists whose public works reflect the times in which we live and musicians inspired by giants calling for social justice like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. How exciting that someone was paying attention, at last.

And the next minute, we’re crooks.

The irony, of course, is that these political conservatives (I guess that’s who they are) are not really concerned about a small group of artists and a small government agency. These are not the public policy issues you focus on if you’re concerned about government ethics or propriety. What these folks are concerned about is getting back in power. When the side you support has power, you have power. It’s not about artists or the NEA, it’s about headlines that rally the base (at anyone’s expense), raise the bucks and point the finger. It’s the sad state of affairs our country finds itself in at the moment.

We are proud that artists were invited to the White House and not just to perform for fancy people in fancy clothes but to talk; to talk about what we, as Americans, can do for our country; to talk about how creativity can be the catalyst for renewal and revitalization of our economically depressed urban cities and our rural landscapes. We’re proud of that and no “big whatevers” can take that away.

The culture wars these days are not about culture. It’s a war about power and about winning. We need to call it what it is. And we need to continue with our work that unapologetically aspires to brighten the lives of all Americans. We need to be smart in this political game, understand its purpose and act accordingly. It’s not about the art.