Last Wednesday NCAC and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School were joined by Bill Ivey, Beka Economopoulos, Magdalena Sawon, Nato Thompson, Martha Wilson, and moderator Laura Flanders of GritTV, to discuss public funding of the arts, free speech and self-censorship, and the impact of the Decency Clause. (Check out their bios here.)
In an interview with Laura Flanders just prior to the panel, NCAC Director of Programs Svetlana Mintcheva explained how arts institutions have increasingly perceived controversy as “a dirty word,” for fear that controversy over artwork would result in funding being eliminated. You can watch Laura Flanders’ interview with Bill Ivey and Svetlana Mintcheva on GritTV , here:
The panel, “Survival vs. Autonomy: Public Funding of the Arts, Free Speech and Self-Censorship,” began with a discussion about how the boundaries of the permissible have changed over the last 20 years. According to Bill Ivey, if the NEA would implement the actual words of the Decency Clause in its most literal sense – which was to ensure that
artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which [grant] applicants are judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public
– good change could actually come into effect [emphasis added]. Instead, art has become politicized. Ivey later reminded us, “As annoying as the Culture Wars were, at least we were having national conversations and they weren’t commodified.”
Among the topics discussed, Flanders asked, “Is it even good to have government funding?” But the panelists appeared disenchanted by the idea. “I’m too old and wise to ask for it because it would be a wasted effort,” says Postmasters Gallery owner Magda Sowan. Martha Wilson of Franklin Furnace noted the irony in that it’s easier to obtain funding to preserve slides of Karen Finley’s groundbreaking performance than it would be to fund the same performance today.
So what do we do?
Art should be smarter, said Beka Economopolus, and Nato Thompson pushed for creating artistic infrastructures that are community-based, such as FEAST. But the real issue, Ivey said, is that “policy engages culture piecemeal,” and the architecture of the current cultural political system “stands in the way of creating legitimate artwork.” A new kind of government agency, he recommended, should focus on the architecture of a more unified system but “keep its hands off [artistic] content.”