Toward A Progressive Arts Policy: The Partisanship Question

Back in May, I mused a bit on the difficulty of crafting an arts policy beyond the question of fund/not to fund. What I want to do over the next couple of weeks is to lay out some basic questions on the subject along with some initial thoughts as I start to pull my thinking together and shaping some of my reporting, something I think will obviously be a long process. Feel free to prod, poke, argue, send links, etc.

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to Ian David Moss, the research director at Fractured Atlas and the founding blogger behind Createquity. In the course of our conversations, he sent me a post he wrote a year and a half ago questioning whether or not it makes sense for the arts community to try to rebrand their issues as partisan issues. Ian writes:

What might this look like? As nonprofit organizations, most arts groups are limited in the amount of direct lobbying they can do, and they cannot endorse specific candidates. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about seeking a shift in the dialogue of the thought leaders on the left. I’m talking about making the arts a “progressive” issue in the same way that environmentalism, health care, reproductive rights, and labor are considered “progressive” issues. To be sure, this would lose us some fans and invite lots of confrontation, both of which are in a vacuum Very Bad Things. But it would bring with it an advantage, a huge, huge advantage: the machinery, infrastructure, and commitment of one of the two major political parties in the US–the one that at the moment just happens to have led in party identification among voters nationally for the past four years running. This is no small matter. For all the vitriol (and sometimes worse) that has been hurled at abortion-rights supporters since 1973, Roe v. Wade still stands. And where do you think the labor movement would be in this country without the strong support of Democrats through the years?

An alliance between the arts and the left makes a lot of sense on both sides. Most artists themselves identify as anywhere from moderately liberal to borderline Marxist, as do their core audiences…Part of the reason culture conservatives hate the NEA so is because so much art speaks to largely progressive groups: homosexuals, atheists, people of color, the sexually liberated, the alienated, the outsiders. One could even make an argument that art and creativity are inherently progressive values: they require and celebrate a capacity to think critically, to question convention, to consider different viewpoints. Is it time for us to come out of the political closet and show the world who we really are?

I think the obvious initial question to ask here is what the arts community would actually get if support for the arts as a public good, and as policies that promote and subsidize the production of more art, became a specifically Democratic issue. Obviously if there was no party in support of abortion access or policies that benefit organized labor, abortion might be even more unavailable than it is now, and the percentage of the workforce that has union representation would be smaller. But powerful outside groups have had to use hot pincers to obtain much of the support labor and women’s organizations have obtained from the Democratic lawmakers, and still experienced dramatic contractions of labor rights, union memberships, and abortion access. Throwing in with a political party may get the arts community access to machinery and infrastructure—but it would require arts organizations to build formidable new organizations and fundraising capacity to earn a seat at the party table, much less a favorable slot in the list of Democratic priorities.

Even if the arts community was willing to make that shift in priorities and in how they direct their fundraising efforts, it would still be a tough sell. “Authoritarians have always been the enemy of ‘degenerate’ art. What’s far more distressing is the unwillingness of progressives to defend it,” Ann Powers wrote in her classic “In Defense of Nasty Art.” “The reason for this hesitation is clear: We don’t know if we believe in this stuff, and even if we do, we don’t know how to deal with it.” I’ll say this over and over again, but it is so vastly easier to argue that something shouldn’t exist than to argue that something should exist even if we feel weird or outright bad about it. The “safe, legal, and rare” formulation is as much of a challenge as a defense of art we find truly unpleasant or downright morally objectionable*. This is a structural disadvantage progressive arguments face on dozens of issues. Art and artists are not alone, but it is a barrier to entry.

But most of all, if this is a good idea, and I remain undecided as to whether it is, I still think we need to define the broader arts agenda first, and to be dead sure there aren’t conservative allies who we’d lose if the arts got more partisan who we can afford to lose. Do advocates for arts education really want to walk away from Mike Huckabee’s support? Could David Koch be convinced to sign on to arts subsidy programs? Being inside the party structure can be helpful, but there are times when living outside of it can be an advantage.

*NB: Well worth reading, the AV Club’s Steven Hyden on what is morally objectionable in popular culture.