Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Protest, censorship, civil disobedience and the arts

It is a happy accident that in the same week that Barack Obama is sworn in as President, the Arts Council kicks off its NEA/Big Read project, and the final 10 artists for the Orton/Arts Council "Art of Action" project are selected. The first activity needs no more explanation than to say that it is the culmination of the centuries'-long journey, sparked by much protest and civil unrest, towards a collective enlightment by the white establishment here in the United States. The second event is a national project focusing here in Vermont on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a fantastic novel about censorship and one person's journey towards enlightenment. The third is a project whose purpose is to engage the Vermonters in a broad and provocative "discussion" of Vermont's future through art.

The Obama Inauguration needs no more commentary by me than I made in an earlier post in November 11 (see "Election Reflection" below). Ray Bradbury wrote his novel in the context of the Nazi purges of Jewish culture in World War II and the post-WWII Cold War during which Stalin burned hundreds of thousands of books. The Communist witch hunts of the 1950s--an era that saw thousands of artists lose their livelihoods to vague and unsubstantiated claims of communism and anti-Americanism also fed Bradbury's concern about what happens to a society when it stops reading, stops caring about its culture and history.

How timely is it, then, that we return to this classic work and reflect on the role of civil disobedience and on the role of the arts in reflecting the essence of mankind's spiritual journey through life--even as we celebrate the election of our first black US president? I think it's perhaps more than a remarkable coincidence.

There must always be a place for public funding for the arts not just for projects that serve a greater "community" good or that increase public access to art and culture, but for projects and art work that is fundamentally controversial and focused on what we are NOT paying attention to in our popular culture. Why?

Everyone who has an income pays taxes. Everyone. Not just people like me and others who think and believe like me, but people who come from other countries and other cultures. Whether you're straight or gay, smart or dumb, interesting or boring, educated or ignorant, tall or short--if you have an income and you pay taxes you have (at least in concept) the right to have your artistic and cultural views reflected in what is supported by our public arts agencies.

Granted, this rarely ever happens anymore. We haven't had a really good controversy in publicly funded institutions since the Chris Ofili episode at the Brooklyn Museum (remember? Mother Mary and elephant dung were key ingredients) some 10 years or so ago. As I recall, it put Mayor "What's so special about being a community organizer?" Giuliani on the map for all of about five minutes until he realized that his office could ill afford to pull the plug on supporting cultural institutions--but that's another story altogether.

Why is this happening? What subliminal current is coursing beneath society's feet and causing us to stand up and elect an African American President, to select a work by Bradbury protesting the burning of books, and to create a project in which the arts is used to provoke civil action?

What spiritus mundi like Yeat's rough beast is slouching its way towards Washington on January 20th, towards Burlington on January 24th, and towards Montpelier on January 29th, to be born, and why? Perhaps it is time to reclaim the turf that was taken away from us by the Congress elected in 1994, and by the NEA cuts in 1995; turf on which the arts built sometimes astonishing and sometimes astonishingly offensive (to me!) works that reflected the best and the worst of American culture.

So is it a happy accident that these three activities are facing off in a short, 10-day period? Or is it the result of some collective, pent-up outrage finally being released?

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