A Revolutionary Letter to Artists

Someone waved

some money in our faces and called it the N.E.A., and with one swift stroke shifted most discussion of art in America into an argument about money. (The adjacent argument about sexual depiction is only relevant as part of the tiff about money.) Artists were finally in the national mainstream, not because our art was any better, but because we were asking the only questions that Americans universally respect: "What is it worth? Who gets the money? How much?" The N.E.A. has transformed artists into just another special interest group. We've become beggars trying to convince people we despise (for let's not pretend we don't despise these politicians) that we're worthy of their largesse -- while they sneer with the satisfaction of having brought us down to their level. We see their sneers, and still we beg.

I think of Herman Melville working a day job and writing Billy Budd at night, after Moby Dick had been ignored and publishers had given up on him -- writing it because he had to, and sticking it in a drawer where it still lay when he died. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald writing Save Me the Waltz in a mental hospital, knowing her extraordinary book would not be taken seriously because she was crazy and "only" Scott Fitzgerald's wife. I think of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, playing with such brilliance in tiny clubs, for wretched wages, ignored both by the media and most of their own people because their music wasn't for dancing. I think of Henry Miller spending decades on books no one would print in his own country 'til he was an old man. I think of Billie Holiday singing no matter what trouble she was in, and Lenny Bruce dying of the fight to say in public what everyone said in private. I think of John Cassavetes mortgaging his home to produce films that few, to this day, have seen. I try to imagine any of them begging Jesse Helms for anything. And I'm ashamed of us.

In large publications and small, on cable access and Nightline, the talk of art is not of aesthetics, not of the mysterious and frightening act of creation, much less of the revolutionary function art performs simply by daring to exist on its own terms. No, again and again, it's all about the N.E.A. and PBS and how much money artists should get from the tax pool -- while the young are treated to the spectacle of artists lying like politicians when we pretend our art somehow supports the status quo. (Then the young, white and black alike, send gangsta rap to the top of the charts, preferring songs of murder to the art of hypocrites.)

All right then, let's talk about money. What are we truly asking the government for when we're asking for its money? It takes a law (an act of Congress) to give tax money to the arts. The structure of any law, the principle on which it operates, is far more important than that law's specific purpose. Its structure, not its content, creates what lawyers call "precedent." Precedent is what a given law makes possible in terms of other laws -- it's the set of values that your particular law buys into. What does this government's "support of the arts" buy into?

Fact: Most Americans don't give a shit about most contemporary art. (Whether their judgment is sound or not, time will tell.) Fact: Many Americans are hostile to the values expressed in much contemporary art -- and rightly so. For our art threatens their values, their aesthetics, their religions. We, too, are hostile to what threatens us, so we can't blame them for their hostility. When we ask taxpayers to support our art, we are claiming a "right" to the money of people who disagree with us -- disagree with our morals, our styles of life, and the articles of our faith. If it's fine for us to demand their money for what they do not believe in, then isn't it just as fine for them to demand our money for what we do not believe in?

When we fight for the N.E.A., that is precisely the principle we're fighting for: the principle that the taxpayer does not have a personal choice in how his or her money is spent -- whether it's spent on art, new weapons, or dumping nuclear waste. When we fight for the N.E.A. we are fighting for the principle of using other peoples' money for something they don't believe in -- of taking their money by force of law. (Which ultimately, in this system, is the force of guns.) In short: When we fight for the N.E.A., we are fighting for the very principle that oppresses us.

It's no wonder the politicians sneer. They may be vile but they're not fools. Not only do we come begging; not only do we try to placate them by reducing our deepest passions to their conception of money (while they know they're not going to give us much, if anything, and so they have the added pleasure of watching us crawl for nothing) -- but they can't help sneering at how our requests affirm their authority, their right to continue their crimes. For I submit that to take something from anyone for a cause they do not believe in, is a crime -- no matter how much we may believe in the cause. And so we artists have joined the long line of petty thieves who are making this society unlivable.

Throughout history, art has received patronage only when it has supported the fundamental assumptions of its patrons. Shakespeare was supported by aristocrats, and he (though he was not an aristocrat himself) presented a vision in which only aristocrats had subtle feelings -- in which only they were the "stars," as we would say today. If you want to support the fundamental assumptions of the people who now tend to have money, you'll probably do well. But, in general, art that is subversive to its era (the Impressionist painters, the Surrealist poets, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday) are only supported by a later era. Sometimes it happens that a genuinely subversive movement -- the rock & roll of the Fifties and Sixties, the Russian novels of the 19th century -- is supported by the people. But not often. Usually, when great artists are supported by the people (be they Raymond Chandler or Bruce Springsteen, Willa Cather, or Marilyn Monroe) something in their work is in sync with the public's sentimentality or fantasy, or at least with some segment of the public affluent enough to buy art -- whether the artist intends it or not. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but that is what makes their money, not their artistry. Without this quality in their work, no great writer or original thinker has earned a decent living.

Will a revolution change this?

Not likely.

Any society will need to be questioned and challenged by its artists -- even under a just economic system. Any people will support art with which they can, in some way, identify -- and will make things tough for art that makes them uncomfortable. And any society will have some seekers who search the depths of art in order to explore their own depths, but these will always be few. What's the point then?

Fakers and beggars aside, the real artists can't help but make art -- so in a way there's no need to make a point. They may have only a few good years, then exhaust themselves or flame out, like Zora Neal Hurston and Hart Crane; or they may work in obscurity while they live, like Emily Dickinson and Thelonious Monk; or they may achieve a sustaining fame, like Bob Dylan and Gena Rowlands. Or they may be among the thousands of us who work as hard as we can for as long as we can, then disappear utterly -- but who form the source from which art grows, the concerted yearning and effort out of which a few emerge. Yet all share a dedication, for as long as they can stand it, to living at the quick of human experience, and expressing that experience with the materials at hand and in terms of their own fragile lives -- a way of living that can never be secure, no matter who does or doesn't support it, for artists must always be open to the unpredictable in themselves and in their surroundings. And because this private and unasked-for act is the demand they make upon themselves (inviting you to join them if you dare), they keep the possibility of revolution and justice alive in impossible times.

For art is justice. Like justice, it is founded on the premise that any human experience can be sacred. And that is exactly what revolution is founded upon: that the privileged and the lucky are not the whole story, even if every movie and magazine insists they are, for all human experience is sacred. Then it follows, somewhere down the line, that no one has the right to the suck from another's sacredness, to profit unfairly from another's labor. These concepts are wedded to each other. Which is why so many American artists now, in their whining for other peoples' money, are failing the future -- and why, for art to truly be part of that future, we artists must reclaim our independence, our dignity, no matter how dangerous and precarious that is. If a society is so demoralized that even its artists are demanding to be supported by the very corruptions that are suffocating us, then there will be no marching in the streets, much less dancing in the streets. n

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