Isaw a funny clip on YouTube, a fairly lengthy rant by Penn — the talkier one of Penn & Teller — addressing the role and impact of the National Endowment for the Arts on “famous artists.” (You can watch it at youtube.com/watch?v=s-lHAkX8sLM if you’re interested). Apparently, the NEA’s ruined them. Back in the day, he maintains, famous artists had to respond to market forces, hawking their celebrity to remain solvent. Salvador Dali made a guest appearance on the popular Cold War-era TV show What’s My Line, for instance, and Penn rhapsodizes about a commercial collaboration in the early ’80s between Amiga Computers and Andy Warhol, wherein the artist used an early computer to render a portrait of Debbie Harry. Famous artists nowadays, he reasons, would never do anything as larky and accessible as gameshow performance, or as innovative as computer-assisted celebrity portraiture (?) : No, now they’re all grant-chasing, ivory-tower effetes, enabled by guv’mint money to make incomprehensible work that nobody in her right mind would want to buy.
There’s an amusing argument in there somewhere — it’d be fun to watch, say, Jenny Holzer giving ’em epigraphic hell on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, or maybe Carolee Schneemann and Kehinde Wiley teaming up for The Amazing Race (vs. Björk and Matthew Barney! Would somebody please get on that?) But for the vast majority of NEA fund recipients, fame and fortune aren’t in the cards — for example, it was conservative objection to grants for the “NEA Four” that launched them into national media prominence (see sidebar), not the checks themselves. Most NEA funds go to educational and community institutions, to shore up the Alaska Native Heritage Center or inspire rural communities with live chamber music. Here in San Antonio, the Southwest School of Art & Craft and Artpace both received NEA grants in 2010; Artpace got $30,000 to provide contemporary-art education for the students at SAISD, and SWS received a grant of $35,000 to fund visiting artists who approach traditional artmaking methods in innovative ways. Other 2010 NEA grants are going toward such ivory towers of postmodern snootiness as a program for nature-based family art days in the Bronx, San Francisco’s pioneering Galería de la Raza, and free art instruction for inner-city kids in Chicago.
So that’s what we call a “framing device,” setting you up for what we call an “experiential” story. Which is: For 11 days in May, I participated in the 2010 NEA/USC Annenberg Arts Journalism Fellowship in Theater and Musical Theater, along with 24 other arts journalists from around the country. We convened on Los Angeles from all over the country — from the Catskill mountains of New York State, from Duluth, Minnesota, from Washington, D.C., and Eugene, Oregon. We came from diverse demographics and heritages — 20s to 60s, straight, gay, or somewhere in between, white, African-American, South Asian, Jewish, (formerly) Mormon, Italian, Filipino, Haitian, Puerto Rican, etc. Some of us were section editors of alternative weeklies, some were daily newspaper people, others were freelance critics, several were bloggers or radio folk, and some were a combination of all the above. I can’t describe 25 people. Take me out for a beer, and I won’t shut up about them.
Here’s what we all had in common: We didn’t make much money, but would rather write for little than do something else for more dough; we felt nervous about the bizarre current journalism landscape, and the mass death of newspapers; and we wanted to learn how to cover our communities’ art and theater scenes using new media, technology, and — most importantly — by writing better. To that end, the program coordinator, Sasha Anawalt, director of Arts Journalism Programs at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, orchestrated a roster of master arts writers to kick our asses. These included New Yorker theater critic (and longtime staff writer) Hilton Als ( a huge hero and influence of mine); Jeff Weinstein, a popular blogger, a New Yorker contributor, and former managing editor of ArtForum; Doug McLennan, the founder of ArtsJournal.com, the art world’s leading aggregator of arts journalism, and a brilliant thinker at the intersection of arts journalism and the internet; Los Angeles Times book editor and author David Ulin; and more. Way more.
The Fellows had writing groups, master classes, and several one-on-one discussions with the master writers, to the tune of several hours of lecture and instruction a day. We also saw 11 professional live LA theater shows. Eleven. In 11 days. A production of Swiss absurdist playwright Max Frisch’s The Arsonists rocked, with its air of increasing menace, Brechtian Greek chorus, and detailed performances. A musical revue called Road to Saigon starring three women who’d each portrayed Kim in various productions of Miss Saigon (and none of whom were Lea Salonga) felt both stiff and incoherent. We saw a solid Playboy of the Western World, and an early rehearsal for a truly hilarious new musical parody of CHiPS whose music still haunts me. Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart in the O.C. featured spectacularly bad Southern accents. A fascinating and flawed production of Bengal Tiger in a Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph took on Iraq, morality, and the afterlife. And I saw a brilliant brand-new play by Tom Jacobson called The Twentieth-Century Way, which depicts a bizarre chapter of law enforcement and gay history in early 2oth century Long Beach, California. In its verbal complexity and historical investigation, it reminded me of Stoppard, and I coveted it for a San Antonio stage.
Thrillingly, I’d seen the Classic Theatre of San Antonio ’s production of Waiting for Godot right before I left, and it measured up well to the LA shows (even the unspeakably awesome CHiPS rehearsal). I kept thinking, we could do that in SATX. We could do a highly experimental play about gay men and entrapment here. We could try. We could take a risk. We could fail, then fail better.
The NEA Fellows, in addition to attending lectures, classes, projects, and performances, had two major “take home” writing assignments, and two or three in-class assignments which we dissected in critique. We shot video and edited it on iMovie. We met with theater professionals — costume designers, set designers, lighting and sound designers.
And we ran all over LA in a big-ass bus, while talking about how to support local productions/artists/institutions while providing meaningful critical dialogue; to what extent you should or shouldn’t befriend the artists you cover; the craziest online reader comments we’d ever gotten; complaints about writers by the editors among us, as well as complaints about editors by the writers, and the without-a-rope fears of writers who edit themselves.
I learned roughly a bajillion things that I can use here in San Antonio. I got a sense of how other journalists are using multimedia to shape storytelling. I want a Flip camera. Then I can edit video footage and make San Anto-based videos. I want the NEA to get other people Flips and teach them iMovie, too. I learned not only that people wanna read good stuff whether or not there are print outlets, but how best to make the change from a staid publication to a supple one. I learned there’s a theater scene in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and that if you spend months making jewel-like short videos, blog posts, and tweets following a community theater production of Annie, you can make a whole roomful of tired, cranky arts writers just about cry.
The 11 days of the fellowship together familiarized us with each other, made one another’s regions more real and interesting, and reiterated to me how weird and original San Antonio is. I learned how to watch you better, people. The NEA’s no elitist hotbed, y’all; it’s where the rubber hits the road. •
A teeny tiny history of the NEA
1965 Established during the Johnson Administration; however, it was hardly the first iteration of government helping to cultivate the arts; witness the New Deal for Artists project of 1934.
1967 the NEA helps found the American Film Institute
1979 Helps fund the first publication of John Kennedy Toole’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces
1981 NEA chooses Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston agitate to dismantle the NEA, then, after further research into the bulk of the NEA’s programs, decide against it.
1990 Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes (aka the “NEA Four,” get their grants vetoed by then-NEA chairman John Frohmayer for indecency, inciting ruckus
1993 NEA Four win court case, awarding them grants through the legal process.
1998 Hearing by the Supreme Court of The National Endowment for the Arts v. Karen Finley upholds the 1990 statute which mandates decency and respect for people of different cultural viewpoints.
2004 NEA Journalism Institute programs begin
2009 Yosi Sergeant, who publicized Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” Obama campaign poster, holds a conference call in which he encourages artists to make work surrounding the issues of health care, social activism, and progressive issues. His former boss Patrick Courreliche calls it “a gross overreach of the `NEA`” and goes on Glenn Beck’s FOX show. Others, like ArtNet’s Ben Davis deems the controversy“politically motivated and built on mostly fabricated information.” In any case, Sergeant resigns.
2010 The Southwest School and Artpace receive NEA grants. Really, this is the kind of thing the NEA does best.
Four ideas to ponder that I
learned at the NEA Institute
A lot of smart people think Facebook is about where AOL was in ’98; i.e., oversaturated, semi-corrupt, and ripe for decline. Keep your eyes peeled for the next thing. Social networking is not going away.
As an artist, if you cultivate responsive relationships with 1,000 dedicated “fans” through social networking (yes, you need a blog, not just a Facebook page) rather than going for widespread, unfocused, worldwide markets, you’ll maintain means for getting by, and build a platform. Bands have actually known this for years.
“Branding” is a dorky-ass term, but an important concept. Artists need to thoughtfully consider their brand, and use it in a dynamic online presence. This has to do with a variety of media and kinds of art, but from a consistent, only-you POV.
Writers and critics: never underestimate the power of visual description. You can do this through video and audio now, too. Don’t be afraid of them.