By Adrianna Huffington, Writer and head of Center for Creative Compassion
May 1995 – Recently I found myself channel-surfing, and there you were, lecturing at Harvard. At first, I’ll admit, I kept flipping the dial, but finally returned, intrigued by what seemed to be one of your more unusual performances.
You and I have talked at friends’ houses over the years – of life, and men and children – never (happily for both of us) of politics. But there was none of your warmth, intelligence and spontaneity in the speech in progress. What there was, instead, was a strained outrage, and it wasn’t clear at what.
Your insistence that the modern artist was a member of a persecuted minority was so bizarre that even you must have been a little uncomfortable having to go back to the 16th century to trundle out the painting of loincloths on figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel as an example of artistic persecution. In fact, throughout the whole performance, Barbra, you were, as you said yourself several times, really nervous – a sentiment you punctuated alternately by gulping water and tossing your hair. Surely you were not nervous because you were pontificating before a few hundred awe-struck Harvard students who would have adored you even if you had simply stood there blowing bubbles. No, I’d wager that your nervousness stemmed more from the fact that even you must have known, deep somewhere in your artistic conscience, that your remarks bore little relevance to the real problems and real solutions of today.
“The persistent drumbeat of cynicism on the talk shows and in the new Congress reeks of disrespect for the arts and artists,” you sighed. “The presumption is that people in my profession are too insulated, too free-thinking, too subversive.” One can almost hear the question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Screen Actors Guild?”
Barbra, how could anyone hear anything over the din of such high-pitched melodrama? Why do you insist on characterizing conservatives’ wish to curtail taxpayer subsidies for the arts as motivated by “disrespect” for art and artists? Is your wish to cut the defense budget motivated by “disrespect” for our military and its servicemen?
Indeed, as an author who has spent much of her professional career writing about the arts, I am driven by a deep and abiding love of the arts, which have been cheapened, politicized and degraded by being placed under government authority. Unlike the former Soviet Union or Cuba, we neither have nor need ministries of culture and departments of art. We have something better than government handouts for the arts – we have freedom. And the arts don’t need multi-part application forms and government grants to flourish.
The artist is “too free-thinking?” Come, come. The problem is that artists aren’t thinking freely enough. Where’s the freedom of thought in an artistic community that is uniformly liberal, solidly Democratic and boldly on the cutting edge of 20 years ago? How many conservatives have you run across in Hollywood lately? How much tolerance is there for those who dare diverge from the politically current line? And finally, what is so “subversive” about seeking salvation through government subsidy? Dogmatically supporting the Democratic Party line does not make you a subversive; it makes you a shill.
“I believe,” you breathlessly continued, “that people from any walk of life, artists included, when they stand up for their convictions, can do almost anything: stop wars, end injustices – and even defeat entrenched powers.” You have been supporting the entrenched powers, the status quo, all your life. And now that, for the first time, there is a real chance of transferring power out of Washington and back to the communities and the people, you are balking, continuing to defend a government-centered world that’s passing away.
“Art,” you said, “can illuminate, enlighten, inspire. It becomes heat in cold places; it becomes light in dark places.” You are right. But because of this power, art is equally capable of introducing cold in warm places, and bringing darkness where there is light. In some of the more controversial cases of NEA subsidization of the arts, it has done just that. As a culture we need to come to grips with that reality instead of giving the Robert Mapplethorpes of the world government grants and one-man shows at the Whitney.
Forty-five years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay on Salvador Dali: “Just pronounce the magic word ‘art,’ and everything is OK. So long as you can paint well enough to pass the test, all shall be forgiven you.”
Orwell believed we should have a higher standard: “The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it should stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.”
Orwell’s point needs to be made again and again. Photographs, films, novels or paintings extolling violence, degradation and evil, no matter how brilliantly executed or technically flawless, cannot be made good simply by being called “art.”
On what authority would any government body – whether run by Democrats or Republicans – declare what is art and what is not and then officially endorse that decision with our tax dollars? And if, as we keep hearing, the NEA budget of about $167 million represents a mere pittance when placed in the context of our federal budget, wouldn’t it be relatively easy – and less wearing on the social fabric – to raise that money from the private sector? Now that would be a revolution. And you, Barbra – with your wit, wisdom and box-office appeal – would be the perfect person to launch it.