Dear Barbra,

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.