Return to Articles

Mario Catajar


The silver lining around the dark, heavy clouds of the economic storm hanging over our heads is that, for the moment at least, the rhetoric of the free market is discredited and social spending, long demonized by Republicans as promoting every conceivable form of social decay, is now poised to make a comeback. The talk these days is of gargantuan stimulus packages and bailouts. The “middle class,” which is actually this country’s working class deluded into thinking it is better off than it really is, has woken up to the fact that easy credit was a scam to hide three decades of falling real wages, during which time, the very rich and their tools in D.C., Wall Street, and the media managed to engineer a massive wealth redistribution that siphoned money out of working class housing equity into the parasitic digestive system of bankers and stockbrokers. During all that time, social Darwinism was the rage. The phony prosperity of easy credit enabled the uncontested dismantling of whatever remained of the legacy of the New Deal, including the threatened privatization of Social Security. Anyone who resisted was accused of possessing an “entitlement” mentality and either discredited or shamed into silence. A Democrat president, Bill Clinton, presided over the dismantlement of “welfare as we know it.”

Now, Bill Clinton, a human weather vane if there ever was one, is going around telling everyone who will listen that the U.S. has no choice but to spend its way out of the current financial crisis. Judging from what the president-elect, Barak Obama, whose inauguration is in a few weeks, has said to date, spending is, indeed, how the new administration will tackle the crisis. I daresay that, for me, a crucial test of how friendly toward the arts the incoming president and congress intend to be will be whether they are willing to expand the NEA budget and reinstate grants for individual artists.

What I don’t look forward to, but may be politically necessary, is all the crap about how art benefits society and makes all our lives more rewarding that get’s trotted out every time the arts bureaucracy goes begging cap in hand for public money. The benefit of art to “society” (whatever that means) is always questionable because both “art” and “society” are abstractions. What art? Which society? In a society predicated on the idea that everything is worth whatever it can fetch irrespective of its use value, the very notion of “benefit” is meaningless.

It’s not that I don’t think art has an ethic. It’s just that I don’t think the ethic has anything to do with art’s therapeutic efficacy as an antidote to a host of ills ranging from gang violence to autism that usually accompany appeals for government support for the arts. My own belief is that if art is ethical, it is to the degree that it negates the concept of work (the exchange of labor time for a wage) and supplants it with the principle of the discursive productivity of “misused” or “failed” signification, which can show up as the “badness” of a painting or the nonchalant vacuity of a performance. In other words, I dissociate art from anything that might make it “deserving” in the same way that Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Dolittle (he does very little) in My Fair Lady disassociates himself from the “deserving poor”: “I ain't pretendin' to be deserving. No, I'm undeserving. And I mean to go on being undeserving.” If Higgins is Pygmalion, a masterful illusionist, Dolittle is Duchamp, the artist engaged in a lifelong performance of self-negation.

Left to right: Obama signals Progress. Dolittle as Duchamp. Professor Higgins as Pygmalion.
"I'm undeserving. And I mean to go on being undeserving."

I insist on the undeservingness of art for a number of reasons. Primarily, because I think that it is what is most difficult and interesting in art that gets short shrift when art is promoted as socially beneficial. But also, because in the face of power, deservingness, like “human rights,” gets you very little. The Feds are not bailing out the banking system because overcompensated executives who spend their time devising ever-more devious ways of robbing people deserve to be bailed out. They’re doing it because the bankers are their cronies, and because government refinancing of the “free market” is vital to the continuing functioning of capitalism.

Likewise, the leverage for government support of the arts is not going to come from convincing politicians of the social utility of art and art programs, although that’s invariably the rationale given for supporting these programs. It’s going to come from considerations that have very little to do with art, specifically, and certainly nothing to do with artists as a constituency. When Obama says things like “I think that our art and our culture, our science--you know, that's the essence of what makes America special,” he takes inspiration from the CIA’s and the U.S. Information Agency’s efforts during the Cold War to promote Abstract Expressionism abroad and use it to convey an image of America as a dynamic, free nation with values worth emulating. Eight years of Bush rule have refashioned that image into something a great deal less alluring, and the incoming administration is eager to restore the country’s prestige abroad. An investment in the arts will be a relatively cheap way to signal that the White House is no longer occupied by Alfred E. Neuman.

Obama’s initiatives, detailed during his presidential campaign, emphasize support for art education. They include the creation of an “Artists Corps” to teach art in low-income neighborhood schools, increased funding for the NEA (but no promise of the restoration of individual artist grants), and a relaxation of visa restrictions to make it easier for art students and visiting artists to make it over here. The paragraph in the campaign factsheet that deals with promoting “cultural diplomacy” is worth quoting in full:

American artists, performers and thinkers— representing our values and ideals—can inspire people both at home and all over the world. Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America’s cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America. Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world.

You can’t say things don’t change. During the Cold War, Ab Ex artists were denounced as Communists in Congress but their work clandestinely enlisted in the fight against real Communists. Now, “we” don’t need to bother with the subterfuge any more: artists can be “utilized.” The question, for artists, is always what use they can make of those who use them. This is something that revisionist historians who have stridently denounced Ab Ex as a “weapon of the Cold War” have failed to take into account. I can easily imagine Cindy Sherman’s work (say) being used for similar ends in “the war of ideas against Islamic extremism.” Would that discredit her work?

Ultimately, the uses to which art, and anything else for that matter, is put to is not determined by those who produce it. Similarly, support for the arts is rarely granted for the reasons artists wish it to be.  The well-intentioned but ultimately ineffectual New York-based Art Workers Coalition that agitated for better living conditions for artists for a period of three years starting in 1969 adopted the trade union model and demanded that MOMA support all self-defined New York artists--only to discover that the prospect of artists going on strike lacked the bargaining power the AWC’s stellar membership (who included Carl Andre, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Lucy Lippard, and Faith Ringgold among others) imagined it might have. (The ACW’s activities are part of the larger subject of a forthcoming book by UC Irvine’s Julia Bryan-Wilson titled Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era to be published later this year by University of California Press.) A recently formed New York–based group calling itself W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the General Economy) seems to be picking up where the ACW left off. One of their declarations is, “We demand payment for making the world more interesting.” It remains to be seen whether the “world” will issue them a check.