“This is just the beginning,” Yosi Sergant told participants in an Aug. 10 conference call that seems to have been organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and certainly was joined by a functionary from the White House Office of Public Engagement. The call was the beginning of the end of Sergant’s short tenure as NEA flack — he has been reassigned. The call also was the beginning of a small scandal that illuminates something gargantuan — the Obama administration’s incontinent lust to politicize everything.
Sergant’s comments, made to many individuals and organizations from what is vaguely and cloyingly called “the arts community,” continued: “This is the first telephone call of a brand-new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government.” Wrong preposition. Not “with” the government, but for the government.
Did the White House initiate the conference call-cum-political pep rally? Or, even worse, did the NEA, an independent agency, spontaneously politicize itself? Something that reads awfully like an invitation went from Sergant’s NEA e-mail address to a cohort of “artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, tastemakers, leaders or just plain cool people.”
They were exhorted to participate in a conference call “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda.” The first core area mentioned was “health care.”
The NEA is the nation’s largest single source of financial support for the arts, and its grants often prompt supplemental private donations. He who pays the piper does indeed call the tune, and in the four months before the conference call, 16 of the participating organizations received a total of nearly $2 million from the NEA. Two days after the call, the 16 and five other organizations issued a plea for the president’s health-care plan.
The automobile industry and much of the financial sector have been broken to the saddle of the state. Ninety percent of new mortgages and 80 percent of student loans — the average family’s two most important financial transactions — are financed or guaranteed by the federal government. Now the Obama administration is tightening the cinch on subsidized artists, conscripting them into the crusade to further politicize the 17 percent of the economy that is health care.
Time was, artists were proudly adversarial regarding authority, the established order, etc. “Epater le bourgeois!” and all that. Now they are just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet. Are they real artists? Sure, because in this egalitarian era, government reasons circularly: Art is whatever an artist says it is, and an artist is whoever produces art. So, being an artist is a self-validating vocation.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
Oliver Yeh is the kind of guy who cooks up ideas so kooky, so out-of-this-world, that even his fellow MIT students tend to roll their eyes when they hear them.
But that never stops him.
His latest concept — to launch a camera into near-space using a weather balloon, a cell phone, hand warmers and a drink cooler — fell flat when he sent out an e-mail message to dozens of his classmates, asking for help.
Unfazed, Yeh managed to find one friend willing to chip in. And on September 2, the go-it-alone pair floated a balloon-camera high enough into the atmosphere to photograph the curvature of the Earth and the deep black of space, all on a lunch-money budget of $148.
“For me, it was just about not being afraid to do what I love to do,” said Yeh, a 20-year-old MIT senior studying computer science and electrical engineering. “Before, people were just kind of like, ‘That’s a crazy idea; there he goes all over again.’ (Yeh once convinced a friend to float the Charles River with him on a raft made of plastic bottles.)
“I didn’t have a lot of people who wanted to do it with me, so I’m really glad I stuck it out and succeeded in what I wanted to do.”