WaPo art critic Philip Kennicott has an interesting review today of an NEA-sponsored exhibit in DC of current "political" art. (Called "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement.") While he concedes some pieces have bite, he takes the opportunity to show up how tame and cowered the Endowment has become.
We've come a long way. Parallel to the art of engagement has been a politics of disengagement, at least when it comes to arts funding. The only reason the NEA could meet in the midst of this exhibition without a firestorm is that, politically, the NEA has disengaged not just from funding this kind of art, but from the people, artists, curators and audiences who are interested in it. The "art of engagement," most of it left-wing and left-coast (the current exhibition is drawn mostly from the San Jose Museum of Art), exists in a different world, utterly removed from the new NEA's focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry.
Will we ever recover from the "culture wars" of the 90s? Maplethorpe, what has thou wrought! Indeed, on "the hill" it is still all chalked up to fault of too many gay and/or blasphemous individual artists.
If ever politicians could play nicely with artists, it would be with this sort of subject [i.e. the "peace is good, violence bad" tone of the present exhibit], but, alas, the divorce seems absolute. Are both parties in this breakup equally guilty? Art, or at least overtly political art, is generally presumed to be the wayward partner, the one that took provocation to the limit, and forced the government (and most everyone else) to abandon the relationship. From a political and pragmatic point of view, that's probably true.
But throughout "The Art of Engagement," you sense a different emotional dynamic. The artists here don't consider the relationship over. They're still talking, if not with politicians, at least at them. They have more hope, when it comes to politics, than most politicians have when it comes to art.
I realize many will never understand why it is indeed reasonable to expect the government to sponsor art that may be critical of it. But without that openness and true freedom, a government is simply a royal patron--endowing flattery. Yes, Moliere made it work. But will we always be graced with enlightened despots...?