Art and the politics machine: Imagine Our Parks

Art is an opening that allows us to imagine new kinds of shared space.

Art and politics and capital are inexorably connected.

But it’s interesting to me that sometimes art is political and sometimes it’s not. Yes, yes, there are heaps of grey areas and fuzzy instances. But there are also clear cut cases.

And yes, a savvy commentator can strain a little and tell us why a seemingly nonpolitical art piece is actually kind of political. But I’ve said it before: if everything’s political than the term is meaningless. Politics is actually very lumpy and not evenly distributed. And yes, what counts as politics is very contestable. As it should be.1

And this is the funny thing about politics. Sometimes it’s invisible, and then something changes and boom, it’s all of a sudden very very visible. Like, the colour you paint your house. It’s an aesthetic choice. But try painting your home fire engine red or high vis vest orange, and suddenly you’ll discover just how political house colour really is.2

“Imagine Our Parks (IOP) is a moving artist installation and experimental nomadic space that investigates contested boundaries, shifting borders, territories, and crossings along the 42nd parallel.” – IOP

My friend Trudi Lynn Smith has me thinking about this lately because she’s working on a project called Imagine Our Parks.3 And this project relates, in part, to the National Endowment For the Arts in the US. See the NEA was a key player in an important historical moment of the kind I described. Everything was going along, going along, and then boom.

As far as I can tell, here’s what happened. Every year, the NEA would get money, via Congress. Millions of dollars. And then they would fund art projects. And every year some politicians would complain about the money and the art and such, but overall it was mostly invisible. Or, at least, it was manageably invisibile-ish.

And then Andres Serrano came on stage with his photos of a crucifix submerged in urine. And it was a big splash. Heh. And various members of the senate and congress found out it was receiving some funding through the NEA and they hated that, and started making a scene. The rabble was rousing.

And then in the spring or summer of 1989 the Corcoran Gallery of Art, right in Washington, wanted to do a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s touring photo exhibition, called A Perfect Moment. It was homoerotic and there were shades of, shall we say, Fifty Shades and there was even a little urine involvement. And it too was going to make a splash. Heh.4

The pious Christian folks hated it and the homo haters hated it and the right wingers hated it and so on and so forth.

Suddenly there was a mob of Christian, rightwing politicians and their supporters calling for the complete defunding of the NEA. And the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled their exhibition.

Well, Smith tells me that this moment was one node in a complex network of historical nodes, but I’m fascinated by this moment in 1989, when the Corcoran cancelled their exhibition.5

Did the NEA get their budget slashed? No.

Were they forced to kiss the feet of the Catholic clergy? No.

Did they get sent to purgatory? Well, actually, yes, kind of.

My understanding is that the way the NEA allocated money to artists fundamentally changed. They now had, among other things, committee oversight. In other words, the NEA got harmonized by the state.6

Some have claimed, I think reasonably, that the NEA ended up with a dulled capacity to support new horizons in human expression and art excellence.

And the summary affect was that the new visionary artists no longer received institutional support. It was slow and steady. But, steadily, funded art took a turn away from the, er, political. Well, it’s probably fairer to say that this resulted in a turn away from art that goes boom.

  1.  Pride is an interesting example of this. Some folks have believed that Pride celebrations are not political. Which is fascinatingly wrong.
  2. Sometimes cities make bylaws about house colour. And sometimes cities provide grants to encourage home owners to paint their houses certain colours. There’s a grant application PDF from the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, in partnership with Benjamin Moore Paints, for $2000, to encourage heritage home owners to use a Victorian colour palette. So, you know, try painting a house an unusual colour, and you’ll see very quickly just how political that decision can be.
  3. Full disclosure: I work with Smith on web publishing stuff.
  4. See also
  5. I do also find it all very fascinating. Margaret Quigley has a nice historical examination of the Mapplethorpe chronology.
  6. Also, River crabbed.