Tepid reunion of politics, art at NEA celebration
By Philip Kennicott
By Philip Kennicott
WASHINGTON — An interesting convergence will occur today, when the National Endowment for the Arts begins a three-day celebration of its 40th anniversary at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. Inside the impressive new facility at American University is an exhibition of political art, or "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement," as it is called by the curators. This is art as provocation, political commentary, utopian imagination, protest and, sometimes, pure unmitigated rage. It deals with gender, race, war and imperialism.
It's exactly the sort of art that got the NEA into so much trouble more than 15 years ago.
In 1990, fear, perhaps even paranoia, was in the air. But now, NEA bigwigs will share the Katzen facility with a drawing of Ronald Reagan as Mickey Mouse painting anti-communist slogans with blood — and there seems to be no worry about jangled nerves.
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 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.
You get a sense of the costs and consequences of this new order from an austere bell, cast by Bruce Hasson, that greets visitors to the exhibition. It is one of a series the artist has crafted to mark political events.
"Millennia 2" is a small version of a much larger bell, Hasson's "Millennium," both made from melted firearms. A video shows the larger bell being struck by Mikhail Gorbachev in Rome to mark a 2000 world summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners.
The video also demonstrates, rather sadly, how foreign the idea of politicians participating in an artist's fancy has become to Americans. The bell-ringing ceremony — with European politicians respectfully participating — reflects a comfort with art and its public symbolism that is decidedly not a part of the American political landscape.
If ever politicians could play nicely with artists, it would be with this sort of subject, 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 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. As you walk through the exhibition, past the gay Latino art and the flying Jesus with swastikas under his wings, you can't help but wonder how the great gap between the pragmatic political mind and the idealistic and sometimes childlike artistic one might be spanned.