In the 1930s, the U.S. government conscripted visual artists across the country to create what amounted to U.S. propaganda: murals of muscular farmers, posters of empowered women. The goal was to help motivate Americans out of the Great Depression –– and keep artists employed. About 225,000 works of art –– and, ostensibly, a motivated citizenry –– resulted.
Now the U.S. government’s National Endowment of the Arts, the largest annual benefactor of the arts in the country, is calling on artists (and filmmakers and musicians, choreographers and writers) to “work to promote a more civilly engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for positive change,” according to the White House. About 75 artists recently took part in a conference call hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve, President Obama’s laudable nationwide effort to inspire Americans to volunteer. Healthcare and energy/the environment were just two of the several categories discussed. The not-too-hidden goal is to use art to promote the current administration’s agenda.
The initiative has its critics. Perhaps not so surprisingly, many of them are left-leaning artists, who are, if I may be so bold, correctly arguing that propaganda or government-approved art is more about making America fall in line than civil engagement and also that art, real art, the kind that makes you think with your heart rather than your head, is above heavy-handedness. Real art is sublime, metaphoric, a poem in an alien tongue that you can somehow understand. All the rest is advertising, just bells and whistles selling some sort of ideology or lifestyle.
There’s also concern that if the O administration can get away with enticing artists into purveying an agenda, who’s to say that some future Republican president won’t try to do the same? (The attempt would be quixotic at best, however. Other than C&W musicians, most artists lean hard to the left.)
Right-wingers, of course, are also opposed to the initiative. What’s really funny, though, is that they see it as another extension of President Obama’s alleged messiah complex rather than what it truly is: more of the same ol’, highly politicized NEA.