Sep 14, 2009

Sergant Moved to New Position at NEA

I didn't hear back from Yosi Sergant about the NEA/United We Serve conference call mini-controversy, and now I've learned why: He's been moved to a new position. As reported by Ryan Grim on HuffPo:
On August tenth, the National Endowment for the Arts participated in a call with arts organizations to inform them of the president's call to national service. The White House office of public engagement also participated in the call, which provided information on how the Corporation for National and Community Service can assist groups interested in sponsoring service projects or having their members volunteer on other projects. This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false. The NEA regularly does outreach to various organizations to inform of the work we are doing and the resources available to them.

...As regards Yosi Sergant, he has not left the National Endowment for the Arts. He remains with the agency, although not as director of communications.

I don't agree with Grim's spin--that after Van Jones, Sergant represents another scalp for the neo-McCarthyite Glenn Beck--but his report does indicate that NEA brass viewed the controversy, however thin its substance, as bad PR for the oft-besieged endowment ("Sources familiar with the situation say that the move represents a significant step down and was the result of the controversy," writes Grim), and since Sergant's job was PR, a personnel move makes some sense.

In other non-developments, another writer at Big Hollywood piles on to remind us that Kalpen Modi, director of the White House Office of Community Engagement, is an actor who has played a character who smokes drugs.

UPDATE: A grown-up has entered the discussion, and it is clarifying. The LA Times reports that Texas Republican John Cornyn has addressed an open letter to Obama on the matter. Since Cornyn is an elected official with some degree of accountability for what he says (as opposed to a TV hothead or a blogger), this is the best he can come up with (emphasis mine):
A reasonable observer would view the NEA's participation in the August 10 call as implying that NEA grant opportunities (i.e., taxpayer dollars) may be tied to artists' willingness to use their creative talents to advance your Administration's political agenda.

Well, no. It takes someone with an ax to grind to see it that way. Which is why I stand by the assertion that only a conspiracy theorist--not someone as unhinged from reality as a "birther" or a "truther," as my commenter Stage Right has suggested, just someone who reads beyond the obvious to intuit a dark, unspoken agenda--could see a few public conference calls for an innocuous public-service PR effort as akin to a talent search for the next Leni Riefenstahl. I'll concede here that it was ineffective PR, since the appearance of conflict of interest is finally indistinguishable in the court of public opinion from actual conflict of interest. But still, congressional hearings? Let me know when the stakes are this high.

A third earwitness to one of these nefarious conference calls comes forward, and thank Jesus it's the even-tempered Ian David Moss, who describes the Aug. 27 virtual huddle thus:
We were treated to highly charged partisan instructions like a reminder that any projects we upload should actually be uploaded twice — both on and on — so that community art endeavors would be visible within the larger pool of service projects and also collected in one place. Seriously, this is what the call was like. The closest it got to anything political was when a caller asked about the future of the Artist Corps initiative that was promised in Obama’s campaign platform (Modi responded that, while he “wanted to keep the call focused” on the United We Serve campaign, the Artist Corps concept is something that the administration still supports and wants to see happen).

That the wingnut right has jumped on this as further evidence of the new administration's alleged creeping statism is disgusting; as 99 Seats rightly notes, if fear of controversy effectively kills off the idea that artists, even publicly funded ones, should ever address current social issues and concerns, that would be deeply unfortunate. Indeed, if there's been any political direction at the NEA in my lifetime, it has been away from any hint of controversy.

And, to address my commenter Stage Right: To be clear, I don't accuse CultureGrrl herself of being a conspiracy theorist, since she only reported being "creeped out" by the phone call, and didn't see fit to make the Beckian leap into paranoid fantasyland. I did note, however, that nothing she reported has proven Courrielche's contention that the NEA is planning to depart from its charter and fund political art. In fact, CultureGrrl has helpfully clarified her position:
On that Aug. 27 conference call, the arts community was encouraged to participate in and promote good deeds that no one--left-wing or right-wing--could possibly have found objectionable or politically sensitive.

That said, I nevertheless object to the federal government's (and, especially, NEA's) trying to herd cats---the artistic community. NEA should not be involved in an attempt to get its constituents to participate in Presidential initiatives, no matter how laudable those public-service objectives may be. The agenda for the arts community should be generated from within the arts community and should not come down from the White House.

As for Glenn Beck's professed concern for "artistic freedom," we can only hope that extends to endorsing federal support--in the form of NEA grants--for unfettered artistic expression, with no political interference from the left or right in matters of content or manner of presentation.

I can't argue with that. I would only add my hope that "unfettered artistic expression" not only does not require but also doesn't preclude politically engaged art.

Oh, and yes: If you care about this, please write an actual snail-mail letter.


Stage Right said...

Rob, In your coverage of this issue (between ad hominum and mean-spirited characterizations of Big Hollywood and its contributors) you stated "obviously the NEA shouldn't be in the business of funding art that advances the political agenda of its funders, and I would be opposed to any policy that did so, explicitly or tacitly."

Please take a look at this data: (specifically Bill Ivey's comments about linking NEA grantees to West Wing policy). Do you consider this pattern at the very least to be a tacit policy?

Also, I think that given how Mr. Courrielche has been depicted on your blog and other arts-oriented blogs that take a left-leaning perspective, isn't it somewhat understandable why "Courrielche is the only participant in the conference call to have come forward to talk about it" as you pondered?

Is it also no wonder, as I have asked you in the past, why there don't seem to be many voices from a right-leaning perspective coming from the theatre community? Is it really because all of your peers and the artists you report on have the same political and cultural views? Or could it possibly be that we fear the arrogant dismissal of our views that I keep seeing here (or worse a Scott Eckern-like retribution)?

Stage Right said...

But again, you are implying that CultureGrrl must have "an axe to grind" and it seems on the face of it that she doesn't. Can you address why you continue to characterize CultureGrrl as either a conspiracy theorist or now, more generously, as someone with an axe to grind? I'm surprised after reading CultureGrrl's blog that you can so easily just right off her FIRST HAND account of the call and her uneasiness. What evidence in her body of work can you find to justify your impression that she has an axe to grind? i see the opposite.

Stage Right said...

I'm sure you have seen the full transcript of the NEA conference call that was posted at Wing-nut central Big Hollywood... Any re-thinking of your take on this story or Mr. Courrielche?