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Letter to the Editors- "The Tip of the Iceberg" Reflections on Leonardo Shapiro'sNEA MalgosiaAskanas and Vincent Carey THE RECENT CONTROVERSY surrounding the works of Mapplethorpe, Finley, and Serrano has given an unprecedented mass-media appeal and recognizability to the NEA and to the issue of public funding for the arts. What is new here is not the emergence of startling, provocative art, or the political wrangling over the fate of exhibitions and performances. Rather, the novel element is that the support for this kind of art, the very possibility of its existence, is embedded in a framework of public subsidization , subject to general political scrutiny. This subsidization is in turn mediated by "peer panels" made up of non- (and often anti-)politicians not answerable to any political constituency. The "peer panels" consist largely of artists, who generally accept no accountability for their products beyond what is demanded by their own artistic sensibilities. And, considered in isolation from the funding issue, such non-accountability in art is somehow correct: this is how it should be. The artist is not required to answer. The furor begins when the creation of probing, anti-conventional art must depend on financial grants from a political environment essentially hostile to such endeavors. This hostility may well be inevitable, constitutive : it arises because the limits which experimental art strives to explore and transcend are often defined and implemented by the standing political powers; art, in turn, responds by making these powers a target of questioning and criticism. It is hard to imagine indifferent coexistence between 102 the two; at best it might be possible, under some ideal circumstances, to achieve mutual tolerance and even symbiosis. The current state of affairs in the U.S. is, of course, very remote from this ideal. Moreover, the tensions and conflicts connected with building an institutionalized, publicly-supported framework for art give rise to internal tensions and conflicts within the artistic process itself, and affect the way art is regarded both by its creators and by the general public. We address these issues here in connection with Leonardo Shapiro's article "The Tip of the Iceberg: Creativity and Repression in the USA" (PAJ #39). Our critical attitude towards Shapiro's ideas should not be interpreted as a complete rejection of his position. In an essential way, we see our goals as identical to Shapiro's. However, while his article is at times admirably strong and insightful, it also does much to undermine its own strengths and, in the final analysis, must be judged as seriously flawed. Our sympathies with and criticisms of Shapiro's arguments are motivated through the following observations. There are, in this country-as everywhere -many people in whose life art, in particular non-commercial art, is of vital importance. Practical experience shows that these people, by themselves, cannot finance the production of such art. Thus, we have a case, altogether common, where a sub-population has certain special needs which it is incapable of supporting: other examples include public transportation , facilities for the handicapped, public education, welfare, child care. As is usual in such cases, the subpopulation applies for public funding. Such funding is limited, granted unwillingly, and sought by numerous others. Typical ways of competing for it are: extreme appeals to sympathy, claims of discrimination, showing the cause to have personal relevance to the potential funders, or arguing that support of the given group is of particular urgency for society as a whole. In the case of art, the problem is especially tricky. There is a widespread perception that the production and consumption of art is a somewhat useless and luxurious activity, a child of privilege, a progenitor of false superiority, snobbery, elitism. This perception is hardly unjustified, and it is zealously fueled by the art lovers themselves. Those involved with non-commercial art do tend to regard their involvement not as a simple personal preference, as one would one's choice of cereal, but as a mark of a certain spiritual superiority, a greater understanding, sensitivity or refinement. And yet, they find it compulsory (and therefore legitimate) to appeal for money from the very people whose tastes and concerns they scorn. It is possible...


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pp. 102-112
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