• http://www.artblog.net/ Franklin

    1. The claim that Frankenthaler’s “position as advisor on the board of the NEA led to deep budget cuts and a ban on grants to individual artists” does not hold up to basic scrutiny.

    2. The Clarke Museum plans to eliminate the position of curator/director. We have a Clark here in Massachusetts whose director isn’t going anywhere.

    • Will Brand

      I did a bit more research into Frankenthaler, and while you’re right that it is overstating the matter to say her involvement directly led to cuts, her editorial in the Times was nonetheless a public attack on the NEA at a crucial – near-fatal – moment. As Joseph Wesley Zeigler commented, “It is very, very difficult for any industry or community to fight for its future when its best people are in doubt and are joining the assault against it.”

      Frankenthaler was, it must be admitted, clearly opposed to censorship of any kind – her Times editorial shows this, and an article by Kim Masters, appearing in the Washington Post on August 4th, 1990, reported that “Noted artist Helen Frankenthaler said she feared the council [of the NEA] was ‘being cowed and watered down and getting more and more on a road to censorship. It all still looks very benign but this can lead to something very dangerous.’ ”

      That said, throughout this period she seems to have been one of the most (artistically) conservative voices on the council; I may be wrong, but it seems as though she simply did not care for performance art at all. A piece by William H. Honan that appeared in the August 26th, 1990 issue of the Times noted that: “…at a meeting of the National Council on the Arts, the painter Helen Frankenthaler asked the chairman of a panel that had recommended grants for a number of avant-garde performance artists whether the deliberators had included ‘any really stuffy theater people’.” Further, there’s the matter of how she actually behaved as a member of the board. In 1990, the theater panel of the NEA recommended 18 applicants (four of whom later became the “NEA Four”) to the council for grants in the category of “Theater Program Fellowships for Solo Performance Theater Artists and Mimes.” An anonymous NEA official quoted by the Times in 1991 stated that Frankenthaler voted against every single one of them, on the grounds that she did not think the NEA should fund “this junk”. I read your comments, and I understand Walter Darby Bannard’s point that an individual member of the (then 26-strong) National Council on the Arts has little power over the group; at the very least, however, we should hold Frankenthaler accountable for her own, harmfully reactionary, positions, at least a few of which seem to have been fairly widely printed (I’m trying to find someone with access to LexisNexis Congressional, because the public congressional records online only go back to 1994; it would be very interesting to see whether Frankenthaler’s editorial was ever mentioned in the discussions in Congress). 

      Some evidence for this use of Frankenthaler’s words by those who would do away with the NEA is to be found in Michael Brenson’s essay “Quality and Other Things”, which also makes a good case (of which I only quote a part here) against Frankenthaler’s ideas of “quality” generally: 

      “One publication that has been comfortable with [the word “quality”] is the Wall Street Journal, which raised the issue of quality in a 1989 editorial attacking the grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The editorial was called “Controversy  vs. Quality.” The problem with endowment funding, the Journal said, “isn’t obscenity. The problem is mediocrity.” Citing an article in the New York Times earlier in the year in which the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler bemoaned the number of undeserving recipients of endowment grants and looked back to a time when “I experienced loftier minds, relatively unloaded with politics, fashion and chic,” the editorial said, “Well, of course, Ms. Frankenthaler’s plea for a restoration of quality sank like a stone.”3 

      Just what quality means in the editorial is unclear, although Frankenthaler may be basing her criteria on lyrical abstract painting like her own that is partly shaped by the investigation of painting itself. Since the art in the center of the controversy was the occasionally transgressive and in some instances overtly political work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz, and Karen Finley, we can assume that quality to the Wall Street Journal means decorum, good taste, and respect for the social norm. 

      Rarely is the meaning of quality argued or even articulated by its defenders. The word has generally been used negatively to castigate, vilify, and stigmatize the unruly and discontented mobs of artists who refuse to live up to traditional standards that are never defined. When I have seen the term used positively, for example, to assert the value of the artists in a show-as  in “these artists have quality”-the result has been embarrassing: the writer was limited in his or her perspective, and the art mediocre at best. Because of the ways it has been used, the word quality has become synonymous with arrogance, smugness, and reaction. When the word is used as vaguely and as sweepingly as it was in the Wall Street Journal, its effect is violent.”

      So, no, Helen Frankenthaler did not propose to end the NEA, or force grant recipients to sign anti-obscenity pledges, or demand that exhibitions be defunded for their content. She was not, however, the force for good that her defenders would make her out to be, and after finding success largely for the novelty of her technique she sought to slam that door on those who would follow. She was, as far as I know, the only major artist to break ranks and criticize the NEA at its darkest hour, thus providing ammunition to those who would eliminate contemporary art as we know it. For that, she deserves some criticism.

      You’re right that the Clarke is not the Clark. Thanks.

  • http://www.artblog.net/ Franklin

    The extent of the so-called harm of Frankenthaler’s “harmfully reactionary positions” is that her influence may have had some effect on the decision that led to the termination of individual grants for visual artists by the NEA. You’re assuming that this constitutes harm. I don’t share that view.

    Brenson’s essay is philosophically naive. The word quality describes a phenomenon that resists definition by nature. Instead of asserting a good-faith, descriptive usage of the word, he asserts a bad-faith, political usage of the word, and proceeds to malign the characters of the people using it based on what he thinks they really mean. If anything, the accusation of smugness sticks better to those on the other side of the issue from Frankenthaler. Lynne Munson wrote about the 1995 grant panel:

    The deliberations quickly deteriorated into a verbal shoving match. At one point, as [Robert] Mangold was attempting to articulate the merits of a particular painter’s application, [David] Diao responded: “I can’t believe you fall for that kind of sentimentality.” Instead of arguing applications on their merits, Diao would, in Mangold’s words: “make the person who doesn’t agree with him seem backward, reactionary, or in the past.” The purpose of the 1995 panel wasn’t to fairly and objectively assess applications one-by-one, but to declare one type of art important and all others insignificant, and to award the grants accordingly.

    So Brenson is working out of that tradition of self-presumed progressive rightness. He uses mediocre in the same undefined, unarticulated manner which is unacceptable for quality in his view. Calling the latter “violent” is absurd, but if that constitutes violence, it’s hard to see how Brenson is any less guilty of it.

    I view Frankenthaler as a force for good to the extent that she was an innovative and beautiful painter. I think that the very idea of the NEA is indefensible, so her position on it looks pretty compromising to me. The idea that all artists should have rallied around an obviously politicized and factionalized NEA circa 1995 betrays a with-us-or-against-us attitude that presumes much about who is on the side of the angels.

    “Those who would eliminate contemporary art as we know it,” to my knowledge, includes no persons germane to this controversy. Rather, at issue was whether it was necessary and desirable to direct taxpayer dollars at individual artists and arts organizations. Whether it’s desirable is an open question, but whether it’s necessary is not. With Federal support accounting for a measly 9% of all arts funding and no federal individual grants for a decade and a half, the art market since 1995 has only continued to explode in size, diversity, and dollars exchanged. My guess is that the elimination of that 9% would be mildly and temporarily painful, and contemporary art would continue as it did before.

    • Will Brand

      Apologies, but I’m going to mix up the order of these responses:

      –“I think that the very idea of the NEA is indefensible, so her position on it looks pretty compromising to me. ”

      This idea is, I think, far more idealistic than any of my own. Perhaps the federal government should not pay those who make art; perhaps it should only involve itself with those few workers necessary to government operation who make cement, pipes, guns, semiconductors, linens, oranges, management seminars, combustion engines, telephone networks, metal alloys, and karate dojos. I don’t think so. The government – the one we have, not the one you want – is involved in every industry in this country as a buyer, seller, subsidizer or overseer, and if we’re going to start trimming that back, the arts are one of the last places we should look to. 

      That can be demonstrated in a number of ways. Firstly, like many goods and services we have no issue with the government provision of, the performing and visual arts in an age of ubiquitous and free digital reproduction of photographs, video, audio, and text constitute a non-rival and non-excludable public good. As such, photographs, videos, and performances are subject to the problem of free riders in the same way roads, sewage, and clean air are. If you have ever taken pleasure from an art photograph online that you did not own or provide for the production of, you are a free rider and have committed some small injustice to those who paid for all the various steps involved in its making. I think that the aggregate of those small injustices – and the resultingly skewed incentive structure for those who wish to view or make art – makes a strong case for its provision by a mass-funded group which might spend in proportion to our total enjoyment of art. The NEA is not the most perfect incarnation of this, but it is what we have, and it makes far more basic economic sense than an entirely private market. 

      Further, there is ample evidence that art flourishes when it is provided with sufficient government funding. This was the case with the WPA, this was the case in the heyday of the NEA (as their press materials make abundantly clear), this is the case with the concerted (successful) government efforts to turn Glasgow into an arts center, this is the case with Documenta (which is entirely government-funded), and this is the case with the Venice Biennale (which is funded by the governments of the participating states). I think each of these programs has produced lasting cultural value equal to or greater than its expense. I also think that that value – that actually happened in the real world, and is rarely questioned – has far more weight than the ephemeral libertarian ideals of a minority. 

      Lastly, there is a matter of simple rent-seeking: so long as I pay no special tax rate for working in the arts, I expect to be able to fight for my piece of the pie just as ferociously as anybody else. 

      –“The idea that all artists should have rallied around an obviously politicized and factionalized NEA circa 1995 betrays a with-us-or-against-us attitude that presumes much about who is on the side of the angels.”

      Firstly, the article we’re talking about was published in 1990. 

      In what way was the NEA of the 1990s “obviously politicized and factionalized”? That its council leant towards progressivism and the political left is not evidence enough; this has been the case for both artists and the highly-educated for at least the past century (which cannot be discounted as base or degenerate in favor of any era in which people shit in pots). I am certain that for every “Piss Christ” the NEA funded, it funded a half-dozen projects with explicitly Christian overtones; even saying that, though, ignores the fact that the vast majority of programs the organization funded in that period were entirely anodyne. What political agenda was at work in the funding of “Driving Miss Daisy”, or a fellowship for B.B. King, or an award for the bobbinmaker Sister Rosalia Haberl? 

      Is there some evidence somewhere of somebody complaining about the factionalized, politicized nature of the NEA prior to 1990?

      You’re correct that I’m taking a “with-us-or-against-us” attitude here; I certainly wasn’t using phrases like “break ranks” to try to conceal that. I should clarify: this is not my general stance on the NEA. I have no quarrel with those who might criticize its workings today, or yesterday, or tomorrow, or generally; my issue is taking a stance critical of the NEA at that particular time, when its attackers were so thoroughly in the wrong and had such power over its budget. If I were suspected in the press of, say, being a Nazi war criminal, I’d view it as a moral wrong if one of my friends were to write an article about how I was born in Germany. I believe that it is morally wrong for right-thinking people to publicly lend support, nuanced though it may be, to beliefs or causes which are beyond certain levels of ignorance, intolerance, or falsehood.

      –“Those who would eliminate contemporary art as we know it,” to my knowledge, includes no persons germane to this controversy.”

      Those who would eliminate contemporary art as we know it, if given the chance. This was clearly and intentionally hyperbole, and was written so as to imply that I believe that contemporary art, as we know it, requires room for political comment, ugliness, and potential offense, all of which were denounced both by the members of Congress attacking the NEA in the early 90s and by the right-leaning commentators writing in support of them. The statements and speeches on this issue frequently went beyond reservations about federal funding into polemics against whole fields of art-making. 

      –“Whether it’s desirable is an open question, but whether it’s necessary is not. With Federal support accounting for a measly 9% of all arts funding and no federal individual grants for a decade and a half, the art market since 1995 has only continued to explode in size, diversity, and dollars exchanged. My guess is that the elimination of that 9% would be mildly and temporarily painful, and contemporary art would continue as it did before.”

      Do you have any evidence for the idea that “the art market since 1995 has only continued to explode in size, diversity, and dollars exchanged”? I wrote an economics dissertation on this topic, and every dataset I considered showed a pronounced lull in the art market, as measured by auction results, between 1990 and the mid-2000s (where my date range ended). Just to pick two sources that don’t require electronic journal access, there’s this paper by Jianping Mei and Michael Moses, at NYU (see Figure 2, “Nominal Indices”), and this paper, by Andrew Worthington and Helen Higgs, who aren’t from a fantastic university but are widely quoted in the literature (similarly, see Figures 1 and 2). I’m not familiar with research in the field over the past few years, but the numbers Artprice has been producing lately (as in this chart) seem to show that the early-mid 2000s evinced small but stable growth for the art market, followed by a large bubble. 

      The issue of “necessity” gets into questions very similar to those surrounding positive and negative freedom, and I think we’d both rather avoid that discussion for now. Suffice to say, it’s not that simple.

      –“Lynne Munson wrote about the 1995 grant panel…”

      In a book I don’t care for, that Lee Rosenbaum described as a “traditionalist, anti-cutting edge screed”, and that simultaneously cried foul at artists “declaring one type of art important and all others insignificant” while belittling the achievements of any art that wasn’t purely visual. The only quote there to actually come from Diao has little context, and the rest of the information there comes from people statedly against Diao’s viewpoint; I don’t see how this does anything to solve the problem of ‘factionalism’. 

      –“[Brenson] uses mediocre in the same undefined, unarticulated manner which is unacceptable for quality in his view.”

      This is because he was very clearly speaking generally of a problem he has observed to exist. Re-read the passage: “When I have seen the term used positively, for example, to assert the value of the artists in a show-as  in “these artists have quality”-the result has been embarrassing: the writer was limited in his or her perspective, and the art mediocre at best.” If you’re going to criticize him for not being more specific about the flaws of this writer, you might also criticize him for not specifying the author’s gender. This is not hypocrisy, it is a reading comprehension problem.

      –“The extent of the so-called harm of Frankenthaler’s “harmfully reactionary positions” is that her influence may have had some effect on the decision that led to the termination of individual grants for visual artists by the NEA. You’re assuming that this constitutes harm. I don’t share that view.”

      This is true.

      • http://www.artblog.net/ Franklin

        Your economic reasoning is demented.

        You’re welcome to look at my paintings online, or see them in person if I have them up somewhere, but if you’d like to own one, you’ll have to pay me for it. Those offerings aren’t a public good, they’re a loss leader. That they can be consumed in a non-rival and non-excludable way with hardly any expense to me ultimately works to my benefit. People have figured out how to similarly monetize photographs, videos, and performances as well despite the fact that the first two can be reproduced easily and the third is ephemeral.

        You take visual pleasure in things you didn’t make, don’t own, and never subsidized every time you look out the window. The idea that this constitutes an injustice to the makers is silly. The idea that the government has a role in remedying that injustice is even sillier. That this “demonstrates” that “the arts are one of the last places we should look to” when it comes to trimming the size of government is nonsensical.

        While you don’t pay a special tax to work in the arts, to the extent that you have a competing vision from any number of non-profits who have special tax exemptions, something commensurately unfair and economically analogous is going on. Working to gain the favor of such non-profits, as well as the granting agencies of the state, is rent-seeking. Without them you’d have do the honest work of making something of value and convincing some willing party to buy it or fund it.

        The three papers you helpfully provided report consistent data: there was a spike in 1990, which by 1992 had corrected to levels that were as high or higher than those in 1988, which was already a historic high for the market. Prices and total asset values have been climbing since then, with greater rates. That is consistent with my claim that the market has been growing rapidly since 1995. It’s also consistent with my anecdotal experience of starting an art career in Miami in 1994 and watching what happened there first-hand through 2006, most strikingly, the art fair phenomenon.

        You’re welcome not to share Munson’s aesthetics or politics but there’s no substantial dispute about her historical reportage. If the above is not enough context for Diao’s quote, nothing would be. As for “solv[ing] the problem of ‘factionalism’,” even if the NEA were funding purely visual work, even if your ludicrous certainty that “for every Piss Christ the NEA funded, it funded a half-dozen projects with explicitly Christian overtones” had any basis in fact, it would only further prove something that economics predicts would happen and did in fact happen: efforts that are not subject to market forces decrease in efficiency and fairness over time. That the subject of NEA reviews had shifted from examples of work to kinds of work is a believable and non-partisan claim, even if it took a partisan to make it. This is what we expect all such efforts to do: start with successes, then succumb to interest groups.

        Frankenthaler, at least, believed in the worth and perfectability of the NEA. You already lost this argument via Godwin’s Law, but regardless of your opinion about the the thoroughness of the wrongness of the NEA’s attackers, its supporters failed to address the attackers’ chief and most substantial complaint: that the public should not be obliged to pay for insults to itself. This phenomenon of “I hate your values; now fund me” has been making artists look bad ever since.

        If Brenson is going to beat his opponents over the head with their use of quality, he doesn’t get to characterize the art they like as “mediocre,” thus denigrating its quality without any greater definition or articulation. At issue is not my reading comprehension, but your confirmation bias.

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