Thursday, December 3, 2009

Art isn't democratic

"Two decades ago I heard the novelist David Slavitt suggest to a stunned panel of regional experts that the way to support art was to give the money to one man and let him pick the winner(s). Period. No screwing with paperwork, no task forces or committees. No accounting measures based on how politicians misspend taxpayer money and designed to dog the way artists spend theirs. Pick somebody who knows what’s what this year and hand over the checkbook. Give him or her a deadline and vanish.

The crowd was amused until they realized Slavitt was serious. Then they were mostly appalled at the idea that artists be treated like members of a meritocracy they imagine themselves to constitute anyway. But it made and makes glorious sense and would lead to the elimination of a problem faced by every writer who enters a grant competition or seeks a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts: the empanelling of 'blind judges,' i.e., people in the arts hired to judge other people in the arts.

Since the arts community is small, however, blind judging is more like blind dating. Rule #1: There is no such thing as blind judging in arts competitions. Just because you blindfold a dog doesn’t mean it can’t smell you coming.

In the arts pool there are not only fewer people but also a higher percentage of the needful. More to the point, there is no art competition that a conscientious artist won’t attempt to fix, and to think otherwise is like believing that the five hungriest dogs in the neighborhood won’t fight viciously for the same bone.

Writers and artists generally know that democracy may be an equal playing field but that art is a palace run by tyrants and situated, Vatican-like, in the midst of that field. Beliefs and voting records hardly matter. Artists pursue their own idiosyncratic and openly secular vision, and art itself has no politics. It is the fullest expression of a need for total creative control— an impulse that’s anything but social or democratic.

Poets and painters know that society will never owe them anything but its traditional damning indifference. If you scratch an artist you’ll find a fascist, as Dante astutely perceived when he situated the palace of the seven liberal arts outside the gates of Hell.

Even if a competition isn’t brokered in advance, an artist will want it to be— in his favor.  Blind judging is a great idea as long as you’re pulling numbered ping-pong balls out of a tube. Artists are always perpetual students as well as born thieves. They see style in details like a cadence or a brushstroke. They look at the world for style and nuance, not plot points. Yeats’s inner music was so strong that when he tried to read Wordsworth aloud it came out, his friend the American poet Ezra Pound said, sounding like Yeats." -- J.T. Barbarese, Broad Street Review 

Pictured: Cincinnatus


Jordan said...

Nub ahoy!

Paul said...

I'll tell you one thing you don't between your funding and your artists, Don, layers and layers of beaurocracy sucking up the funds. So in that sense, I'ld agree with you. Nepotism is a kind of poison which infects every art funding scheme eventually. But that doesn't mean we should be resigned to it, or give over to it. It is just something that has to be fought against constantly. Art is political, there is no way of avoiding it. Even the least political art is political in that rejects politics.

Don Share said...

Just to be clear, Paul & all, none of the post contains any words of mine - the whole entry is quoted from the essay linked. I haven't expressed an opinion on what the piece says!!

Jordan said...

The point is, it's not nepotism, or anyway not only nepotism. Artists usually only respond to what overlaps with their own concerns. Not all artists, and no one every time. But often enough! that short of bright-line violations, such as awarding prizes to former teachers or students, it's grey grey grey.

Henry Gould said...

Every literary award is a consolation prize.

Richard Hoffman said...

I've been on a few of these panels. Once we gave numbers 1 to 5 to manuscripts, then tallied. Guess what? The 3's won! (We didn't settle for that, we went back and fought over choices, but... you get the idea.)

Another time, on a local arts council, it was decided that because too many of the artists knew the others in their discipline (well, duh), the visual artists would choose the writers, the writers the visual artists, etc. I don't know what the painters thought of our choices but the poems they loved were absolute doggerel: "I like this. It rhymes!"