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Should Artists be Government-Supported Activists? A Call From the NEA Raises Questions About Its Role [UPDATED]

Update 9/24: Effective this afternoon, Yosi Sergant has resigned from the NEA. Although the organization admitted there was no wrongdoing on his behalf, they did issue new communication guidelines from within the White House.

Yosi Sergant is an energetic grassroots organizer beloved by the art community who was whisked into the White House after working on the Obama campaign. The 33-year-old formerly Los Angeles-based publicist was responsible for bringing Shepard Fairey's Hope poster to ubiquitous prominence and also coordinated Manifest Hope, an exhibition of 31 artists who created posters for the Obama campaign in an exhibition during the Denver convention.

yosi sargentBut on Wednesday, Sergant resigned as director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts (although he still remains employed by the NEA) purportedly due to a misuse—or misunderstanding—of the NEA's role in supporting artists.

In his role at the NEA, Sergant had organized a rather groundbreaking summit in May at the White House for artists, curators, and gallery owners from all over the country to discuss the role of art in the new administration. A call on August 10 was meant to corral some of those same voices into a conversation about promoting the White House's new service initiative. But one artist, L.A.-based Patrick Courrielche recorded the call, and wrote a blog post later saying he felt "concerned" about Sergant's comments on the call: "Throughout the conversation, my inner dialogue was firing away questions....Is this truly the role of the NEA? Is building a message distribution network, for matters other than increasing access to the arts and arts education, the role of the National Endowment for the Arts?"

At the center of an art-based controversy twice in one week is talk show host Glenn Beck (see his questionable analysis of Art Deco artwork on Rockefeller Center), whose interview with Courrielche, and playing of Sergant's recorded comments brought the story to national attention.

Beck also points to several examples of what he calls propaganda—art supporting universal health care created by Rock the Vote, an organization that had representatives on the call and apparently heeded the government's call to produce these works. (In fact, Rock the Vote's health-care campaign began as early as June, as well as ongoing action on other issues.)

Many supporters of Sergant are rallying high-profile artists behind him, and linking Sergant's resignation to Van Jones's, who resigned over the weekend after a similar attack from Beck. The advocacy group Color of Change is reportedly stepping up its campaign to remove advertisers from Beck's show. But a recent development has surfaced that shows Sergant was at fault for at least one slip: He claimed to a blogger at the Washington Times that the NEA had not initiated the call, when in fact, email records showed that it did. Which looks like the NEA may be trying to distance itself from the idea of enlisting artists in service of their programs.

united we serve

The art critic Lee Rosenbaum participated in a similar call with Kalpen Modi, the Harold and Kumar actor who took a job as the associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, who was promoting the new Americans for the Arts site United We Serve. Rosenbaum also wrote on her blog about feeling uneasy about the conversation: It's a worthwhile objective, to be sure. But government exhortations for artists to join the United We Serve brigade makes me more than a little uneasy. Many, if not most, of our most important and influential artists and cultural institutions are impelled by self-driven creative imperatives, not external political ones. That's the way it SHOULD be."

wpaWhat Beck, Courrielche, and Rosenbaum fail to mention is that the whole idea of asking artists create work based on national policy is nothing new: Thousands of American artists were once employed by the government to create the famous WPA posters that helped the country climb out of the financial and emotional hole of the post-Depression period. The posters were similar in nature and in message to what it seemed like Sergant was proposing, and rallied the country behind important government-backed initiatives like, well, health and nutrition.

The difference—and the biggest issue at stake in the current debate—is that artwork was not initiated by the NEA; it wasn't established until 1965. However, the posters were made possible by the Federal Art Project, one of the first U.S. government programs to support the arts.

WPA

At first glance, asking artists to use their influence to create messages supporting the concept of service—or eating well, or exercising—seems like a great idea. But the issue, at least for the art world, is more of an issue of authenticity. Does it ring true for the government to engage artists at a grassroots level? Can there be a truly social media movement using Facebook and Twitter that's initiated by a government agency? Should artists ever be supported by the government to create works of art that encourage Americans to support the government's policies?

Or, is it a good idea for the White House to have a street team consisting of some of the country's best artists—just like the Obama campaign did?

[Photo of Sergant by Kevin Scanlon, LA Weekly; WPA posters from WPA Posters Flickr pool]