BY Nancy Spector in Opinion | 01 JAN 07
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Issue 104

Culture Vultures

The US government has been relentless in its assault on contemporary art by privileging all things patriotic

BY Nancy Spector in Opinion | 01 JAN 07

When I received a gold-engraved card from the White House inviting me to a reception to launch the administration’s new Global Cultural Initiative, I thought at first that it must have been an art-world prank – perhaps a tactical media intervention by the Critical Art Ensemble. But then I realized it was my current role as the commissioner of the US Pavilion for the 2007 Venice Biennale that had earned me this unexpected distinction. The correlation between the Bush White House and culture seemed oxymoronic to me; the title ‘Global Cultural Initiative’ does, after all, have the same vague propagandistic ring and sinister undertones as ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’.

Set in the White House’s grand East Room lined with portraits of past presidents, the presentation was introduced by Laura Bush, who reminisced about the influence of culture during the Cold War, citing the Voice of America’s broadcasting of jazz music into the Soviet Union as a catalyst for the dissolution of communism. Under-Secretary of State Karen Hughes, Bush’s personal propaganda tsar, proceeded to outline the multiple-agency programme, stating that ‘art and culture can play a vital role in helping achieve our strategic public diplomacy goals’. She stopped short of explaining what those goals might actually be. The initiative appears, for the most part, to be an elaborate exchange programme for visual artists, poets, filmmakers, musicians and art educators. Funded by a combination of private and public sponsorship with involvement from the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, The American Film Institute, the John F. Kennedy Center and the State Department, the main thrust of the initiative seems to be the exporting of American culture as a way to transmit so-called ‘American values’. In one example cited by Hughes, select educators from all over the world could attend seminars at historic sites throughout the US (Mark Twain’s house was offered as an example) in order to absorb the lessons of our democratic system.

This is not the first time the US government has exploited artistic achievement to promote an image of progressiveness and tolerance. The CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom, founded in 1950, endorsed the non-objective vocabulary of Abstract Expressionist painting as a counterpoint to Soviet Socialist Realism (ignoring the politics of the former’s left-leaning practitioners). The emphasis has shifted, however, from freedom of expression to the fate of civilization. To make this point Hughes invoked a comparison between us ‘civilized’ people who appreciate art and the ‘violent extremists we face in the war against terror’, who destroy their own heritage, such as the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq, and the giant carved Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The irony of this statement, undeniably imperialist in tone, was not lost on anyone who recalled the failure of US troops to protect the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad from looting during the invasion of Iraq. And Mrs. Bush’s reference to a government-supported international tour of musicians from New Orleans furthered the hypocrisy, given the lame inability of the administration to salvage the city from wholesale destruction by Hurricane Katrina. Of course, there was also that little problem of a Texas schoolteacher losing her job after leading her fifth-grade class on a field trip through the Dallas Museum of Art, where one child complained of being exposed to an ‘abstract nude sculpture’. This happened just two days before the announcement of the Global Cultural Initiative.

Since George Bush took office in 2000 there has been a concentrated assault on art, not with the flamboyant rhetoric of the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s, but rather through an insidious privileging of all things patriotic. The NEA now supports the literary aspirations of returning Iraqi war veterans with a programme dubbed ‘Operation Homecoming’, and it channels millions of dollars from its limited budget into the ‘American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius’ initiative, which funds ‘acknowledged’ cultural achievements, thus further codifying the already accepted canon. This is all happening strangely below the radar, and I wonder why there has been no public (or at least art-world) reaction. The militancy of early 1990s’ art – fuelled by the AIDS crisis, identity politics and the first Gulf War – has transmuted to more user-friendly variants or has disappeared altogether. Because I have just finished installing an exhibition comparing the work of Joseph Beuys and Matthew Barney at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, I have been thinking a great deal about the ability of art to have any real impact in the world beyond its specious role as a tool for diplomatic leverage. Beuys’ Modernist, Utopian vision of healing the wounds of war-torn Europe through an expanded notion of the creative process has proven irrelevant on many levels. But Barney, whose own work seemingly lacks political consciousness, has faith that art can indeed change the world, though only through acts of slow and subtle infiltration. He points out that Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol effectively altered the intellectual landscape of the 20th century, asserting that there ‘really is a little bit of Warhol in all of us’. The question remains whether it is the Warhol of banal repetition or melancholic beauty. 

Nancy Spector is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and Commissioner of the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2007.