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What Kind of NEA will Landesman Create?


PUBLISHED: May 16, 2009

President Obama still has the political clout to appoint anyone he wants to the post of Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and on Wednesday he selected a cowboy, of sorts. Rocco Landesman, big-time theater producer, who is known more for his showy eccentricities (er, racehorse gambling?) than his administrative abilities, will assume the job most recently held by poet Dana Gioia. Landesman has been at the production helm of some of the biggest shows on Broadway in the last ten years; among them “Angels in America,” “Jersey Boys,” and “The Producers.” Infamous for slapping a $400 price on tickets for “The Producers” to deter scalpers, he’s said that he believes in a “free market system where the market ultimately sets the price for buyers.”

What does the choice of this free-market-favoring maverick producer mean for the future of non-profit arts funding? Gioia, who stepped down on inauguration day this year, was a part-time poet and a full-time businessman. He came to the NEA as an executive from General Foods and never quite shed his corporate ways. During his five-year tenure, he used his business savvy to sell the NEA to Congress in a way it hadn’t been before, through constituent-based touring initiatives like American Masterpieces and the easy-to-digest literary programs, The Big Read and Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.

But this is what Gioia was always meant to do. Funding for the NEA steadily increased over the past five years, recently settling at $155 million, $20 million short of its 1992 peak. Those hyperbolic e-mail forwards begging me to save the NEA from annihilation by the political right appeared less and less in my inbox. Friends of a certain generation forgot the culture wars in the face of the war on terror. The NEA stayed alive by staying safe. But just because nothing is in danger of dying doesn’t mean nothing is at stake.

While Gioia came from General Foods, he also came from the old school of literature and poetry. When I worked at the NEA, the staff book club read The Odyssey at his recommendation, rather than the work of living, breathing (and often young) writers that exist on the pages of literary journals and are regularly funded by the agency’s creative writing fellowships. He relentlessly quoted Shakespeare at board meetings and I could tell that teleconferencing Ray Bradbury into a book club event was as contemporary and edgy as he was willing to go.

So while we can examine what President Obama meant by choosing a Manhattan mover and shaker to lead the country’s most important arts funding body, perhaps it is more important to examine what it can or should mean. The agency is no longer, as Gioia said when he found it, “demoralized, defensive, and unconfident.” Then this is the perfect moment for Landesman to step in and get risky. Maybe, instead of using The Big Read to get communities to engage with The Great Gatsby and Grapes of Wrath (however economically prescient those may be now) the NEA could get them to devour the likes of work by Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri. Maybe the NEA could revisit the definition and semantic impact of the term “American Masterpiece.” Maybe Chairman Landesman can use his own brand of business savvy, however conservative, to further support the living, breathing artists he worked with on a daily basis on Broadway.

We shouldn’t expect recklessness. The NEA creative writing fellowships are the only individual fellowships left over after the Mapplethorpe scandal decimated arts funding in the 1990s. Those fellowships have served my community of young, struggling writers well, providing over $1,000,000 to poets this year alone. But perhaps it’s time to do more than fund their survival. Perhaps getting risky means it’s finally time to start treating living artists as the reason for funding from Congress, instead of a quiet afterthought. Perhaps if that happens, they will become the new American masters.

10 Comments

G. Tod Slone's picture
Problem with the NEA is that it tends to fund bourgeois established-order writers only. It vehemently rejects anyone apt to criticize it or even challenge its staff to debate. It is an autocratic agency that serves the status quo, of which I suspect you form part. Can’t seem to find Ted G’s email address. I wanted to inform him that Inside Higher Ed censored my comments RE the New England Review this week… to see if he’d give a damn… not about the comments but about censorship. Those comments, BTW, constitute my latest blog: http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/. Check it out. You might chuckle at the cartoon I did on Parini sitting on top of a loaf of Wunderbrot. What strikes me most about the American literary scene today is its uncannily anchored bourgeois nature. Few even question and challenge it. Well, will my comments be censored? That seems to be a bourgeois activity of predilection. Or is VQR actually a rare academic proponent of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy? G. Tod Slone, Founding Editor The American Dissident, a Journal of Literature, Democracy & Dissidence A 501 c3 nonprofit organization providing a forum for vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, And for examining the dark side of the academic/literary established-order milieu www.theamericandissident.org 1837 Main St. Concord, MA 01742
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G. Tod Slone's picture
Problem with the NEA is that it tends to fund bourgeois established-order writers only. It vehemently rejects anyone apt to criticize it or even challenge its staff to debate. It is an autocratic agency that serves the status quo, of which I suspect you form part. Can’t seem to find Ted G’s email address. I wanted to inform him that Inside Higher Ed censored my comments RE the New England Review this week… to see if he’d give a damn… not about the comments but about censorship. Those comments, BTW, constitute my latest blog: http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/. Check it out. You might chuckle at the cartoon I did on Parini sitting on top of a loaf of Wunderbrot. What strikes me most about the American literary scene today is its uncannily anchored bourgeois nature. Few even question and challenge it. Well, will my comments be censored? That seems to be a bourgeois activity of predilection. Or is VQR actually a rare academic proponent of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy?
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G. Tod Slone's picture
PS: Evidently Landesman was chosen because he’d continue in the bourgeois tradition of the NEA and Dana Gioia.
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Mary Campbell Gallagher's picture
The Odyssey and Shakespeare are quite good. Worth talking about, I should think. What a strange bias in favor of fresh ink, as opposed to quality. MCG
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
What a strange bias in favor of fresh ink, as opposed to quality.
You present a false dichotomy. Why not quality and freshness? Is it your belief that no recent work is quality work? Additionally, I can’t see why The Odyssey and Shakespeare are in need of government promotion. Most every high school student in the country reads at least one play by the bard. Romeo & Juliet was a smash hit for Leonardo DeCaprio, rendered entirely in the original tongue. The Odyssey is nearly as widely read, and O Brother Where Art Thou? was also an enormously popular movie that, while a reinterpretation, likewise spurred a great deal of interest in a work that hadn’t exactly fallen out of favor. My guess is that the bulk of the NEA staff had already seen a production of or read the script for at least one Shakespeare play, and likewise read at least a portion of The Odyssey. Thus no substantial benefit is likely to have resulted from having them read work with which they were already familiar. Why subsidize something that’s already doing so well in the free market?
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G. Tod Slone's picture
Aja, did you censor the comments I made last night on your entry? Is that what it’s come to in the USA today: censor all voices that one does not like? What kind of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy, does that make? The following were the comments I made. Please do reconsider posting them and please do educate yourself and examine the First Amendment of the US Constitution and study the following statement made by the US Supreme Court in 1949 (Terminello vs. Chicago): “[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute… is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment…” G. Tod Slone Says: May 16th, 2009 at 10:21 pm Problem with the NEA is that it tends to fund bourgeois established-order writers only. It vehemently rejects anyone apt to criticize it or even challenge its staff to debate. It is an autocratic agency that serves the status quo, of which I suspect you form part. Can’t seem to find Ted G’s email address. I wanted to inform him that Inside Higher Ed censored my comments RE the New England Review this week… to see if he’d give a damn… not about the comments but about censorship. Those comments, BTW, constitute my latest blog: http://wwwtheamericandissidentorg.blogspot.com/. Check it out. You might chuckle at the cartoon I did on Parini sitting on top of a loaf of Wunderbrot. What strikes me most about the American literary scene today is its uncannily anchored bourgeois nature. Few even question and challenge it. Well, will my comments be censored? That seems to be a bourgeois activity of predilection. Or is VQR actually a rare academic proponent of vigorous debate, cornerstone of democracy? G. Tod Slone Says: May 16th, 2009 at 10:21 pm PS: Evidently Landesman was chosen because he’d continue in the bourgeois tradition of the NEA and Dana Gioia.
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G. Tod Slone's picture
Sorry. I just noted my comments were posted. Not easy to locate for some reason, especially when your blog notes “O Comments.” Again, my apologies. I am quite sensitive to being censored because I’ve been censored by the Academy of American Poets, Inside Higher Ed, NewPages.com, and elsewhere.
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Jacob Silverman's picture
Mr. Slone, I don’t think you have to worry about censorship here; rather all comments on VQR, I believe, must be approved for posting to make sure spam doesn’t get through (which this blog gets its fair share of). But dissent and constructive critiques are welcome.
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G. Tod Slone's picture
G. Tod Slone · 8 years ago
I can’t even find the comments to this article. The link on the email I received, announcing a comment has been made, takes me here. When I locate where it says 7 comments and press that button, I still don’t get the comments. Where are they? Do I want spend all morning hunting for them? Nope. Anyhow, congrats to VQR for NOT censoring (filtering, moderating or whatever other inane euphemism bourgeois academics and literati prefer calling it today)! It clearly stands apart in that sense. The Academy of American Poets, for example, censored all comments I made on its forum and even banned me from future participation. No bad words, no threats, nada. In fact, I was trying to hawk the journal I edit at a local library. The ref lady called the cops on me, then issued a no-trespass warrant. Wow. Watertown Free Public Library. Talk about thin skin. Democracy demands THICK, not thin easily offended skin. Inside Higher Ed has censored my comments 3 times. Does anyone give a damn. Certainly not Cary Nelson, AAUP president! My comments were censored regarding his article against censorship! Nelson remained silent when I wrote him about it. Censorship is on the increase in America. On another note, far too many intelligent, educated literati seem entirely incapable of questioning and challenging THE GIVEN. It is astonishing to me how often statements are issued as if made in gold: “one of the most important quarterlies in the country” or nominated for this or got that award. Why don’t people wonder who, for example, who makes these determinations behind the scenes? Because a board of NEA panelists designated The American Dissident, the literary journal I edit, as “poor” and “low” does not, for example, necessarily mean it is “poor” and “low.” For those fellows, it sure was. But why? Did the journal’s penchant for criticizing bourgeois fellows of the established order have anything to do with it? Certainly! Did the journal’s criticism of the NEA have anything to do with it? Well, let’s allow you to answer that one. Would Aja, freshly minted from UV’s MFA have the guts and intelligence to question and challenge… UV’s MFA program? Well, let’s allow you to answer that one. G. Tod Slone, Founding Editor The American Dissident: Journal of Literature, Democracy & Dissidence A 501 c3 Nonprofit Providing a Forum for Vigorous Debate, Cornerstone of Democracy www.theamericandissident.org 1837 Main St. Concord, MA 01742
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G. Tod Slone's picture
G. Tod Slone · 8 years ago
Apparently, to view the comments, one must make a comment? Odd.
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