Breitbart’s Scoop: Community Organizing!

The intertubes are all abuzz this morning with rumors about Andrew Breitbart’s “explosive” new story on the NEA and Yosi Sergant, due at 11 AM today my time. Breitbart, who first popularized the ACORN-sting videos, will further the right-wing media campaign to discredit community organizing.

The NEA has been on the GOP’s hit-list for a very long time. Conservative philosophy admits at best a small role for public art funding; as you might expect, this is one reason why few successful artists are Republicans. To be fair, moderate republicans were instrumental in saving the NEA from Newt Gingrich’s chopping-block — but there are no moderates in the GOP anymore.

The arts also thrive on open exchange and education: two elements commonly associated with progressive thought. Artists tend to be politically active, and have been ever since the New Deal, when President Roosevelt included artists in his stimulus effort. Now, the NEA is part of Obama’s stimulus, too:

The $819 billion stimulus package that passed in the House of Representatives contains $50 million in funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, which would increase the agency’s current budget by 50 percent

As you might expect, conservatives are dismayed. Ryan L. Cole at NRO:

(G)overnments, past or present, do not exactly have a stellar record when it comes to patronizing the arts. Those who believe otherwise would do well to look at the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Communist China.

Or Paris. Or Venice. Or London. Public arts funding has a pedigree as ancient as the Sphinx. It is practiced in every modern democracy as a vital part of public works. Indeed, much of that New Deal money went to improving public buildings. There is today an entire field of “Public Art” with real economic and cultural impact:

  • An average of 55 million viewers experience public art firsthand every day, approximately 1,000 times the audience experiencing art galleries, museums and theaters combined. The Vietnam Memorial alone is visited by more than 10,000 people daily, and artworks in airports or subways are seen daily by over five million travelers.
  • Public art receives ten times the media attention other art forms receive.
  • An average public art project provides 50 times the economic impact of arts events in traditional venues, yet the cost to the public for public art is less than 50 cents per taxpayer per year, based on the amount of public funding used to fund public art. In two cases — Christo’s “Wrapped Reichstag” for Berlin, which generated more than $300 million in three weeks for that city, and Chicago’s “Cows on Parade,” which generated more than $200 million for that city — no taxpayer’s dollars were used.

On August 25th, Breitbart’s website broke a story about a conference call:

On Thursday August 6th, I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a conference call scheduled for Monday August 10th hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The call would include “a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!”

Breitbart blogger Patrick Courrielche opened his post thusly:

I recently wrote a critique of the art community’s lack of dissent in the face of many controversial decisions made by the current administration. Entitled “The Artist Formerly Known as Dissident,” one of the key points argued in the article was the potential danger associated with the use of the art community as a tool of the state. Little did I know how quickly this concern would be elevated to an outright probability. (Emphasis mine)

These scare words from someone who declined an invitation to participate in the Obama campaign on “philosophical grounds.” Here’s how Courrielche described the conference call:

Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.

It sounded, how should I phrase it…unusual, that the NEA would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate. I decided to call in, and what I heard concerned me. (Emphasis mine)

Forty-eight hours after the conference call, twenty-one arts organizations endorsed health care reform. The Washington Times picked up on the story, George Will stovepiped the scandal onto ABC’s This Week, and then the Times reported:

16 of the groups and affiliated organizations received nearly $2 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 150 days before the conference call. According to a Washington Times analysis of NEA records, more than $1 million of that total came from the stimulus package

Yosi Sergant, the NEA’s director of communications, was reassigned that same day, causing intense speculation in the right-wing blogosphere. And in fact, the only accusation Breitbart has presented with any merit is that Yosi Sergant was more than a “participant” in the conference call and “lied” about sending Courrielche the email invitation.

In other words, this is a nontroversy.

The crux of this attack is Courrielche’s view that Obama’s NEA “would invite the art community to a meeting to discuss issues currently under vehement national debate.” Yet the “issues” at issue — health care reform, green transformation, etc. — were hotly debated for months; practically all of 2008 was dedicated to a public discussion of these issues. Then an election was held, and Obama won on a platform of change. Moreover, it is bizarre to see a self-described “artist” suggest that his fellow artists should not take sides in controversial issues.

The rhetorical thrust of this attack, that Obama is turning artists into “tools of the state,” is a dog-whistle of Beckian fearmongering. Indeed, Beck has been promoting an “art-is-communist” meme. The arts are once again under attack.


Beck’s incredible ignorance about the art of Rockefeller center is deliberate. It is also a cautionary tale in why patrons of the arts have always reserved some editorial privileges. Quite simply, Congress approved stimulus funding for the arts; the government, like all arts patrons since the Medici family ruled Venice, is allowed to encourage some amount of direction.

Nor is there any visible pressure on artists. Rock The Vote has a “health care design contest,” for example — a voluntary call for submissions, not a command from the Kremlin. But it is precisely that volunteer aspect which invites Courrielche’s attack: he’s from the Ayn Rand School that considers volunteer programs to be a form of slavery.

It is precisely out of self-interest that artists, never held in esteem by movement conservatism, would want to get engaged with such issues. Why wouldn’t they get behind the public option, for example? Few professional artists have an employer providing health insurance; at a guess, I’d say that eighty percent of American artists are forced onto the individual market and would greatly benefit from a public option.

But it isn’t just in the interest of artists that arts play a role in promoting reform. Both the stimulus and the “greening” of our economy are in the long-term interests of every American. Complaining that Obama encourages artists to promote these things is the same as wanting them to fail.

Now, Breitbart’s Big Hollywood site hints at the new scoop:

Among the Obama Administration officials on the call were Buffy Wicks, Office of Public Engagement and the lead White House official on the President’s Serve.Gov initiative to promote national service. Also on the call was Nell Abernathy, Director of Outreach for Serve.Gov. One of their main goals on the call, it seems, was to encourage artists to produce works that would reinforce the President’s call for service; specifically through the Serve.Gov web-portal.

As Dana Loesch recently reported at Big Government, the Serve.Gov portal funnels citizens to volunteer or service projects connected with ACORN and other leftist groups. The taxpayer-funded website is evolving into a cyber-recruitment tool for the progressive movement. (Emphasis mine)

And there you have it: Obama’s administration is up to community organizingoh, the horror! — which is only a problem if you don’t believe in public funding for the arts, want Obama and America to fail, or belong to the Ayn Rand cult.

UPDATE: The much-ballyhooed post is up. Here’s a review.

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • Anonymous

    I think you were trying to make a point but I believe you ended up making the case that taxpayer money is and has been used for political purposes.

  • Matt Osborne

    Anonymous, the point is that taxpayers are paying for stimulus and green conversion. To organize artists for the success of these initiatives is to promote America's success.

    You're just fixated on what you think is a scandal. It's not.

  • Woodell T. Maltbie

    Some conservative folks just don't care for Jesus on the cross in a jar of p** p**. Yes, they got a problem. Marino, I think, did that one. He should get more money from jerks like Glenn Beck to do more religious art. I think artists should get paid more money to use body fluids and d** d** to enrich this country. Time to raise taxes! I like good art!

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