Pop Culture

Was Ramona Real? How a Book Became More Than a Legend

Cut to Bob Dale - An off-camera chat with the bow-tied veteran of San Diego television

Salvation Row - An uneasy Episcopalian hears the word on Imperial Avenue

Lester Bangs -The Hardback

Dots on the Map - Heading East on Old Highway 80

Silents Were Golden - Why early filmmakers zoomed in on San Diego

Where Wild Things Were- Something is lost when something is built

One for the Zipper- The quintessential carnival ride must bring chaos to the calm center of the soul

Deadhead Redux - No one knows for sure why Grateful Dead fans have such a drive to communicate with each other but they do-and they’ve turned Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon’s “The Golden Road” into the most successful fanzine in the history of the form.

The Last Anniversary - An Altamont Memoir

Desolation Row -The lonesome cry of Jack Kerouac

Faster Than a Speeding Mythos: Superman at 50 - Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend

When Art is No Object -The Eloquent Object - At the Oakland Museum, Great Hall, through May 15.

“He Wasn’t Dying to Live in L.A.” - Intrepid Journalist’s Last Dispatch Before His Collapse

Search for Honesty in Post-war Life - Plenty

Armageddon Averted: Where Will You be on August 16. 1987? - Inside Art Goes to the Frontiers of the Mind

Of Speckle-Faced Rats and Supernovas - Michael McClure

George Coates - The Physics of Performance and the Art of Iceskating

No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE - Maryanne Amacher

A Pynchon's Time

Grants - State of Art/Art of the State

Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time - In Berkeley

The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

Noh Quarter

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

Philip Whalen

State of Art/Art of the State

August, 1987

This is a sketch of my next novel—it's science fiction.

There's this futuristic society where communications and computer technology have transformed the world into one big culture; space exploration is business as usual; supersonic passenger liners streak through the skies. Banking and international finance are seamless hegemonies that blanket the world, secretly deciding the outcomes of wars and plagues. Floating like heavy continents on these tectonic underpinnings of universal money, a Zoroastrian dualism of political ideology—communism/capitalism—wages perpetual, deadly battle against itself. Materialism, greed and lust for power are the ideals of the age, while singing, dancing and painting are relegated to the status of despised or, at best, doted upon occupations. Still, the singers, dancers and painters struggle to preserve and perpetuate human values—protesting and agitating against the status quo—against dangerous technology, against the tyranny of money, against political hypocrisy and absolutism. Even the affluent and dulled masses admire the artists as trustees of the social conscience. As the story progresses, a frightening irony becomes apparent: the artists are sustained by artificial injections of cash, and these injections are administered by the political dualism and its silent money underpinnings—the very forces that the art is out to subvert.

I think I'll call it Bread and Circuses.

I once worked as a secretary in the psychology department at U.C. Berkeley. I spent a lot of time preparing grant applications for scientific projects—a painfully tedious occupation not just for me, but for everyone concerned. Professors, research associates, graduate students, undergraduate assistants, lab technicians, and administrators were required to put in countless hours every time a grant came up for renewal, let alone when a new grant was applied for. Past budgets had to be accounted for and future budgets carefully projected—to the last dollar. A thorough analysis of previous work had to be written, rewritten and rewritten again; the same with future projects. The livelihoods and career outlooks of everyone concerned were always on the line. Not even the most inspired researcher could get a brilliant idea funded simply on the basis of its brilliance— every research proposal had to pass through a long evolution, a kind of in-house tailoring process, before it was sent off to the agency angels, until it had assumed that shape most likely to draw cash support.

It's depressing to realize that artists go through the same deadening rigamarole that scientific types are forced to lavish so much of their time and attention on. Beyond the time and energy wasted, another disturbing possibility raises its head; the fact that arts projects are tailored, made suitable for funding in the same fashion raises the spectre of a defacto state, or official art. On the face of it, the facts seem to speak against this. All over the Bay Area, if not all over the country, artists of all stripes turn out socially critical work, constantly taking the status quo to task for its political and spiritual crimes. Still, if the social critiques are effective—that is if they're truly subversive—why are they being funded by the very powers they criticize?

One ancient and durable tradition of art casts the artist as a kind of prophet or priest, whose function is to reveal beauty to the people and cry out against the world's injustices. Maybe this is a vision of the artist that should be cast aside; maybe we're too modem—postmodern, even—for such melodramatic notions. If so, what tradition should take place? The artist as independent contractor? The artist as court jester, regaling the king and queen with home hitting satire while outside the palace walls the armies and famines grind on? The artist as outright servant of the state? The artist and socially disenfranchised, like the hungry and homeless, whose hardships the government must be legally blackmailed into succoring because it is "the right thing to do?" The artist as vestigial holdover of a by-gone era? The artist as a kind of human national wilderness area? The artist as conscientious objector, waiting across the Canadian border for an amnesty? The artist as irrelevant throwback?

If we have no taste for these interpretations and decide to retain the idea that the "Poet is priest," as Allen Ginsberg put it, then state and corporate funding for artists becomes something like John the Baptist receiving a salary from King Herod-- or David from Goliath (who was, you'll remember, a Phillistine). If Goliath is keeping David supplied with slingshots, do you think he's going to let him have one powerful enough to fell a giant?

When looking into the matter of grant-funding for the arts, a whole zoology of ironies jumps out at you. These range from the mega-fauna of philosophical and political ironies—for instance, the fact that under Reagan grant-funding has been cut back, making it necessary for arts groups to scramble ever more frantically for less and less available cash, which locks them ever more inextricably into a bureaucratic modus vivendi—to smaller, more procedural, but no less troubling ironies. One very germane irony is that fact that journalists play a key role in the giant-funding process. Nothing goes over so well when an arts group is hitting up an agency than a thick sheaf of newspaper and magazine articles about the group's activities. A sub-irony here is the fact that the articles that make up this sheaf needn't necessarily be positive in tone—coverage is coverage, and the main idea is for the agency to know that the group is out there being visible in the community. Laudatory coverage is the best thing, of course, but the important thing is simply to get inches in the local press. (I'm told that the classical music critic for one of the major dailies refuses to write about concerts put on by small organizations because he feels they'll only use his writing to get grants. The possibility that many of these concerts may be—certainly are—well worth reviewing doesn't enter into his logic, if that's what it can be called.)

Another irony, an even more germane one, is the fact that if there were grant monies available for freelance writers of magazine articles, yours truly would probably be filling out the forms right now.

It brings to mind the old joke about bad restaurants—the food is terrible and the portions are small. Take, for example the Noh Oratorio Society—a local group that puts on musical and literary shows. They told me recently that the Society is in the throes of qualifying for a California Arts Council grant; if secured, it will be their first grant award of any kind. "We had to send in a lot of information." he related, "which involved a great deal of bookkeeping: money in and money out, our projected five-year plan, salaries, who salaries go to, the history of the organization, and a press packet with everything that's been written about the Noh Oratorio Society, including samples of posters, press releases, primed programs, photos, and slides of productions. "Last week we got a call from CAC that they were sending Renny Pritikin, the director of New Langton Arts, to view one of our Noh Particular Monday concerts, [NOS director] Claude Duvall and I also have a meeting scheduled with Pritikin; among other things, we'll go over a questionnaire he needs to fill out for the agency. Also, I'll give him year-to-date business statements, and information about what we're planning to do."

Judging from this, you might suppose that the group was applying for funds to cover its operating costs for a year or more, or at least to bankroll a couple of productions. But you would be wrong. If their considerable efforts meet with success, the Noh Oratorio Society will receive funds from CAC with which to hire a publicist.

Then there's the case of "The Lab, a performance art collective which has worked long and hard to achieve some local visibility and fiscal recognition. They were recently awarded $50,000 by the Hotel Tax Fund. Happy ending? Maybe. Before the city agency that controls the fund sends a messenger over to The Lab with a cashier's check, the collective will have to come up with $25,000 in matching funds. Even as we speak, our friends are busy applying to a number of other agencies and hitting up their regular donors: in August, they plan to hire someone full-time to do nothing but coordinate the fund-raising effort.

I once interviewed a well-known documentary filmmaker who smirkingly referred to the PBS television network as the Petroleum Broadcasting System—a joke I got immediately, since I'm not blind and had seen the Mobil Oil logo on the screen at the beginning and end of almost every PBS series I'd ever sat all the way through. I could still hear the words “This program was made possible by a grant from Mobil Oil" ringing in my ears. The subject had come up because the filmmaker was worried that his new documentary wouldn't get picked up by the public-service network, which would not only seriously prejudice the work's chances of being seen by as many people as possible but would remove a major source of cash flow he's been counting on since beginning the project. The film itself, like all of his works, was of a marked leftist bent: it was implicitly and explicitly critical of the status quo, especially of such bodies as the United States government and big corporations like Mobil Oil. But his smirk didn't seem to convey the idea that the film would be turned down because of its political ramifications; it was more along the lines of "Well, what can you expect from such a bureaucracy?"

Sometimes I wonder to what extent PBS is a microcosm of the state of the arts today. The network is earnest and liberal in its programming: it treats us to symphonies, dramatized works of literature, plays by noted playwrights, educational films ranging from the deadly to the glossy and formulaic. One disembodied voice or another is forever cajoling us to send in those pledge dollars so that we can continue to receive "the kind of viewing fare you won't get on any commercial station." It's also dry as dust, stodgy, pompous, and presents even the most exciting modern culture as something best suited for an airless museum cubicle. For all its ceaseless pursuit of our hard-earned twenty five, fifty, or hundred dollar donations, it seems to survive mainly by dint of big grants from big state and corporate agencies—a fact which, in my reading and viewing experience, is usually passed over in silence. The network brags immoderately about the absence of commercial interruptions in its programming schedule: yet the ubiquity of that Mobil Oil logo makes me wonder whether everything they broadcast isn't a commercial interruption—of a particularly insidious kind.

When I was a child growing up in a liberal household, the question of government subsidies for the arts was always in the air. From my family's side of the fence, being against arts subsidies meant being against art—after all, who could conceivably object to artists getting their fiscal due out of public revenues? The Republican types, on the other hand, were ingenuous enough to come right out and suggest that artists were pencil-necked geeks who shouldn't be permitted to freeload off hard-working taxpayers. As is often the case with ideology-as-usual, certain very important issues were wholly obscured by these rhetorical positions: and they have remained obscured. I haven't heard of any radical groups who put out a line different from the standard liberal position, although radical politics would seem inimical to the idea of artists having to perpetually seek largesse from their de facto masters.

Of course, the sad and incontrovertible fact is that there's no way the arts can survive on their own steam these days. The time, logistics, and physical and human resources required to put on theater, for example, simply can't be underwritten by the public's interest alone, a truth which is compounded by the fact that, since television (commercial and otherwise) supplies instant, low-cost entertainment to every household, the public's interest in flesh-and-blood art isn't what it used to be.

However, what the public's interest "used to be" is itself an unclear matter. In my more romantic and reactionary moments, I tend to harken back to some vague Golden Age when box-office receipts supported theater, book sales supported publishers and authors, and gallery revenues kept visual artists in the black (so to speak). On the other hand I couldn’t swear that the Golden Age ever existed. After all, artists like Bach and Mozart and Da Vinci were at the mercy of their noble patrons, while William Faulkner during most of his career really could have used a couple of handouts from some foundation. If it's a little depressing to see a name like Rockefeller on the dedication page of Robert Stone's Children of Light, it would be far more depressing if Stone had been unable to write the book at all.

Still, the more I think about it the more troubled I am by that one issue—whether arts projects are sometimes tailored in embryo so as to qualify for funding. Knowing full well that it's a loaded question. I called some arts-groups types. Here's what they had to say.

Annette Rose, executive director of Antenna Theater: "I can't recall or even imagine ever creating or tailoring a project just to qualify for a grant. Instead, we take the project to an agency that's likely to be interested in it."

Robert Bedoya, executive director, Intersection for the Arts: "It works the other way: instead of creating a project for a specific funder, we look for a funder who'll be interested in funding the project. Funders tend to have roving agendas—one year they're interested in literary projects, one year in dance, another year in drama; and you have to stay abreast of those changing circumstances. At one point an agency will be interested in special projects, at another point they'll fund operating costs only."

Nora Vaughn, Black Repertory Group: "Never."

As for the corollary—whether artists' reliance on state and corporate funding promotes an official art—we'll have to wait until the next several pages of history have been turned and posterity gets a crack at evaluating the creative fruits of these years. When it comes to the groups mentioned above, the question seems almost ludicrous. Disparate as their creative activities are (and many others around town) these groups all—in one form or another—cry out against the prevailing social and political and economic order and champion the rights and dignity of the individual. Indeed, the groups' reliance on money from the government and the corporate world may do no more than say wonderful things about the society we live in—one in which individual and artistic impulses are altruistically given monetary support by the very elements they criticize. The problem is, this rosy view of things would seem to suggest there's no need for such art in the first place.

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