The brutal barbed fence of pragmatism

In the eighties poets, writers and performance artists I ran with debated whether we should take government grant money. Some argued the grant compromised our work and limited what we could express. I wrote grants that funded other artists and paid them to perform. I never felt the pressure of the government censor. I did feel the pressure of balancing the books, finding the matching funds and crunching the numbers needed to write the grants and report quarterly. I couldn't have done it without my wife, who kept track of the accounts. The more time I devoted to business, the less time to write and schedule performances (another time-consuming task)

Mapplethorpe and Serrano changed the censorship equation[1], not by forcing more censorship from the granting agencies, but by creating a backlash that pressured the government and other sponsors to cut funding to the arts.

None of this diminishes the fact that the literary arts have are valued even less than editorial writing and reporting. This is especially true with poetry, one of the oldest literary forms and the foundation of Western literature. Poets (and musicians) were frequently asked to perform at benefits, rallies and public events. Always for free. Those of us who agreed thought the exposure would lead to income. It may have, but never in way we could verify.

The consequence? Some of us lived in poverty forcing us to duck creditors and live in stress, others took jobs where we wrote when our bosses weren’t looking and (if we were smart) saved our files somewhere other than the hard drive. What we lacked was uninterrupted time to focus on our work, or even sit down refreshed and ready for the day. Did our work suffer? I don’t know, but I suspect we could have written better, and more often.

American society must confront the reality that what we don’t value, we often surrender. Writers and artists face an even colder reality: American society has devalued and lost democratic ideals, a sense of social justice, an expectation of income equality. The appreciation of art has always been segregated from more noble and universal values by the brutal barbed fence of pragmatism. Artists have been the migrant workers of the economy since the rise of capital as a driving social force. The loss of art (and, ultimately, reporting) will be seen as a nuisance, not a sacrifice.

[1]Mapplethorpe for his fisting photo and Serrano for his photo “Piss Christ,” a rosary in a jar of urine.

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