Taking A Stance–Written by our very own Kseniya Baranova (New York, NY)!

Joanne Artman Gallery
Feb 4, 2017 10:11PM

Walking through Whitney’s Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection exhibition this past weekend, what struck me the most was the incredible diversity that the work represented. Encompassing more than a hundred years of portraiture, the exhibition captures changing approaches and perspectives in the portraiture tradition over an amazing range of mediums. It highlights the rich and vast cultural history of America, and raises questions of how we perceive ourselves and others. The Whitney has long celebrated this rich diversity, and is partly supported, like many other such institutions by the National Endowment for the Arts. 

This walk served as a jarring reminder of the current crisis facing the National Endowment of the Arts, created over 50 years ago, to serve and celebrate this diversity, to address inequality and overcome any existing obstacles and bias, and to bring financial support to those that might not otherwise receive it through private funding. The agency’s support has been continuously eroded and vilified, dragged into debates of morality and elitism, leading to continuous cutbacks that took away crucial support from the regional groups and rural organizations that benefit from it the most. Minority and disadvantaged communities that didn’t have access to private funds were the most heavily impacted. In 1995 the funding was cut in almost half due to pressure from conservative groups, much of it stemming from disapproval of funding that supported controversial artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Although the NEA’s budget has recovered significantly since 1995, it now faces the biggest threat since Reagan unsuccessfully attempted a similar elimination as the current administration before canceling his plans due to overwhelming evidence of the agency’s necessity.

In the current political climate, we must ask ourselves what it means that organizations such as the NEA and its sister agency the National Endowment for the Humanities are being targeted for elimination. If the current attack on the NEA and NEH (not to mention the silencing of the EPA) is symbolic of larger forces in motion that threaten to deafen, subdue and stigmatize agencies that support critical thinking and awareness? How is it possible for a country as developed and advanced as the United States to have one of the lowest levels of federal arts funding of the developed world? How is it the reality that there is an attack on these crucial instruments of public education and support?  

Caption: Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse helped revitalize Grand Rapids’ ailing downtown. It was the initial project of the NEA’s public art initiative that awarded $15 million to help create almost 700 works. Photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library Source: arts.gov

Even in cases where the conservative public’s response to the use of the NEA’s funds was negative, the work in question can still be said to have sparked a conversation, leading to the opening of dialogue, however controversial. Is that not one of the signifiers of great art? To lead us to empathize, to break through our sense of self to inhabit even for just a moment another’s consciousness, to understand their point of view? Great literature, and great art is not prescriptive as some would lead others to believe, it offers an opportunity to listen, to look, to truly connect. In a world where the New York Times can be unjustly attacked and labeled fake news, where perceptions become skewed, facts no longer admitted as evidence, arguments cyclical, and Twitter a blatant platform for political propaganda for public consumption…In this world empathy and critical thinking become our defense. Art enriches us, elevates us, propels us to question, but most importantly, it helps us to relate on a basic human level.

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Joanne Artman Gallery