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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

All the president's men

National Endowment for the Arts takes propaganda to a new level

Issue: "Africa, Inc.," Oct. 10, 2009

When President Obama announced his intention to speak to schoolchildren, reaction was swift: Should we be worried that the kids are going to come home and demand their parents support the president's healthcare plan? Not so much, apparently, but a more subversive effort at influence was going forward at the same time.

In late August, a report surfaced on the "Big Hollywood" website, a gathering of conservatives in entertainment and the arts. Patrick Courrielche, an entrepreneur and consultant, had received an email from Yosi Sergant, Director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts. It was an invitation to a conference call of movers and shakers in the creative community, scheduled for Aug. 10, to be hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The purpose was finding ways to "work together to promote a more civically engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change!"

Courrielche's unseemliness detector went up immediately. He dialed in, and what he heard disturbed him further: callers encouraged to use their talents to support the president's initiatives in healthcare, education, energy, or the environment. "Take photos. Take video. Post it on your blogs. Get the word out. Like I said, this is a community that knows how to make a stink. Do it. Do it within your town. Do it nationally. Call on other producers, marketers, publicists, art-you know-artists, people from within our community and get them engaged."

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The call bore fruit only days later, when Rock the Vote announced a "Health Care Design Contest" and began receiving artwork in support of a government-controlled plan. Soon after, another conference-call invitation went out from the White House Office of Public Engagement.

But in the meantime, The Washington Times had picked up on the story and asked Yosi Sergant for comment. He did not deny that the conference call took place, but insisted the invitation did not come from the NEA. Au contraire, said Courrielche in another post-offering a screen shot of the email he received with Sergant's name on it.

Several weeks later, a tape of the conference call surfaced, blowing the lid off any attempted coverup. Clearly the nation's largest arts funding agency was being used to herd would-be tastemakers into the president's corral.

So what's wrong with that? For one, the NEA was founded to support excellence in the arts, enlarge their presence in local communities, and increase the quality of arts education-not cheerlead a particular agenda. Over time the agency's mission has bent in the direction of the prevailing political wind, and grants are doled out not necessarily on a work's merit but on its correctness. But this is the first time, to my knowledge at least, that the NEA has attempted to gin up art for specific policies, and in a particularly artless manner: Hey, kids! Let's grind out some propaganda!

Artistic propaganda is hardly new, nor is it always contemptible. Even in the USA, artists have been recruited to help inspire public support during times of crisis; think of James Montgomery Flagg's World War I "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster. But "Uncle Barack wants to use your talents for his policies" lacks the enduring resonance that qualifies art as art.

Even though Sergant has been "reassigned" within the NEA, this habit of administrative overreach bears watching. "This is just the beginning," participants in the conference call were told. "We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government."

Speak with the government? Ever since the Vietnam War, if not earlier, artists have prided themselves on their calling to speak to the government. The chief value of art, in their view, is its counter-culturalism. If the arts community becomes a tool, or at least a confederate, of the state, does this mean the state itself is counter-cultural?

Or does it mean that the arts community, for all the grant money it stands to gain, is one cheap date?
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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