In a piece for last Monday’s Washington Post, the paper's culture critic, Philip Kennicott, noted that this past week, the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington simultaneously hosted two events. One was the National Endowment for the Arts’ fortieth-anniversary celebration; the other was a non-NEA-funded exhibition that featured “art as provocation, political commentary, utopian imagination, protest and, sometimes, pure unmitigated rage. It deals with gender, race, war and imperialism.”
The NEA, of course, used to bankroll stridently left-wing art like that found in the AU show. Kennicott observed that nowadays, however, such work is “utterly removed from the new NEA's focus on education, arts access, reading groups and promoting things like Shakespeare and poetry,” and lamented “how foreign the idea of politicians participating in an artist's fancy has become to Americans.”
Kennicott mentioned that one work in the exhibition is “a large charcoal drawing of Ronald Reagan as Mickey Mouse painting anti-communist slogans with a bucket of blood” and later indicated, apropos of what he calls the political “disengagement” from art, how disengaged he is from the sensibility of the average taxpayer who formerly funded NEA outrages (emphasis added):
Are both parties in this breakup equally guilty? Art, or at least overtly political art, is generally presumed to be the wayward partner, the one that took provocation to the limit, and forced the government (and most everyone else) to abandon the relationship. From a political and pragmatic point of view, that's probably true.
But throughout [the exhibition], you sense a different emotional dynamic. The artists here don't consider the relationship over. They're still talking, if not with politicians, at least at them. They have more hope, when it comes to politics, than most politicians have when it comes to art. As you walk through the exhibition, past the gay Latino art and the flying Jesus with swastikas under his wings, you can't help but wonder how the great gap between the pragmatic political mind and the idealistic and sometimes childlike artistic one might be spanned.
...If you removed Ronald Reagan, Mickey Mouse, Jesus and the swastika, this show would lose a lot of its traction in the real world of specific political meanings.
These symbols feel strangely innocent here, almost as if the artists deploy them without thought or concern, like children putting stickers on their lunchboxes or notebooks. They're habits, or tics, or just highly polished epithets that can't detach themselves from the artists' basic vocabulary. Underneath, there is real political thought, real engagement, but for many people, a handful of political symbols shut down access to it.