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Book Explores Politics of Art in American History

March 4, 2009

The images of protestors with signs, hecklers, police barricades, and the storm of passionate editorials in local papers may have nothing to do with an election or any kind of foreign or domestic policy. The divisions , debates, and bold opinions relate not to a new zoning law, health care, immigration or even the environment. What's a stake here may be as easily described as paint on a canvas.

Whether it involves a play in Charlotte or an exhibit in Cincinnati, the intersection of art and politics in America are as likely to result in a collision as they are a collaboration. A new book, "Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy" by David A. Smith, examines the relationship between the power of art and the force of politics and the intersection of their roles in a democracy.

Smith's examination includes a broad spectrum of art and politics in America but especially draws attention to the developments since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. He examines the role of the agency as being one that has to manage the tension between individual creativity and community standards.

"At the heart of art and politics is a sense of exchange- in return for funding from the government, the community will benefit from the works of the artist. Conflict can arise when the creativity of the individual artist clashes with the tastes of the community," says Smith.

Most attention to public funding for the arts arises during times of controversial artistic works. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw tumultuous times for the NEA due to its involvement with the photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. Other controversies also arose bringing to light the meaning, purpose, and place of art in a democracy. In many ways, as Smith explores, this helped to bring the public and the community back into the conversation about what projects should be funded.

"Ultimately, a funding agency for the arts, such as the NEA cannot ignore the community. The community matters, and that's very important because the very nature of art is for it to have a life being observed and absorbed by a community," says Smith.

Smith points to the success of the Shakespeare in American Communities program as a good example of a collaboration that brings together communities and strong arts programs. The initiative, supported in part by the NEA, allows professional theater productions of Shakespeare plays to tour to small and mid-sized communities throughout the country. While some critics say the program is too "safe," others hail it for its ability to take quality theatrical productions to communities that otherwise wouldn't be able to enjoy the shows.

Although many people in the communities are seeing Shakespeare for the first time, the program remains successful. "People are touched by its humanity," says Smith of the Shakespeare plays. The well-performed productions, many produced by leading theatres across the country, help make the shows accessible and reveal something intrinsically human about Shakespeare's plays.

That human element makes the production all the more powerful for the community audience, says Smith.

"Experiencing great art has a profound impact on people," says Smith. "We have to start with this belief that arts make life better, and art exists for more than just the artists."