February 8, 2003

A Song of Themselves


Last week a group of American poets showed once again that artists can be the worst enemies of the arts. Laura Bush, as part of her efforts to encourage reading by honoring literature, had invited several poets to the White House for a symposium. One of the invitees perhaps channeling Eartha Kitt, who lambasted Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War at a White House luncheon in 1968 decided to use the occasion to protest the administration's Iraq policy. He solicited antiwar poems to present to Mrs. Bush at the White House and posted them on a Web site.

One poet, Marilyn Hacker, offered this contribution: "while, claiming they're `defending democracy,'/ our homespun junta exports the war machine/ . . . Jews who learned their comportment from storm troopers/ act out the nightmares that woke their grandmothers." The White House canceled the symposium. The poets expressed indignation that the administration was stifling their freedom of speech.

The issue is not, of course, Iraq (about which I have my own uncertainties). Nor is it about freedom of speech these poets are free to read their poems in their own forums, as many have said they will on Wednesday, the day on which the symposium was to have taken place.

Rather, it is about bad behavior, the sort I have grown increasingly weary of over the last 35 years. In the late 1960's, as a counsel in Richard Nixon's White House, I was assigned to what I called (laughingly at first, more seriously later) the "arts and riots" beat. I worked with the chairmen of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to increase their budgets. Partly because Nixon was such an unlikely arts advocate, the effort succeeded, perhaps too well.

As the endowments' budgets grew exponentially, so did the conflict between politicians who disliked spending the government's money on the arts and artists who disliked the idea that politics should have any role in determining how public money should be spent. The results of this conflict ranged from the irrational to the surreal. The arts endowment gave a grant for an anthology that included a "visual poem" that read, in its entirety, "lighght." (I always have trouble remembering exactly how many "gh's" it had.) The award sent a Republican representative, William Scherle, into a permanent orbit of anti-endowment outrage.

More seriously, as the Vietnam schism widened, Leonard Bernstein composed the fierce antiwar opera "Mass." President Nixon declined to attend the premiere, on Kennedy Center's opening night. Bernstein asked me to try to change Nixon's mind, arguing quite seriously that if the president did not attend, he would be impermissibly mixing art and politics.

More strange, the American Film Institute, newly established by Congress and housed in the federally subsidized Kennedy Center, scheduled a showing of the Costa-Gavras film "State of Siege," which treated with sympathy the killing of an American hostage by leftist rebels in a Latin American dictatorship. Knowing the film would be a boon to opponents of federal arts financing, I asked the help of the institute's director, George Stevens Jr. He canceled the showing, with the shrewd explanation that it was perhaps less than appropriate to show a pro-assassination movie in a center named after an assassinated president.

Still, the endowments kept their Congressional support through occasional crises like these until 1990, when two events an exhibition of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and a photograph by Andres Serrano of a crucifix in the artist's urine pushed them to the edge of extinction.

Congress appointed a commission, which I led along with John Brademas, a former Democratic representative who had been the principal draftsman of the legislation that created the arts and humanities endowments. Our commission's unanimous report centered on a statement that in awarding grants the endowments could, consistent with the Constitution, take into account the country's diversity of sensibilities and beliefs. This proposition was challenged by disappointed grant-seekers, but upheld when the Supreme Court ruled against Karen Finley, she of the chocolate-saturated performance pieces.

The recent incident, while more genteel than events past, threatens to create the same kind of resentment and mistrust in places important to the country's cultural life.

Here is a concrete example. One of the poems originally scheduled for the White House was "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes. The poem was to have been sung by cast members of "Harlem Song," a musical showcase of Harlem history that ran last year at the renovated Apollo Theater on 125th Street and is scheduled to return this year.

This came about because, at the behest of the show's producer, I made "Harlem Song" known to a friend at the White House, who then traveled to New York to see the show. The invitation from Mrs. Bush followed. People connected with the show were excited over the national exposure the symposium would bring and the possibility that it might lead to an invitation to present the entire show at the White House.

With or without the White House, "Harlem Song" will go on. But when the symposium was canceled, the disappointment of people associated with the show was distinct. So was mine: with colleagues in New York and Washington, I have been working to build a museum of jazz, America's only indigenous art form, in Harlem. The success of a show like "Harlem Song," and the audiences it can attract uptown, are immensely valuable to the area. They also deepen the profound relationship between the cultural and civic lives of the city, which defines New York to the world.

Such relationships will thrive only if politicians and artists display mutual restraint. Each party must refrain from gratuitously poking a finger in the eye of the other, a principle that the protesting poets flouted. They sought to use for political ends the platform that the White House provided to them for their artistry. They showed no concern for the effect of this on other artists and enterprises. Of course, they were exercising their constitutional rights. But they should not be surprised that Mrs. Bush, exercising her own rights, declined to offer them tea and cake. Let's call it poetic justice and move on.

Leonard Garment, a lawyer, is president of the Jazz Museum in Harlem.

© New York Times 2003


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