A Sense of the Possible: Art in America

Senior Programmer John Nein opened the Art in America panel on Thursday by pointing out that the panelists – two artists and two people involved in creating arts policy in Washington, D.C. – would be talking about something ineffable: “a sense of what is possible.” When we talk about the role of art in government and in communities, “we often forget” – especially at a film festival, where the buzz focuses on filmmakers and films – “that policy makers and institutions and organizations are often thinking about what is possible,” Nein said.

But if the point was talking about something ineffable, the panelists were anything but vague; they revealed a number of concrete insights into how (and whether) the government should be involved in funding the arts in America, and whether artists should be interacting directly with legislators or should stick to creating art. Moíses Kaufman, the celebrated playwright behind The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and I Am My Own Wife, made a bold statement right at the outset. “Art,” he said, “is the highest form of discourse.” Art as a type of discourse – the conversation that happens between an artist and the person who takes in that art – “doesn’t just talk about the political,” he said. “It uses empathy as its major tool. … We can allow ourselves to speak more in-depth and take more account of all the complications of the stories we tell” when we inject art into the national dialogue.

None of the panelists disagreed with Kaufman’s statement, but they dug into what Kaufman’s observation means. Joslyn Barnes, the co-founder with Danny Glover of Louverture Films and its COO, is the executive producer of the Academy Award-nominated and 2008 Sundance Film Festival hit Trouble the Water; she pointed out that “we have to look at how art can change consciousness.” How can filmmakers and artists cultivate large-scale empathy? “Art functions to build bridges, to show what’s possible,” she said, “and the media is circumscribing what’s possible and limiting the discussion so much and we have to end the polarization. You’re being deliberately channeled to a permanent indifference: ‘Oh, that’s left wing, oh, that’s right wing.’ How we get around that is critical.”

The assessments by Kaufman and Barnes led to several particular questions raised by the panel’s moderator, Rachel Goslins, a documentary filmmaker (‘Bama Girl) and the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, who was appointed to that position by President Obama. Should artists be directly involved in talking to legislators and advocating for the arts, or should they stick to creating art? How do you effectively extend a film to effecting arts policy? Narric Rome, the director of federal affairs for America for the Arts, which played a large role in ensuring that $50 million was set aside for arts in the recent stimulus package, explained that if he finds it difficult to persuade a legislator that it’s crucial to fund the arts, he contacts arts organizations in that lawmaker’s district, and encourages those organizations to visit their representatives in D.C. with specific requests for arts funding. Anne Radice, a longtime and respected arts official in Washington, reminded everyone that despite America for the Arts’ obvious success at involving celebrities in advocating for arts funding, to ensure constant funding for the arts, it’s crucial that government arts administrators be able “to take the heat from government officials.”

Although she didn’t name names, she told a story about taking the Jennie Livingston documentary Paris Is Burning, about drag queens in New York, to a conservative lawmaker in 1990, during the contentious national debate about whether the American government should be funding the arts at all. “I knew was just going to have an apoplexy when he saw the film,” Radice said. “And he watched quite a bit of it and he said, ‘Why’d you bother to bring this to me?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to sign a grant for this tomorrow and I just want you to know that I think it has artistic merit.’” He told her, “I don’t like this film so much, but I suppose if you say it’s okay, it’s okay.” Radice wasn’t patting herself on the back by telling that story. “It’s not because I’m a great critic, but I knew it had artistic merit and I knew it should not be dumped,” she explained. In other words, it’s not only artists who can stick up for the arts.

Joslyn Barnes reminded everyone why the arts are always in a perilous state when it comes to government funding. “The imagination is a form of resistance,” she said, “and that is really obvious.”

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