Enter the activist foundation

fire-in-my-bellyWhile assessing the extent of this country’s liberals political apathy, Harper’s magazine writer Thomas Frank remarks: “say what you like about the Tea Party movement, but at least they showed up.” It is precisely the combination of the dormant state of progressives (be it due to either disillusionment, boredom, or exhaustion) and the huge motivation of conservatives that tables have turned in this country’s politics, and the art world appears to be only a tiny turf where the latest battle is being waged. It is playing out in the current Wojnarowicz-gate at the Smithsonian, where the bigots showed up to tell us what art should be; but instead of protesting in front of the museum, the art world went to Miami.

Until yesterday, when the Warhol Foundation entered the fray. The fact that a Foundation has taken such a brave stance is significant in many levels. The Warhol Foundation was established in 1987, the same year than David Wojnarowicz made “Fire in my Belly” and amidst the culture wars. Ever since that time, it has continuously been an advocate for the central issue that caused the NEA debacle then — the idea of an individual artist grant (as it is exemplified by its funding of organizations like Creative Capital), so its announcement to suspend funding to the Smithsonian is more than a simple act: it is a restatement of its founding mission, and a reminder to us of that history. Equally significantly, though, the noise of the Warhol’s announcement also underlines the deafening —and really, unacceptable — silence of the contemporary art world about this affair up to this moment.

Are we really so comfortable with letting art being criminalized this way? Is our reaction going to be limited to sign some Facebook petition? The Warhol has done what very few in the visual arts has had the guts to do yet, and we should look at their example to follow suit and press others to do so as well. A curator friend of mine had recently told me: “when institutions take the initiative in art, it means that artists are not doing their job”. Who knew that two decades after the culture wars art foundations would have to take the lead in defending culture? Say what you like about our supposed liberalism as the cultural producer class, but in this case it was the foundation who showed up.

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One Response to “Enter the activist foundation”

  1. András Szántó Says:

    Interestingly, the only types of foundations that have spoken up about this case are ones endowed by artists in the first place. Most foundations are extremely reluctant to enter into the fray when important events are unfolding in the arts. This makes them very different from other pools of money–major financial funds–which put pressure on the management of companies when they seem them doing the wrong things. Big foundations practice “coercive philanthropy” by asking grantees to approach them with requests for the kind of programs they want to see. But they keep a hands-off stance, to a fault, when their grantees make mistakes.

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