Whose Message Is It Anyway?
The relationship between artistic expression and political or religious messages is one of the most conflicted of our era. Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI will host an artists' summit November 21 at the Sistine Chapel. He intends to spend a day with an elite group of global artists, actors, writers, dancers and musicians (including Bono) to discuss "the gap that has developed between spirituality and artistic expression over the last century."
Whether there are ulterior motives to the summit is subject to opinion. One report noted that the Pope has clearly set out to reassert "the Christian roots of Western culture," which implies that Benedict XVI has certain intentions in encouraging a relationship between the church and the arts. Showcasing Michelangelo's renowned frescoes, the Sistine Chapel was a meaningful choice of venue.
But the Vatican isn't the only entity working on its relationship with artists. Coming under significantly more fire for its motives (fueled by a Glenn Beck crusade), the National Endowment for the Arts recently reached out to artists and encouraged their participation in the President's United We Serve project. NEA Communications director, Yosi Sargent, met with artists over the phone and suggested that they take up a political issue -- health care, energy, environment, education, community renewal -- in their work. Though Sargent was demoted within the agency, the administration has been accused of using artists for propaganda efforts to promote their political agenda.
Beck has also ranted on his show about Rockefeller-funded art projects of the early 20th century that supposedly promoted Communism. Interestingly, Beck highlights a project by Diego Rivera, a successful Mexican muralist whose signature use of populist symbolism got him in trouble with authorities in the United States and Mexico. Commissioned most often by public bodies who liked the "look" of his work, Rivera thought himself something of a subversive for including political messages in his murals. The commissioning bodies didn't ask him to represent a certain viewpoint, and for that very reason, Rivera pushed the envelope.
What's unfortunate about the Pope's initiative, the NEA's request, and even Beck's conspiracy theories about the Rockefeller Center friezes is that they all presume that the body that takes interest to promote an artist will have their views expressed in the artistic product. That is, the Pope is inviting artists to talk about the relationship between art and spirituality, but seems to be assuming a "positive" outcome for the Catholic Church -- some modern murals, perhaps. The NEA is asking artists, specifically those who have benefitted from funding provided by the agency, to do them a favor and tailor their expression to the initiatives of their benefactors. And Beck, in pointing out the "anti-American" sentiments expressed in the Art Deco pieces he "walks by every day" (if one even agrees that they are anti-American), is assuming that the artists were speaking for their funders.
We need to remember that the creative process is sacred, and the co-opting of that moment is the line between art and advertising. There is a definite value to advertising and it is honest about its motives; a "creative" at an ad agency works for that agency. An artist who is funded by the NEA or who has a relationship with the Catholic church, on the other hand, does not necessarily work for that body.
The visceral nature of art -- the profound influence that creative expression can wield over humanity -- is a valuable thing. But if it is going to be used for a certain purpose, those intentions should be made explicit or popular culture will lose it's "popular" nature.