Political discussion & the IAWM
2 17:29:20 -0600 (CST)
Date: Wed, 2 Jan 2002 18:27:31 -0500
From: William Osborne
Subject: [IAWM] Political discussion & the IAWM
To: IAWM List <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Last week someone suggested that the discussion we were having about arts
funding and the political atmosphere that affects it was too political for
the list. I am not sure I should discuss this delicate topic. I am
obviously a sort of outsider and my political views are far to one side,
but I guess I will give it a try.
It is important that the IAWM email list be clearly focused on issues
related to women in music, but this unavoidably includes politics, since
the rights of women artists are a very political issue. This would
includes arts funding.
An interesting illustration is the comparative status of women orchestra
musicians in Europe and the USA. Seen from the perspectives of male to
female ratios, a woman in the US is about 1.5 to 2 times more likely to win
an audition as a woman in Germany. But since Germany has 23 times more 52
week season orchestras per capita than the US, a woman in Germany is still
about 11 times more likely to get a job. Ultimately, the politics of arts
funding is far more of a determinant in employment for women orchestra
musicians in these two countries than discrimination.
It is not possible to understand and improve arts funding without
addressing the political culture that surrounds it.
The problem of arts funding is also specifically related to women, because
when money is short, it is those who are disadvantaged through
discrimination who are usually the principle victims. This is especially
true in the USA, since to a considerable degree, the reduction of arts
funding has been openly motivated by an attempt to silence artists who come
from marginalized groups. Three notable examples are the -feminist-
performance-artist Karen Finley, the homosexual photographer Robert
Maplethrope, and the African-American performance-artist, Pope. L. (For
information about the latter and the censorship he has faced from the NEA
this year see the article I am sending under a separate post. How ironic
that one of his works is entitled "Eracism.")
One of the politicians who has led reductions of funding for the NEA brags
that when he came to Washington "people were smearing themselves with
chocolate." The artist in question was Karen Finley, who as Elizabeth
Keathley noted, "smeared chocolate (resembling excrement) onto her body to
make a statement about women's abject status." Finley is one of America's
most famous and respected performance-artists, but her discomforting
statements were rather effectively silenced. It is important for women in
the arts to discuss the political atmosphere that censored Finely's
feminist sensibilities. The political backlash is very real.
The work of Robert Maplethorpe was also used to justify reductions of arts
funding as a form of censorship. It is significant that one person on the
list said her appreciation for Maplethorpe's work was greatly increased by
seeing a documentary film about it. Obviously, art is often a bridge that
helps us understand the views of other people. Arts education opens new
worlds to our eyes. In this sense, art can be seen as an act of empathy
and compassion. It is exactly this form of tolerance and understanding for
the marginalized that politicians such as Jessie Helms and John Ashcroft
want to stop. Through Maplethorpe, the politics of arts funding became the
politics of gender -- themes unquestionably relevant to the IAWM list.
The work of Pope L. is directly related to his political identity as an
African-American and his performance-art clearly draws attention to the
inhuman and scandalous conditions of America's massive racial ghettos that
have no comparison in any other industrial country. One cannot discuss the
work of Pope L. without discussing American politics. Even the _New York
Times_ has described Pope L. as "the poet laureate of performance-artists",
and yet his funding from the NEA was rescinded this year after it had
already been approved by a committee of peers.
These are admittedly radical artists, but it is the very nature of
marginalization that causes them to be radical. For years my wife's very
existence as a woman trombonist in Germany was a radical statement. Her
involuntary "radicalism" was more of an existential condition than a
political statement. Surely there are women who understand that, and who
know how wrong and dangerous it is for these marginalized voices to be
silenced. Even though we must diligently stay on topic, I hope these
thoughts help explain why we should discuss politics, arts funding, gender
and artistic expression. They are inseparably intertwined.
It is almost an email list cliche to silence strong opinions we do not want
to hear by accusing them of being off-topic. Even more problematic is that
there seems to be a nationalistic bias in what we criticize as too
political. I have probably put 10 or 15 posts on the list about Jörg
Haider's rise to political power in Austria and its relationship to the
Vienna Philharmonic's ideologies. There was not one complaint about all of
those political posts. They were obviously useful for understanding the
cultural and political environment that allows the Philharmonic to maintain
its chauvinistic ideologies.
It is thus noteworthy, that when the tables turn and we begin to discuss
the political environment in the United States that allows rather overt
censorship of artists based on issues of gender and race, some say we are
suddenly getting too political.
And I've also seen very strongly worded criticisms on the list that were
not objected to as long as they were aimed at a target sufficiently
distant, such as people calling the Vienna Philharmonic "the Klu-Klux-Klan"
of orchestras, or strong statements about Austria.
I wonder if some of our European friends might think that American
musicians can dish out criticism about other countries in very healthy
portions, but that they resent having the United States' own cultural
weakness discussed. Is it not informative to analyze possible correlations
between John Ashcroft's participation in the NEA's gender and racial
censorship with his decisions to establish mass investigations using racial
profiling? And what about his extreme stances on choice and other aspects
of women's rights? Is a cultural sensibility reflected that informs his
view of the NEA? All together, our European friends have been very polite.
As one of the two members of the IAWM's advocacy committee, I hope we can
maintain (or develop?) a culture of intelligent political discussion and
thought -related- to the status of women in music. Certainly this would
include arts funding and the general political atmosphere that shapes it.
This culture of intelligent political discussion would mean that we can
disagree with each other and yet through the knowledge created move toward
consensus and concrete action.
Some additional thoughts about Maplethorpe and also Judy Chicago.
During the height of the Maplethorpe controversy the City of Munich,
Germany exhibited about 50 of his photos in the lobby of the city's major
concert hall, The Gasteig Cultural Center. Since it was in the lobby, it
was free and open to all. When I saw it, there were about 15 children
there with their parents to attend a concert. No one seemed particularly
concerned about the photos, least of all the children. The exhibition
passed with little comment.
Perhaps this illustrates how our attitudes toward Maplethorpe reflect a
large amount of cultural conditioning. It is difficult to accurately
generalize, but German-speaking people do not have a puritanical history as
part of their heritage, and so in some respects their relationship to their
bodies and sexuality often seems less encumbered than in the
English-speaking world. Even though Bavaria (of which Munich is the
capital) is one of the most reactionary regions of Europe, its conservatism
is not often expressed through restricting images of the body. Relative to
the English-speaking world, sex and nakedness are seen as something simply
human and natural. Complete nudity is frequent in advertising and prime
time television throughout Germany and Austria. There is a section of
Munich's main park, "The English Garden", where hundreds of people at a
time sun bath in the nude.
Even within the relatively narrow variations of western culture, there are
no moral or cultural absolutes from which to judge Maplethorpe's work. To
deny art the right to challenge cultural conditioning is to deny it one of
its principle functions.
Sometimes the artist, Judy Chicago, is also discussed in a similar context
since one of her most famous projects, "The Dinner Party", involves
abstract images of vaginas. "The Dinner Party" portrays the progress of
women in history, and is one of the most monumental and influential
feminist art works that has ever been created. There is an excellent
documentary film about the creation of "The Dinner Party" which is very
useful for women-in-the-arts classes. (Unfortunately, I do not know the
publisher's information at hand.) The film helps one appreciate the work,
and documents how about 400 women (and a few men) worked on the project.
It also documents how women artists were working and thinking in the 60s
and 70s during the early days of the second wave of feminism. Students
would love to see this enriching film. The Shirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
published a 192 page book for an exhibition of "The Dinner Party" in 1987.
[ _Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party_ (Althenäum Verlag, 1997)] Chicago's
autobiography, _Through the Flower_ is also an excellent read.
Even though Judy Chicago has been trying for years, the last I heard "The
Dinner Party" has yet to find a permanent home. (Does anyone have any new
information about that?)
These topics also illustrate that the artistic and the political are often
closely intertwined. Cultivating intelligent political discussion related
to women in music is an important part of the IAWM's work -- even if we
must be careful to keep the discussions relevant.