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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 <iawm@nicanor.acu.edu>


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.

[See the Endnote for an additional comment about Maplethrope.]


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.


William Osborne






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.




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