Eleanor Wilner's eloquent distress at Operation Homecoming (October, 2004) is the only appropriate response to that program. The National Endowment for the Arts has languished through two decades of political attack by Congress-persons of posturing self-righteousness (who were only too happy to pocket the campaign contributions flushed out by their demonization of the art and artists). Now the NEA has launched its writing workshops for soldiers and officers returning from duty in Iraq. Since the funder of this new program is not the NEA itself but, in an unprecedented PR covenant, an arms manufacturer, it seems that the congress (this is no dead metaphor) of arms and energy industries with the Executive Branch is now complete, decorated by a little star called art. The military writing program may do some good for some individual soldiers; but who, besides those who keep great stocks of mental whitewash, can see in it any intent that is innocent of ulterior motives or genuinely high-minded or free of partisan politics or free of implicit emotional coercion? In times of war, a powerful corporate office of public relations is spending a relative pittance, on the scale of corporate dollars, in order to soften the image of the manufacture and sale of arms and, ineluctably, the image of arms merchants in general.
This is the purchase of a deceptive association with art and free speech. Like so much else that goes on at this level, the smoothness of this hypocrisy is practiced, effective, and repugnant. The NEA has presented itself as a willing and even happy partner in this coupling. In our time, art's deeper value and its peculiar and nuanced form of truth-telling depend on its situating itself at some distance from fashion and celebrity, and refusing any longer to be merely ornamental to power. Art says that nothing is without its nuance and contradictions. Yet one must askamidst terribly compromised electoral procedures, and when our culture is in a crisis brought on by war-makers, political demagogues, and lawless power that goes the wrong way to answer insane terrorismshould the NEA have become an ornament of Boeing?