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You, Nero

NOV 25, 2011 – JAN 1, 2012

Pens, Paints and Power

George Orwell once observed that “propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose — a political, social and religious purpose. … Our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs.” Nowhere is this truer than when the government gets involved. The romantic view that art is an act of individuality and creativity that should be above the petty material concerns and compromises of a self-interested state is far from the reality. In actuality, the relationship between the state and the arts is as old as government itself and has been both fruitful and frightful.

There has been state patronage for the arts from their inception. “On Caesar alone hang all the hopes and prospects of the learned,” groused Juvenal the satirist. “No hope have you beyond that; your rich miser has now learnt only to admire, only to commend the eloquent, just as boys admire the bird of Juno.” He was perhaps harsh in his appraisal, but it is nonetheless apparent when surveying the art of the ages that even in the most prosperous times courting the powerful has often yielded tremendous results. Juvenal’s Rome was preceded in glory by ancient Athens, which under Pericles produced such masterpieces of sculpture and architecture as those on the Acropolis. The de Medici dynasty that ruled Florence during the Italian Renaissance employed artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. England established John Dryden as its first Poet Laureate in 1668 and it has since included such notables as Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth. Today the United States government, through the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, disperses funds to writers and arts organizations across the nation. In virtually every nation and period one can find state involvement in the arts. What is less certain is to what end it may serve, both in its time and thereafter.

A great many works of art functioned as propaganda in the period in which they were produced, but the distance afforded by time’s passage have left behind pieces that can be appreciated for their artistic merits. The Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, heavily influenced writers as diverse as Dante, Christopher Marlowe, and Alexander Pope, over a thousand years after its composition. Yet the Aeneid was commissioned by Emperor Augustus as Roman creation myth both to connect Rome by way of its Trojan protagonist Aeneas to the heroes of Greek myth as well as to legitimize Augustus’ rule. It is a prototypical example of literary genius acting as an arm of state power.

Not that all patronage of the time was so successful. As seen in Amy Freed’s You, Nero, the mad young emperor had a passion for the arts, instituting a music and poetry competition in his name, the Neronia. The Neronia was created largely out of self-aggrandizement; Nero regularly performed and competed himself in song and tragedy. One of the many products of his patronage and inflated self-regard was a 30-foot-high statue of himself that was eventually placed next to the Colosseum. This behavior happened alongside his notorious acts of sexual perversion and murder, to the detriment of his duties of state.

Before judging state-funded and -directed arts, however, one must consider Shakespeare. He and his contemporaries worked in a period not just of government patronage but also of outright censorship. The English theater as we know it largely owes its existence to Queen Elizabeth’s ban on religious subject matter on the stage, redirecting the energies of England’s dramatists and players away from the mystery and passion plays of old toward the secular drama we know today. A great many of Shakespeare’s history plays, developed as part of this new trajectory, operated on one level as unvarnished Tudor propaganda. Under Shakespeare’s pen, Joan of Arc becomes a demonic witch and Richard III a hunchbacked butcher, while Henry VIII celebrates the birth of Elizabeth instead of beheading her mother.

As explored in Bill Cain’s Equivocation, King James took on the sponsorship of Shakespeare’s acting company once Elizabeth left the throne and renamed it the King’s Men. James commissioned Shakespeare to write several plays, each of which transformed the original chronicle of the an ineffectual king’s deposing into a grisly regicidal horror show, assuring the king of the nobility and longevity of his bloodline, and indulging his fixation on witches and the occult.

There is little doubt, then, that propaganda has the potential for transcending its mercenary origins. But in its original context, a work can be morally disastrous. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant filmmaker who yoked her prodigious talents to Germany’s National Socialist party with her films Triumph of the Will, which documented the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and Olympia, which documented the 1936 Olympics. The films themselves are technically innovative and were tremendously influential to the medium. Olympia was one of the first films to use tracking shots, and films as wide-ranging as Star Wars and The Lion King have poached liberally from Triumph’s mise en scène. Liefenstahl was no hack. But both films were produced in service to one of history’s most repugnant regimes and did so by eliding its most reprehensible aspects. Hitler’s anti-Semitism is conspicuously absent from Triumph. Their morally dubious nature forces one to wonder the balance between medium and message. Aesthetics cannot save Riefenstahl’s output from their rancid ethics, and she is an outstanding talent among autocratic propagandists.

Far more common is the cultural smothering common to autocracies. The Soviet Union famously instituted guidelines of artistic production that required all art to be realistic (literal) in its presentation of the poor, who were without exception ennobled and striving for betterment. Dubbed Socialist Realism, the strictures sublimated all matters of form and content to an unchanging, easily understood message. Experimental, avant-garde art was expressly forbidden.

Other authoritarian states have adopted similar measures of cultural control and censorship, but none compare to modern North Korea. For North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Il is not simply yet another brutal dictator but a director and arts critic. In 1974 he authored two dramatic treatises, On the Art of the Opera and On the Art of the Cinema, and subsequently had a hand in the production of two of North Korea’s “revolutionary operas,” Sea of Blood and The Flower Girl. When his talents would not suffice, he kidnapped a director from South Korea to make his movies. Besides Kim’s contributions, North Korean arts and culture is manufactured by the government and explicitly centered around Juche (roughly, “self-reliance”), an ideology that stresses hatred of other nations, the superiority of the North Koreans, and the godhood of Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung.

These are obviously extreme examples. Artists in democratic nations like the United States work in considerably easier conditions of production, yet the relationship between government and the arts has been long ambivalent. During the Depression numerous programs were started to help writers, including the National FDR’s Federal Theater Project, which helped launch the careers of writers including Arthur Miller and Orson Welles, and several other programs, but they were later dissolved, in part due to accusations of their being Communist and New Deal propaganda.

The conflicting attitudes remain decades later. The National Endowment of the Arts was founded in 1965 with the intention of cultivating art and culture in the American people, but beginning in the late 1980s it was dogged by threats of defunding due to objections to the sexually explicit work of grantees. Last November, the Smithsonian Institution was pressured by congressional Republicans into removing a video work that included an ant-covered crucifix from a gay-themed exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Nothing encapsulates America’s bipolar attitude toward government subsidy of the arts as when former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who once called for the abolition of the NEA, appeared this September at the premiere of the Washington National Opera’s Tosca. The WNO is funded by individual donations (like Mr. Gingrich’s), as well as by the federal government.

The relationship between art and power is fraught with both peril and potential. There is no doubting that state patronage has helped create many a masterwork throughout history. Even into modern times, government funding has provided needed resources. At the same time, however, the use of taxpayer funds can lead to straightjacketing of content due to accusations of propaganda, and in anti-democratic states art can become propaganda quite deliberately and viciously. It spans all ranges and possibilities, which is what art is supposed to do, after all.