TCS Daily

Toppling the Arts-Intellectual Complex

By James Pinkerton - October 6, 2005 12:00 AM

The New York Times is hopping mad. And so are the radical chic artiste types. Working together, the elites of the media and the culture have mostly controlled "Big Art" -- the complex of museums, monuments, and galleries that help to shape the way we think about society, history, even politics.

But now, the grip of this gilded oligarchy has been broken in its own back yard: Manhattan. On September 28, New York Governor George Pataki pulled the plug on the plan for the International Freedom Center (IFC) at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood.

It's yet another defeat for the Main Stream Media (MSM) and yet another victory for the populist small-"d" democratic New Media (NM). By now, this "niche-ification" of mass media is becoming a familiar story, but the details are still worth telling -- especially since the right-libertarian-leaning culture championed by the blogospheric NM is soon enough going to confront the challenge of politico-cultural leadership, as opposed to mere opposition-ship.

The saga of the International Freedom Center stands in sharp contrast to the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a quarter-century ago. When Maya Lin's design was unveiled in 1981, everybody understood that the design was deliberately downbeat and defeatist. That's why the dovish left loved it so much, and why the hawkish right hated it so much.

But of course, the left was smart enough not to admit its true motivation, which was to bury the Vietnam War under even more arty obloquy. Why? Because the bedrock of the country always had mixed feelings about Vietnam; yes, most people thought it was a mistake, but they also somewhat agreed with Ronald Reagan, who said during the 1980 presidential campaign that the war had been a "noble cause" and went on to win 41 states. The lefty art critics, haute design juries, museum muckety-mucks, and foundation panjandrums knew better than to take on such nationalist sentiment head-on; so instead, they slid around the obvious politics of the design -- how many war memorials are underground? -- and instead praised Lin's design for its brilliance. And so all through that period, 1981-2, the MSM -- which is to say, "the media" -- brimmed with articles, interviews, and opinion pieces lauding the design.

And what of the strong spontaneous conservative opposition, which viewed Lin's design as an anti-heroic black scar on the Mall? Well, such voices were derided and dismissed -- when they weren't ignored altogether. So when Phyllis Schlafly called it "a tribute to Jane Fonda," and National Review labeled it "Orwellian glop," few heard them. And when the redoubtable Ross Perot jeered that the design was "something for New York intellectuals" -- well, you can be darn sure that few knew about that.

So The Wall got built -- or maybe dug -- although conservative Interior Secretary James Watt did extract two grudging concessions from the Arts-Intellectual Complex (AIC). First, a flagpole was installed nearby, complete with (gasp!) an American flag; and second, sculptor Frederick Hart was commissioned to add a somewhat heroic statue, which was, in fact, installed two years later. Parenthetically, Lin's vision has transcended the passions of the moment from which it arose. By now, all seem to agree that the somber and minimalist architecture is both moving and memorable However, it might be noted that the two major war memorials built subsequently, for Korea and for World War Two, are both substantially more vertical. So the Vietnam Memorial, for better or for worse, is likely to be unique in our history.

But returning to our narrative of the AIC vs. Middle America, we might still note that the Wall controversy fit into the familiar scenario of the late 20th century: the AIC would dream up some new assault on middle class values, such as, say, "Piss Christ", and figure out a way to make ordinary taxpayers foot the bill, using agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts and its various subsidiaries and offshoots to hide the flow of funds, at least a little. And if folks objected? Well, that's where the AIC's legal swat team would come in, as in the case of Karen Finley. In that sweetest of sweetheart lawsuits, the National Endowment for the Arts was secretly pleased to lose the case to the aggrieved Ms. Finley, whose idea of art was to cover her nude body with chocolate. So not only did the Endowment pay damages to Finley, but it also picked up her lawyers' six-figure court costs. Once again, many moderates and conservatives erupted with anger, but in that pre-MSM environment, few could hear them scream.

It was a good racket, for as long as it lasted. But times, and technologies, change. The MSM all of a sudden had competition from the NM. And the NM started turning a critical eye toward the AIC, including its plan to do another "Maya Lin" on Ground Zero. And thus our tale of a funny thing happening on the way to the Freedom Center.

The fight began for real on June 8, when Debra Burlingame, whose brother was killed at the Pentagon on 9-11, published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which she warned that future visitors to the World Trade Center site would not get a fitting memorial, but something different altogether: they would get the IFC. "Rather than a respectful tribute to our individual and collective loss," Burlingame declared, "they will get a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world. They will be served up a heaping foreign policy discussion over the greater meaning of Abu Ghraib and what it portends for the country and the rest of the world." And she ended her cri de coeur with the lament, "Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses!"

But here's where the story gets weird: the right mobilized. Fox News covered the controversy, and other elements of the NM, including talk radio and the blogs, jumped in. Goaded by the new competition, big-impact MSM outfits started digging, too. The New York Daily News cited some of the "art" already put on display by The Drawing Center, which was slated for a prime slot at the IFC. Would 9-11 families and other respectful visitors to the Trade Center site really want to see what the Drawing Center thought was important to put on display? Such as, a reworking of the infamous hooded Abu Ghraib figure, so that the wires hanging from his wrists spelled out the word "Liberty"? Or a connect-the-dots organizational chart fancifully linking George W. Bush to Osama Bin Laden and various oil men and financiers?

Of course not. But the AIC, which had grown accustomed to sticking it to the bourgeoisie and getting away with it, couldn't see the political storm coming. In the past, the right got mad but couldn't find a voice. But now, thanks mostly to the NM, conservatives had a voice -- and it was loud. Eventually, even Hillary Rodham Clinton, no doubt eyeing all those '08 red states, thought it politic to jump into the fray, against the IFC, against her natural allies in the AIC.

But The New York Times didn't get it, or didn't want to get it. For months, the Paper of Record carried the torch for the Drawing Center and for the IFC -- for its left-liberal vision of elitism, in which everything important comes out of Manhattan. (Think that's an exaggeration of the Times' worldview? Consider this article in the October 2 Times Magazine, which purports to explain "why liberalism -- and most other American ways of thinking about politics -- have their roots in Manhattan". You knew that, right? So let's all repeat after the Times: "Sorry Virginia, Massachusetts, as well as other states: Manhattan is, indeed, the center of everything.")

In the weeks prior to Pataki's plug-pulling decision, the Times pounded away at critics of the IFC. On September 23, for example, it warned that "political cowardice" jeopardized the fine cultural institution that was built.

Yet for all her huffing and puffing, the Gray Lady was unable to blow George Pataki off his anti-IFC course.

And now we know that there's no vengeance like that of a Fading Lady scorned. In the week that followed Pataki's decision, the Times ran a total of eight news articles, editorials, op-eds, and commentaries on the decision, all with decidedly one point of view. The headline of the Times' editorial two days later, on September 30, was "Leveling the Freedom Center," in which the opinionists complained that those opposed to the IFC had based their protest "on false information and a profound fear of free speech." Once again, one sees the semantic trap the left always sets: Its vision of free speech holds that such speech should be funded by tax dollars, and tax-deductible dollars. Indeed, the Times continued, the protestors were "against any cultural presence at the World Trade Center site." Got that? To oppose the Times is to oppose culture.

But give the Times credit for consistency -- or obstinacy. That same day, elsewhere in the same edition, it asked, "Is Culture Gone at Ground Zero?"; the answer, of course, was a mournful "yes." As the Times' Robin Pogrebin snarked:

        "Several prominent members of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, 
        which is overseeing the fund-raising, are reputed to care about 
-- Michael D. Eisner of Disney, Kenneth I. Chenault of American 
        Express, Richard D. Parsons of Time Warner and the actor 
        Robert De Niro -- but have been notably silent. A lack of powerful, 
        outspoken advocates seems to have been a significant ingredient in the erosion 
        of culture at the site." [emphasis added]

Is that loud and clear enough? Do Eisner, Chenault, Parsons, and DeNiro get the message that they've neglected their duty to Culture?

And on Sunday, the Mean Old Lady of 42nd Street unleashed an opinion piece entitled, "So Much for Freedom". For Pataki to insist upon an "absolute guarantee" from the IFC that it would do nothing "to denigrate America" -- well, that was an abridgement of the Center's freedom. Interestingly, the author of this particular op-ed, lawyer Michael Rips, was honest enough to concede that "Those who objected to the International Freedom Center were undoubtedly right in suspecting that the center would exhibit works or sponsor programs that expressed views critical of America." So is there really anything left to discuss? Or didn't the Times' Rips just concede the point made four months earlier by the Journal's Burlingame?

But the most telling was yet another article, headlined "Pataki Solution on Museum Flies in Face of Planning". Over all this time, the AIC was not only dominating the media, it was dominating the process. Heck, it was the process -- all those boards, commissions, and panels, most of them operating out of sight to the public, visible only to activists and lawyers.

Yup, The Process controlled everything. It was The Process that enabled the Maya Lins and the Piss Christers to do their thing and get their funding, because each individual cog in the funding machine could thus evade personal responsibility for the end result, if need be. "Hey," each cog could declare when cornered, "don't blame me -- blame the process!"

Yet at the same time, The Process gave the AIC-ers a sense of legitimacy; they could argue, sort of, that "the law" was on their side. So the September 30 Times edit complained, "Any orderly, open process for creating a vibrant, meditative space there has been discarded." And the Times' Pogrebin echoed the same thought in her piece; she quoted an AIC-type as saying, "There was a process. Maybe the process needs to be looked at, but it certainly shouldn't be abandoned." Always defend the process! If we can veil the desired result in enough legalistic process, the AIC seems to be saying, we might just get away with it.

So what is this about "planning" and "process"? One is reminded of the Washington adage, attributed to Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), "If you have the votes and I control the process, I will bleep you every time." Dingell knows whereof he speaks; he was elected to the US House in 1955, and chaired the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee for 14 years during the 80 and early 90s. During that time, Dingell's committee and the Democrats, as well as the left overall, sought further to insulate themselves against accountability by surrounding themselves in process-swaddling; outfits such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Legal Services Corporation all sought to make themselves and their outputs even more opaque to outsiders.

But of course, Dingell is no longer on the majority side in Congress. Indeed, the libertarian-conservative counter-revolution has come so far that one lefty outfit, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, would prefer to see the CPB board be abolished rather than see right-wingers run it.

And now it's happening in Manhattan, too. The Times and the AIC are no longer the unchallenged hegemons of their own island; the Republicans and the NM are watching them, even there. George Pataki, who will be leaving the Albany state house in 2007, certainly won't be invited to drinks with the Sulzbergers anytime soon, but he gained a sympathetic nationwide audience for his kyboshing the IFC, and has lost not a scintilla of support.

So the media have been democratized, and the cultural elite has been eclipsed. From a right-leaning point of view, is there anything not to like about this turn of events?

Only this: Having taken power from the left, having dethroned Dan Rather and his ilk, the libertarian-right must now prove that it can use power effectively -- in politics and also in culture.

As George W. Bush is discovering, it's not so easy to run the show, to find that the buck -- and the bills, and all the blame -- is stopping at his desk. And the same holds true for Ground Zero. Pataki & Co. have put a stop to the all-too-familiar tax-funded values-bashing of the past few decades. But now it's the conservatives' turn to see what they can do, as an alternative.

And there's no place better to start than Ground Zero, which is still nothing more than a sad hole in the ground.


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