A comment on Robert Osborne (1932-2017), host of Turner Classic Movies

By David Walsh
8 March 2017

Robert Osborne, the longtime principal host for cable channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), died March 6 at 84. He had been largely absent from the channel since early 2016. The cause of his death has not been announced.

Osborne was a calming, affable and intelligent presence on American television—something terribly rare! He came across as a decent person and clearly had a genuine commitment to the films he introduced.

In recent years, in the face of the overall condition of American television, it felt at times not simply that TCM was the best channel, but that it was the onlychannel one could watch.

Robert Osborne in 2014 (Photo credit: The Peabody Awards)

Osborne was born in the small town of Colfax, in eastern Washington. His father was a high school principal. Osborne fell in love with the movies at an early age. After graduating from the University of Washington, he tried to find work as an actor, with limited success. Lucille Ball, at whose Desilu Productions Osborne was under contract as an actor, suggested he concentrate on writing about American film history. He eventually became a critic and columnist for the Hollywood Reporter. He also wrote Academy Awards Illustrated (1965), with an introduction by Bette Davis. He became a host at TCM on its launch in 1994.

What role Osborne played in TCM film programming over the years is difficult to say, but clearly intriguing things happened in an undertaking with which he was associated. He certainly had a feeling for film history and traditions. Turner Classic Movies began operations, quite deliberately, on April 14, 1994, in New York City. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter (2016), Osborne explains: “That day marked the 100th anniversary of film in the United States. It had been on April 14, 1894, that the first kinetoscope [early moving picture device] parlor opened in New York City—the launch of the film industry in the U.S. of A.”

Interior view of Kinetoscope with peephole viewer at top of cabinet

Over the past 23 years, in a generally difficult cultural landscape, TCM has proved one of the few locales in the American media-entertainment universe where decisions were made largely on the basis of artistic merit. However and by whoever it was established, a certain integrity seemed to reign there. The cable channel continues to broadcast several hundred older films a week, most made before 1970, uncut and without commercials.

In regard to the latter issue, Osborne told an interviewer, “It’s so essential to see films without commercial breaks and interruptions. If you see Hitchcock’s Rebecca … that whole movie is predicated on mood and slow suspense. You can’t break that mood for a commercial. You lose the rhythm and the impact of it.” Readers around the world may not find the thought of commercial-free film presentation so startling, but, unhappily, in the US, where television is largely a scaffolding for corporate promotion—in November 2015, nearly 20 percent of all programming minutes were devoted to paid advertising (the figure is closer to 25 percent on major networks)—it is extremely, almost provocatively, unusual.

Speaking of a certain integrity, Osborne publicly identified himself with opposition to the Hollywood purges, hosting “Survivors of the Blacklist: A Panel Discussion” in November 2009 in New York. Actress and blacklist victim Lee Grant, along with Christopher Trumbo (son of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and Joe Gilford (son of Jack Gilford) were among the panelists.

It is not necessary, of course, to make Osborne into more than he was. At its weakest, Osborne and TCM pandered to Hollywood nostalgia, small talk and star worship. Not every one of his introductions was especially profound.

But then on TCM, out of the blue, one would encounter Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, or Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite or a program of 26 films by Akira Kurosawa (in March 2010, to mark 100 years since the Japanese filmmaker’s birth)—and one’s jaw would drop. This—something that doesn’t obviously and immediately earn large profits, something that seems to be done merely for the beauty or the interest of it—on American television! It won’t last, someone will see to that!

Poster for Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) (1933)

It is probably true that no other enterprise has done as much to make important films accessible to a wide audience. According to media reports, TCM has an audience in the US of some 62 million people a month, many of them unswervingly loyal.

To Osborne’s credit, he insisted on showing a variety of films. In his introduction to 52 Must-See Movies, he wrote: “The programming plan for the channel was always to show movies from all countries and from all eras, big productions, small ones, legendary ones, as well as B-budget movies.”

Where else on American television would you have had the chance to see Nine Days in One Year, the 1962 Soviet black-and-white drama film directed by Mikhail Romm, or The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), another Soviet film? Or R.W. Fassbinder’s 1973 World on a Wire ? Or various Italian neo-realist works? Or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1959)? Or films by Michael Powell, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Federico Fellini, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Abbas Kiarostami, Michelangelo Antonioni, Max Ophuls, Yasujiro Ozu and Alain Resnais?

Aside from introducing younger audiences, and others, to some of the remarkable and complex efforts made by American studio directors from the 1930s to the 1960s, TCM programmers have made genuine efforts to broaden its viewers’ tastes, showing silent films, short films, and documentaries and raising the issue as well of those who have been largely excluded from Hollywood productions. The cable channel broadcast “Black Images on Film” in 2006, “Asian Images on Film” in 2008, “Latino Images on Film” in 2009, “Native American Images on Film” in 2010 and “Arab Images on Film” in 2011. In 2007, TCM aired the series “Screened Out,” on the history of the representation of homosexuality on film.

In its “Star of the Month” segment, TCM focuses on dozens of films by a particular performer, often bringing to light relatively obscure or forgotten works. Aside from the obvious luminaries, those performers have included Leslie Howard, Christopher Lee, Jane Wyman, Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Robert Ryan, Jean Harlow, Susan Hayward, Fred MacMurray, Marie Dressler, Ava Gardner, Ann Sothern, Rita Hayworth, Sterling Hayden, Lauren Bacall, Stewart Granger, David Niven, John Garfield and many others.

In one of the more intimate and often charming TCM segments, various contemporary performers or commentators (or offspring) pay brief tribute to actors and actresses of a previous period. So, over film imagery, we hear Elizabeth Taylor on Montgomery Clift, Robert Redford on Natalie Wood, Kevin Spacey on Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh on Norma Shearer, Julianne Moore on Myrna Loy, Bill Irwin on Harold Lloyd, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Laura Dern on Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Curtis on Cary Grant, Claire Bloom on Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda on Henry Fonda, Ernest Borgnine on Robert Ryan and so on.

There are many reasons for the decline of American filmmaking, and this is not the occasion to discuss them. But just let it be said here that, without for one second intending to, the mild-mannered, unassuming Osborne and the countless films he introduced stood as a sharp and constant rebuke to the generally empty, crude, noisy and dull efforts of the contemporary movie industry.

 

Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t ready for “Real Time” and it shows

Bill Maher’s public service:

Most people have no idea who Milo is, except that he claims to be “Dangerous.” Friday night, Bill Maher showed them

Bill Maher's public service: Milo Yiannopoulos isn't ready for "Real Time" and it shows
(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer/HBO/Salon)

When it was announced that this week’s episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” would feature so-called “right-wing provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos, some people freaked out. Many seemed to believe that bringing Yiannopoulos on the show would legitimize a noxious professional troll, as if that horse hadn’t already escaped the barn when America elected one president.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, co-founding editor of The Intercept, canceled his own booking in protest. In his one-on-one segment with Maher at the top of the show, Yiannopoulos called that approach out: “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” On one hand, not every debate is worth sitting in the makeup chair for. (I’ve seen the Milo show; I’ve seen better.) But Yiannopoulos isn’t leading a political movement; he’s an attention-seeking troll. They don’t feed on legitimacy, but rather scandal and outrage, which Scahill helped deliver. For my part, I was irritated that I’d have to sit through an interview with this guy before getting to Leah Remini’s Scientology Dirt Bag, so it’s not like I had a high horse to climb off of.

It’s easy to forget, if you don’t live on the Internet, that most people in America — and quite possibly most “Real Time” home viewers — likely have no idea who Milo is or if they should care about him at all. (Third *NSync alum from the right?) If their first up-close exposure to Milo Yiannopoulos, C-Lister Famous for Something or Other, was last night’s “Real Time,” I can’t imagine they now understand what all the fuss is about.

Yiannopoulos came out quite saucy and self-satisfied — ain’t I a stinker? — so Maher, ever the comedy veteran, heckled him right out of the gate: “You look like Bruno.” Milo pouted, and then turned his exaggerated frown into a smirk after a beat. “You know I told [the make-up artist] to dial down the contouring.”

Despite their flirty greetings, Maher didn’t let Milo off easy. They agreed on a few things, like how liberals are too easily offended, but throughout the interview, Milo seemed squirmy, a bit flustered and obviously outmatched by his host. Maher wasn’t interested in gossiping about Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman, whom Milo lamely joked were funny before they “contracted feminism.” In fact, he dismissed most of Milo’s low-hanging outrage-bait as just kind of stupid.

Maher’s challenge here was not being cast as Principal Skinner arguing with Bart Simpson, and for the most part, he succeeded. “You’re wrong about certain things,” Maher tells him flatly, giving examples from Milo’s own spiels: “Black Lives Matter is a hate group. There’s no such thing as white privilege.”

Maher, a consistent atheist, also dinged Yiannopoulos for “bullshit stupid thinking” when Milo gave Catholicism a pass he doesn’t extend to other religions.

Yiannopoulos insisted that he’s funny and that his jokes “build bridges.” All he cares about, he claimed, is free speech and free expression, which he described as “now a conservative position.”

“I’m the guy who always defends jokes, right up to the point where they pointlessly hurt people,” Maher said, bringing up the campaign of vicious harassment against “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones that got Yiannopoulos banned from Twitter.

Milo’s defense was a mess of facile talking points. “I like to think of myself as a virtuous troll,” he said. He also claimed, “What actually hurts people is murder, violence. Mean words don’t hurt people.”

“Which some people would say you’ve incited,” countered Maher, though he didn’t give any concrete examples.

“They would be idiots,” said Yiannopoulos.

For a couple of years in the 1980s, my family lived in Germany, where Nazi symbols were, for very understandable reasons, forbidden. As an earnest 7-year-old who read a lot of children’s literature set during World War II, it freaked me out to see swastikas scratched and inked into naughty graffiti, presented with as much gravity and political intent as butts-and-boobs doodles were back home. Little kids test social boundaries all the time. They’re drawn to the illicit — like giggling over Nazi symbols, which they know are bad but don’t quite understand — because that which is frightening for abstract reasons can also be thrilling, even titillating. Part of growing up — as I hope the kid at my Catholic school who was responsible for that graffiti did, eventually — is learning how one kid’s abstract illicit thrills can be another person’s concrete and dangerous threats, and adjusting your behavior accordingly.

Yiannopoulos is an intriguing conundrum because even though he’s an out gay man in his 30s, not a doodling child, he refuses to connect his own flippant denigration of gay people as hyper-sexed, druggy and untrustworthy — abstract jokes he’s in on — to the concrete threat of discrimination or even violence that LGBT people face from those who may feel emboldened or justified by those attitudes. Maybe he feels those fears are idiotic. Most of his fans are likely in it for the dark thrill of an illicit giggle alone: the permission to laugh at a gay joke because a gay man made it. But how grotesque of a spotlight-chaser does one have to be to ignore the possibility of the fan that isn’t? And how narcissistic is it to forcibly extend that “in on the joke” intimacy to those who haven’t issued an invitation first, like women, black people or Muslims?

On one hand, it’s a pity Maher didn’t have time to delve that deep into a discussion of the philosophy of “j/k lol” with Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, it’s not like Milo said anything on “Real Time” that indicated he’d be up for a challenging intellectual discussion about where the line is, and what it’s used for.

Throughout the segment, Milo demonstrated that as far as provocateurs go, he’s nowhere near Maher’s level. You can disagree with Maher’s positions on politics and religion, but he’s a pro who can back a gag or a flat statement up with reason and consistency. Milo’s a snarky brunch friend on a second round of Bloodies for people who don’t have snarky brunch friends. (Get off Gab once in a while and buy a round, fanboys! You can get your fill of Lena Dunham jokes in person.) He’s managed to build a public speaking and publishing career on little more than being shameless, disgusting and reasonably attractive at the same time. America, land of opportunity!

Maher closed the segment by scolding his audience. “Stop taking the bait, liberals!” he cried. “You’re all freaking out about this fucking impish British fag! You schoolgirls!”

Maher’s using his words as a blunt instrument here, but the sentiment’s not wrong. Exposing Yiannopoulos as a lightweight “famous for doing nothing” vacuous Twitter celeb on TV — as Maher just did — is likely going to be more effective at limiting his cachet and influence than inadvertently building up his illicit, underground cred through outrage. Pushing a malignant thing like Milo Yiannopoulos out into the spotlight isn’t necessarily normalizing it. Sometimes the cliché is true, and sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

The Trump press conference: A ferocious conflict within the ruling elite

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17 February 2017

The news conference given by Donald Trump Thursday afternoon was extraordinary and unprecedented. The event took on a surreal character as, for more than 75 minutes, the US president traded insults with journalists and otherwise engaged in a bitter battle with his nemeses in the media. It is not comparable to anything seen before in modern American history, even at the height of the Watergate crisis.

In witnessing such a spectacle, it is always necessary to uncover the rational content, the underlying political dynamic. In this case, the press conference gave expression to a vicious conflict within the American ruling class over foreign policy as the United States hurtles toward war.

The news conference was initially called to announce Trump’s new pick for labor secretary, but this took up only one minute of the event. Trump began with a litany of achievements and actions he has taken since his inauguration, which was largely directed at the ruling elite in an appeal for support. The stock market has “hit record numbers,” corporate regulations are being eliminated, immigrants are being targeted for deportation, and Trump has ordered a “massive rebuilding” of the US military, among other right-wing measures.

However, from the media, channeling the US intelligence apparatus, questions focused almost exclusively on the ties of the Trump administration to Russia and the circumstances behind the forced resignation earlier this week of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, over his pre-inauguration telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Trump responded with a diatribe in which the media served as a stand-in for his real opponents in the US ruling elite, comprising the bulk of the permanent military-intelligence apparatus that really runs the government, regardless of which party controls the White House or majorities in Congress. He repeatedly denounced what he called “illegal leaks” to the media from sources within the intelligence agencies.

It was remarkable that when Trump directly denounced the media as a mouthpiece for the intelligence agencies, there was no attempt to rebut him. Everyone knows it is true. Likewise, when he flatly denied any contact between his campaign and Russian intelligence agencies, not a single reporter could cite evidence to the contrary.

In the course of the press conference, Trump blurted out a number of astonishing comments that point to the extreme dangers facing the entire world.

Responding to questions about what he would do about a Russian ship conducting surveillance operations in international waters off the coast of Connecticut—the same type of operations US warships conduct on a much larger scale off the coasts of Russia and China—Trump said, “The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say ‘oh, it’s so great.’” He continued, “If I was just brutal on Russia right now, just brutal, people would say, you would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful.’”

Trump pointed out the implications of such a clash, given that Russia and the United States have the two largest nuclear arsenals in the world. “We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they,” he said. “I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it: a nuclear holocaust would be like no other.” In other words, there are ongoing discussions, at the highest levels of the American government, about a potential nuclear war with Russia, for which preparations are well advanced.

When challenged by one reporter on why there was no response by the US government to a series of what he called “provocations” by Russia—largely consisting of incidents provoked by US and NATO war maneuvers along Russia’s borders—Trump replied, “I’m not going to tell you anything about what response I do. I don’t talk about military response.”

He expanded on this theme, declaring that he would not talk about military operations in Iraq, North Korea, Iran or anywhere else. “You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”

Such conflicts within the ruling elite over foreign policy are usually fought out behind the scenes, as with discontent within the military-intelligence apparatus over Obama’s retreat from a direct military intervention in Syria in 2013, when he failed to enforce his so-called “red line” against the government of Bashar al-Assad.

This time, however, the conflict has exploded into the open. Aside from the specific form that the debate within the US state apparatus has taken, it is an expression of an underlying crisis of the entire capitalist order. Twenty-five years of unending war are metastasizing, with extreme rapidity, into a major conflict involving large nation-states. National security journals are full of articles in which there is open discussion about war with Russia, in which the question is not if, but when and how. Trump, on the other hand, has focused his attention on China. In either case, the consequences are incalculable.

What was perhaps most striking is how remote the entire press conference was from the sentiments and concerns of the vast majority of the American population. There was virtually no questioning at the press conference about Trump’s war against immigrant workers or the nationwide day of protest by immigrants and their supporters that was taking place at the same time.

Those participating in the mass protests that have erupted since Trump’s inauguration are not motivated by a desire to launch a war with Russia, but by hatred of Trump’s authoritarian, anti-democratic policies and the oligarchic government that he has set up.

Trump’s critics in the Democratic Party and media, however, are responding to powerful sections of the US ruling elite who welcome Trump’s ultra-reactionary domestic policies—tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation of corporations, attacks on democratic rights, persecution of immigrants—but regard his posture of seeking better relations with Russia as intolerable.

The Democrats have responded with passive handwringing while Trump has assembled his cabinet of billionaires, ex-generals and right-wing fanatics, and issued a series of reactionary and unconstitutional executive orders. But when given the opportunity to attack Trump as soft on Russia, they engage in savage witch-hunting that recalls nothing so much as McCarthyism.

There is no faction with the American ruling class that is opposed to imperialist war. In the struggle to prevent war, it is up to the working class to intervene independently, opposing both factions in the US ruling elite, both Trump and the line-up of the CIA, the media and the Democratic Party.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

“The OA” Season two is coming, and it could be great

The show should follow the lead of another show with a troubled first season

“The OA” Season two is coming, and it could be great
The OA(Credit: Netflix/Jojo Whilden)

When Netflix released Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s metaphysical suburban sci-fi tale, “The OA,” in December, the streaming service billed the show as “a Russian nesting doll of a story.” The tagline was apt. The bulk of the narrative was about Marling’s character’s (The OA’s) years of captivity and was delivered through her nightly telling to a group of estranged children and their teacher. Each unlikely detail begot questions, and then more unlikely details.

By the doll’s fifth layer, let’s just say the pieces began to dance and take on new forms in ways that became polarizing. The unbridled unraveling brought joy and excitement to some viewers and inspired others to wearily raise one eyebrow. But by season’s end the tale was told, the doll opened to its final piece. And so it was hard to imagine what a second season would look like.

The world of streaming, though, is no different than the world of cable and network television: where there is buzz, there are second seasons. This week, Netflix announced that “The OA,” like their other successful 2016 teenage sci-fi show “Stranger Things,” would be coming back for a “Part II.”

Unlike with “Stranger Things,” Netflix didn’t promote the coming of the second season with a Super Bowl ad. And I would presume that critics were less universally on-board. Many critics pilloried the show for the way it reached not for the sky but the heavens, and for doing so without the least bit of self-awareness.

While “The OA’s” ambition did indeed breed problems in Season one, recent television history has shown that the most ambitious shows can gain stronger footing by hitting the reset button in Season two.

The model for how to do so is another mortality-focused sci-fi show, HBO’s “The Leftovers.” The show’s first season, based on Tom Perrotta’s eponymous novel, was both dismal and laughable. Too much time was spent with a group of white-wearing radicals (the Guilty Remnant) who didn’t talk. The New York palettes were too gray. Not enough attention was given to the main characters’ interior lives. And, like “The OA,” the show was grounded in an event that happened in the past (the disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population) rather than in forward motion.

For its second season, Perrotta and showrunner Damon Lindelof retooled “The Leftovers,” abandoning almost everything other than the inciting event and the central characters. The protagonists, and with them the show, moved from Mapleton, New York, to Jarden, Texas (both fictional), where the sun shone bright, everyone had been spared, and where there was no Guilty Remnant. The show became more playful, too. The season’s best episode, “International Assassin,” was a hilarious but high-stakes jaunt through a purgatory depicted as an absurdist hotel. All in all, it was one of the best seasons of TV in recent memory.

While some of the problems that the first season of “The OA” suffered from were similar to the ones that hampered Season one of “The Leftovers” — incomplete fleshing out of central characters and self-seriousness among them — “The OA” does not need to mimic the reset of “The Leftovers” move for move. Rather, the show would benefit from doing one thing the makers of “The Leftovers” did, which was listening to critics and absorbing their wisest critiques and subverting the others.

Marling and Batmanglij are two of the most ambitious auteurs working in television. Perrotta and Lindelof are proof that with time and feedback it’s possible for such creators to scrap the outer layers of an overstuffed nesting doll and build a more entertaining one.

Salon

 

 

Why do conservatives want the government to defund the arts?

The cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power

Why do conservatives want the government to defund the arts?
Vinila Dasgupta retouches her art during India Art Fair in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. The four day art fair brings together a number of modern and contemporary artists to present their works. ((Credit: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal))
This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Recent reports indicate that Trump administration officials have circulated plans to defund the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), putting this agency on the chopping block – again.

Conservatives have sought to eliminate the NEA since the Reagan administration. In the past, arguments were limited to the content of specific state-sponsored works that were deemed offensive or immoral – an offshoot of the culture wars.

Now the cuts are largely driven by an ideology to shrink the federal government and decentralize power. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that government should not use its “coercive power of taxation” to fund arts and humanities programs that are neither “necessary nor prudent.” The federal government, in other words, has no business supporting culture. Period.

But there are two major flaws in conservatives’ latest attack on the NEA: The aim to decentralize the government could end up dealing local communities a major blow, and it ignores the economic contribution of this tiny line item expense.

The relationship between government and the arts

Historically, the relationship between the state and culture is as fundamental as the idea of the state itself. The West, in particular, has witnessed an evolution from royal and religious patronage of the arts to a diverse range of arts funding that includes sales, private donors, foundations, corporations, endowments and the government.

Prior to the formation of the NEA in 1965, the federal government strategically funded cultural projects of national interest. For example, the Commerce Department subsidized the film industry in the 1920s and helped Walt Disney skirt bankruptcy during World War II. The same could be said for the broad range of New Deal economic relief programs, like the Public Works of Art Project and the Works Progress Administration, which employed artists and cultural workers. The CIA even joined in, funding Abstract Expressionist artists as a cultural counterweight to Soviet Realism during the Cold War.

The NEA came about during the Cold War. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy asserted the political and ideological importance of artists as critical thinkers, provocateurs and powerful contributors to the strength of a democratic society. His attitude was part of a broader bipartisan movement to form a national entity to promote American arts and culture at home and abroad. By 1965, President Johnson took up Kennedy’s legacy, signing the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964 – which established the National Council on the Arts – and the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, which established the NEA.

Since its inception, the NEA has weathered criticism from the left and right. The right generally argues state funding for culture shouldn’t be the government’s business, while some on the left have expressed concern about how the funding might come with constraints on creative freedoms. Despite complaints from both sides, the United States has never had a fully articulated, coherent national policy on culture, unless – as historian Michael Kammen suggests – deciding not to have one is, in fact, policy.

Flare-ups in the culture wars

Targeting of the NEA has had more to do with the kind of art the government funded than any discernible impact to the budget. The amount in question – roughly US$148 million – is a drop in the morass of a $3.9 trillion federal budget.

Instead, the arts were a focus of the culture wars that erupted in the 1980s, which often invoked legislative grandstanding for elimination of the NEA. Hot-button NEA-funded pieces included Andre Serrano’s “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987), Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit “The Perfect Moment” (1989) and the case of the “NEA Four,” which involved the rejection of NEA grant applicants by performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes.

In each case, conservative legislators isolated an artist’s work – connected to NEA funding – that was objectionable due to its sexual or controversial content, such as Serrano’s use of Christian iconography. These artists’ works, then, were used to stoke a public debate about normative values. Artists were the targets, but often museum staff and curators bore the brunt of these assaults. The NEA four were significant because the artists had grants unlawfully rejected based upon standards of decency that were eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1998.

As recently as 2011, former Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor targeted the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress” (1986-87) in a Smithsonian exhibition to renew calls to eliminate the NEA.

In all these cases, the NEA had funded artists who either brought attention to the AIDS crisis (Wojnarowicz), invoked religious freedoms (Serrano) or explored feminist and LGBTQ issues (Mapplethorpe and the four performance artists). Controversial artists push the boundaries of what art does, not just what art is; in these cases, the artists were able to powerfully communicate social and political issues that elicited the particular ire of conservatives.

A local impact

But today, it’s not about the art itself. It’s about limiting the scope and size of the federal government. And that ideological push presents real threats to our economy and our communities.

Organizations like the Heritage Foundation fail to take into account that eliminating the NEA actually causes the collapse of a vast network of regionally controlled, state-level arts agencies and local councils. In other words, they won’t simply be defunding a centralized bureaucracy that dictates elite culture from the sequestered halls of Washington, D.C. The NEA is required by law to distribute 40 percent of its budget to arts agencies in all 50 states and six U.S. jurisdictions.

Many communities – such as Princeton, New Jersey, which could lose funding to local cultural institutions like the McCarter Theatre – are anxious about how threats to the NEA will affect their community.

Therein lies the misguided logic of the argument for defunding: It targets the NEA but in effect threatens funding for programs like the Creede Repertory Theatre – which serves rural and underserved communities in states like Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma and Arizona – and Appalshop, a community radio station and media center that creates public art installations and multimedia tours in Jenkins, Kentucky to celebrate Appalachian cultural identity.

While the present administration and the conservative movement claim they’re simply trying to save taxpayer dollars, they also ignore the significant economic impacts of the arts. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture industry generated $704.8 billion of economic activity in 2013 and employed nearly five million people. For every dollar of NEA funding, there are seven dollars of funding from other private and public funds. Elimination of the agency endangers this economic vitality.

Ultimately, the Trump administration needs to decide whether artistic and cultural work is important to a thriving economy and democracy.

The Conversation

Aaron D. Knochel, Assistant Professor of Art Education, Pennsylvania State University

http://www.salon.com/2017/02/08/why-do-conservatives-want-the-government-to-defund-the-arts_partner/?source=newsletter

“Saturday Night Live” reclaims its satirical mojo amid a national emergency

Thanks, Trump!

“SNL” has found a new satirical urgency in the age of Trump — partly because we know how much he hates it

Thanks, Trump! "Saturday Night Live" reclaims its satirical mojo amid a national emergency

Kyle Mooney and Alec Baldwin on “Saturday Night Live,” February 4th, 2017. (Credit: NBC/Will Heath)

For the better part of a decade, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” seemed to be all about manufacturing viral videos for social media and pandering to an almost insufferable “both sides are equally evil” take on American politics. When “SNL” wasn’t churning out weird-for-weirdness-sake viral hits, it was carefully balancing its criticisms of the Republican Party — a longtime target of the legendary late-night sketch show — with obvious and self-conscious jabs at president Barack Obama and the left. Some of it was deserved, while, other times, “SNL’s” political satire felt soft-pedaled and awkward.

During that time, the impact of “SNL” on the American political scene was eclipsed by “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” as well as cult-classic films like “Idiocracy” and especially sketch shows like HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob & David.” As the George W. Bush years wore on, much of the greatest political satire was found online, beginning with Flash cartoons during the dot-com boom and exploding into a media phenomenon via YouTube in 2006. Even a basic cable network like VH1 unexpectedly tested the political satire waters with a short-lived animated sketch show I created and produced, circa 2003 through 2005, called “VH1’s Illustrated,” where we ripped everything from Guantánamo Bay and drug legalization to Dick Cheney’s raping of national parks for oil.

To be clear, when I talk about political satire, I’m specifically referencing short or long-form comedy that focuses its weapons on nefarious social and political elites — targeting powerful villains where it hurts them the most and, more important, owning the message. No apologies. No quarter.

“SNL” used to do this. The cast that emerged in the mid-1980s, for example, created political sketches that both defined and ridiculed the rightward shift in politics during the Reagan era. With its classic sketch about Reagan’s dual personalities, one affable and one brutal and calculating; or Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush — complete with Dan Quayle played by a 12-year-old boy; and Phil Hartman’s outstanding Bill Clinton, gregariously illustrating the interdiction of U.N. relief supplies by Somali warlords using menu items from McDonald’s, this period represents  a high-water mark for “SNL” as a whole and for two of its most legendary political minds, Al Franken and Tom Davis.

Fast-forward to the modern era, and while political comedy had flourished on many other platforms, “SNL” somehow had lost its satirical edge — until this year, that is, and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. It’s difficult to fully encapsulate the importance of the re-emergence of “SNL” as a force for unrelenting political satire. For the first time in at least a dozen years, Lorne Michaels, along with head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and naturally this season’s cast, are producing political satire that’s both outrageously funny and totally merciless.

Clearly, Alec Baldwin’s Trump is the centerpiece of the season. And it’s what Baldwin and the crew do with Trump that makes these sketches so wonderful. Unlike in previous seasons, Baldwin’s Trump sketches aren’t simply about an amusingly accurate impersonation. On the contrary, this time around “SNL” is aiming these sketches directly at Trump’s fragile, delusional ego and the show is not pulling any punches. Everything is on the table, and no one in the White House is safe from the “SNL” juggernaut.

Whether the cast is hitting Trump’s erratic cluelessness or Kellyanne Conway’s frantic spin control, cleaning up her boss’s aforementioned erratic cluelessness with her intolerable knack for deflection, or whether it’s Steve Bannon as a Grim Reaper shadow president, there’s almost nothing about Trump’s circus sideshow that “SNL” won’t seize upon. Hell, even the small details make for big statements, like Baldwin’s wearing of a Russian-flag lapel pin during last weekend’s cold open.

What makes the Trump material on “SNL” so brilliant is that, perhaps for the first time, the cast and crew are more than aware that Trump is watching. Rather than being deferential, “SNL” is deliberately crawling up Trump’s ass, and the cast knows this is working, thanks to Twitter. With Trump as the target, there’s a heretofore nonexistent third dimension added to the comedy now. Namely, we know for a fact that Trump despises it and will absolutely obsess about it for days. We know it damages him.

Combined with the jokes and the impressions, this third dimension — call it the Trump effect — gives us a near-perfect illustration of what political satire ought to do: trolling the powerful and despotic, while knowing for certain that it’s having the desired impact. Again, we know he’s watching and it’s destroying him. I’d give just about anything to have surveillance footage of Trump watching one of Baldwin’s performances. He has to be seething, face redder than his ridiculous tie, screaming at the television until hoarse, while internally dying a little more every second.

Now we have Kate McKinnon’s unbelievably accurate impression of Trump’s beleaguered spinbot Kellyanne Conway and, as of last weekend, Melissa McCarthy, too. McCarthy’s unexpected Sean Spicer sketch was perhaps the only Trump-related bit to overshadow Baldwin’s ingenious cold open. Once again, we’re treated to an endlessly hilarious “press briefing” sketch that’s made even better with the inclusion of the Trump effect — the knowledge that it was so unapologetic and so ruthless, there’s perhaps a wishful possibility Trump could fire Spicer because of it.

No, the impact wasn’t solely because Spicer was played by a woman. It was that McCarthy’s impression of Spicer was definitive. There won’t be a better Spicer impression; it’s hers now. McCarthy’s Spicer reminded me of Dana Carvey’s process for celebrity impersonations, in which it’s more about nailing the vibe of a character than sounding like a recording of the person. It’s the difference between a Carvey impression and, say, a Darrell Hammond sound-alike.

It’s important to note that during the Felicity Jones episode a few weeks ago, there were three feminist-leaning sketches in a row during the first 40 minutes of the show, including one that featured McKinnon as the ghost of Susan B. Anthony. On the same night as McCarthy’s Spicer sketch and Baldwin’s Grim Reaper sketch, there was a filmed satire of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban in which an overworked bureaucrat is tasked with awkwardly editing Trump’s new anti-Muslim travel rules into a customs video for passengers on an international flight. This is what political satire is all about.

At the risk of being overly effusive, it’s difficult to underscore how valuable “SNL” has become in the era of Trump. Baldwin, McCarthy, McKinnon and the rest of the troupe are giving America what we so desperately need right now. They’re saying exactly what has to be said and doing so with a direct line to Trump’s addled brain. In some cases, the “SNL” cast might even be risking its own safety. Despite this, they’re rolling on and there’s no sign of their letting up. “Saturday Night Live” has the power, now more than ever, to undermine an administration that transparently seeks to suppress objective reality and oppress the people. And the show has more than risen to the occasion.

Choosing the finest era in the 40-year history of “SNL”  is impossible, but I’d suggest this era is perhaps its most important. I’m relieved and confident to report that truly subversive and smart political satire has triumphantly returned to Studio 8H. Please keep it coming.