…called our Cultural Establishment, of crooked little men and cash-flush caitiffs and assorted other denizens of the ongoing cultural scam with their crooked little smiles and crooked sixpence.
Have you ever wondered where all the trashy literature and modern anti-art comes from? Or, rather, have you ever scratched your head in wonder about who paid to have it produced? In large part, we, the taxpayers pay for it, through Federal, State, and local taxes. These unreadable, boring, super-naturalistic or unclassifiable novels, those “controversial” or shock-jock or feminist shock-crotch plays, the sculpture that looks like debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the crucifixes in jars of urine, the welded-together auto parts, the cheapjack, hand-held camera movies one can find by the wheelbarrow-load on Netflix, each crediting half a dozen or more oddly-named production companies – these are also the products of private grant money.
This private grant business – or, I should say the private grant racket, as it’s as much a racket as are the government’s – together with the Federal government encourages, promotes, and enables mediocrity and the otherwise unsalable in the culture. The irrational, the sub-average, the hackneyed, and the prosaic passed off as “novel” or “radical” are the touchstones of virtue worthy of a lifetime sinecure, a prestigious teaching job, and lots of money. It is the practice of elevating the undistinguished distinguished only by their banality.
Government grants today are the whores’ whelps of the Depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Their official progeny are the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
In sum, private and government grants have also turned fringe writers and artists into the foremost. Receiving a grant, fellowship, residency, or all-expenses-paid “quiet time” vacation at some artists’ or writers’ colony or community is one’s official induction into the cultural establishment. For example, see this Wikipedia entry on one of the more famous “retreats,” Yaddo:
Yaddo is an artists' community located on a 400-acre (1.6 km²) estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its mission is "to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment." On March 11, 2013 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
It offers residencies to artists working in choreography, film, literature, musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and video. Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won 66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 49 Whiting Writers' Awards, a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976), and countless other honors.
There are even sites that promote the writing grant applications as a profession. Remember those matchbook correspondence school ads that asked if you wanted to become a painter or a medical billing expert or a dog handler, and “here’s how”? These are the online equivalents of how to get started in writing government and private grant applications for yourself, for your community or business, or for others.
I began taking notes for this column to discuss PEN, and out of curiosity I went onto the PEN America Center site to see what writers – known to me and unknown – were members of this organization. There seemed to be hundreds of members – perhaps, I imagined, over a thousand. I tried counting them, but it would’ve taken me two mind-numbing hours to complete just one column of names and as a result would have grown cross-eyed. And there were two columns. I got through about 1/20th of just one column before calling it quits.
Then a PEN staffer answered my query about the number of living, dues-paying PEN members: “Roughly 4,200.”
Red highlighted names are links to a writer’s own blog site or to some program he is connected to or affiliated with. This double-columned list, which seems to go on for several scroll-downs, is just chock full of names of famous writers you have never heard of:
Such as: Paul LaFarge, Britt Leach, Linda Leavall, Russell Banks (Banks is better known), Joyce Carole Oates (also better known), Millicent Dillon, and Judy Blume. Ever hear of Belinda McKeon, Marie Mutsuki Mocket, Selene Castrovilla, Taiye Selasi, Norman Sprinrad, Samrat Upadhyay, Luis Alterto Urrea, Metta Sáma, or Sergio Troncoso? No? Don’t you read? They’re literary immortals.
Many of these writers are recipients of MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundation grants and “fellowships.” The MacArthur Foundation is singular in its awards to some of the most ditzy “artists” and writers. The mission statement of the MacArthur Foundation goes:
Now led by President Julia Stasch, MacArthur is one of the nation’s largest independent foundations with assets of approximately $6.3 billion and annual giving of approximately $220 million.
The Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society.
The Guggenheim Foundation’s purpose is similar in ends and means:
United States Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife established the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1925 as a memorial to a son who died April 26, 1922. The Foundation offers Fellowships to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and irrespective of race, color, or creed. The Foundation receives between 3,500 and 4,000 applications each year. Although no one who applies is guaranteed success in the competition, there is no prescreening: all applications are reviewed. Approximately 200 Fellowships are awarded each year.
About those Guggenheim Fellowships, here is a clue:
Often characterized as “midcareer” awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.
Fellowships are awarded through two annual competitions: one open to citizens and permanent residents of the United States and Canada, and the other open to citizens and permanent residents of Latin America and the Caribbean. Candidates must apply to the Guggenheim Foundation in order to be considered in either of these competitions.
I’ve seen some of the “productive scholarship” the Guggenheim subsidizes. It’s on a par with “The History and Social Status of Maori Tattooing Arts,” while much of the “exceptional creative ability” sustained by the Foundation is along the lines of the notorious ribbon fence in California. See also the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Richard Serra.
Many, many MacArthur, Guggenheim and other foundation “fellows” are “double dippers,” that is, they are recipients of both government and private grants. To wit:
Anthony Cerulli's next project, Sanskrit Medical Classics in Crisis: Language Politics and the Reinvention of a Medical Tradition in India, which he will pursue as a Guggenheim Fellow, explores the impact of European colonial medicine on the transmission of knowledge in one of India's classical medical traditions, Ayurveda….
Cerulli has been the recipient of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, European Institutes for Advanced Study, Fulbright Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities. He has held appointments as Directeur d'études invité at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, Chercheur invité at the Institut d'études avancées in Paris, and twice as scholar-in-residence at the Rochester Zen Center in western New York. Since 2008, he has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where he is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Asian Studies. Since 2009, he has been the Managing Editor of the journal India Review.
PEN (comprising of PEN International and PEN World) opposes censorship and champions the freedom of speech of many foreign writers jailed or persecuted by their governments. Its mission statement reads:
International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, was founded in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere; to emphasize the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to act as a powerful voice on behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views.
PEN is strictly non-political, a non-governmental organization in formal consultative relations with UNESCO and Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
PEN is composed of Centers, each of which represents its membership and not its country, and membership of its Centers is open to all qualified writers, journalists, translators, historians, and others actively engaged in any branch of literature, regardless of nationality, race, colour or religion. Every member is required to sign the PEN Charter and by so doing to observe its conditions.
PEN is supported by a Mulligan stew of major corporations and government agencies, including the NEA and the Open Society Institute (the latter is a George Soros creation to help bring about Obama’s “transformed America”). But PEN can’t be “strictly non-political” if is associated with the United Nations, with the Open Society Institute, with the Ford Foundation, and with other left-wing “charitable” entities.
PEN’s overall opposition to censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech may be commendable, but it is a policy which operates in a moral and intellectual vacuum. There are some thirty PEN affiliates in various countries. It views freedom of speech as an intrinsic value that ought to thrive in any political context, and as a “right” that should be respected irrespective of the character of a country’s political system. It is a “floating abstraction.” Without property rights, there can be no freedom of speech. If a government owns or controls all venues of expression, then demanding that it guarantee its citizens freedom of speech is whistling into the wind.
On a personal note, I would not be invited to join PEN, nor would I be able to receive any kind of grant, government or private, even if I applied for one, because my fiction has no “edge.” It’s not “mainstream.” It performs no discernible or definable “social good.” It wasn’t written as a “community service.” It would probably be deemed “violent,” “homophobic,” “sexist,” and even “Islamophobic.”
No, this is not a “sour grapes” column. I haven’t written it because I’ve been overlooked or ignored by today’s cultural establishment and wish to send a zinger to PEN or any other leftward cultural organization. My name and book titles are not household words in the homes of establishment critics. I’d be unwelcome in any secular synod of contemporary writers and artists.
Frankly, I’m grateful that I’ve been ignored or rendered invisible in today’s culture. I’d rather be known for the company I keep, and that’s all my fans and loyal readers.