Can You Replace Art with Macaroni and Cheese? #SavetheNEA

In the proposal for the federal budget, Donald Trump has prioritized defunding 19 independent agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Currently, the NEA receives a tiny fraction of the federal budget — less than one-hundredth of 1% — to give “Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”

In the field of literature, for example, the NEA’s most recent Annual Report (PDF) states:

In FY 2015, the NEA awarded 36 NEA Literature Fellowships in creative writing for poetry, totaling $900,000, out of 1,634 eligible manuscripts. Proving that poets come from all walks of life, each with a different story and unique perspective, this year’s poets include a photographer who worked in factories and the mental health field, a professional rollerblader, and a combat engineer who served six years in the Army National Guard. In addition, the NEA awarded 20 NEA Literature Fellowships in translation to support new translations of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 11 different languages into English.

Critics of the NEA have struggled to figure out what art “is” and whether controversial works are worthy of government funding. As Justice O’Connor explains in National Endowment for the Arts, et al v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569 (1998):

Throughout the NEA’s history, only a handful of the agency’s roughly 100,000 awards have generated formal complaints about misapplied funds or abuse of the public trust. Two provocative works, however, prompted public controversy in 1989 and led to congressional revaluation of the NEA’s funding priorities and efforts to increase oversight of its grant-making procedures. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania had used $ 30,000 of a visual arts grant it received from the NEA to fund a 1989 retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The exhibit, entitled The Perfect Moment, included homoerotic photographs that several Members of Congress condemned as pornographic. See, e.g., 135 Cong. Rec. 22372 (1989). Members also denounced artist Andres Serrano’s work Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.

Critics of the NEA repeatedly point to these controversial examples, even when they pretend to move beyond them. One of those critics is George Will, who simply harbors contempt for art in general. In his opinion piece in The Washington Post, he proclaims:

Let’s pretend, counterfactually, that the NEA no longer funds the sort of rubbish that once immersed it in the culture wars, e.g., “Piss Christ” (a photo depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine) and “Genital Wallpaper” (don’t ask). What, however, is art? We subsidize soybean production, but at least we can say what soybeans are. Are NEA enthusiasts serene about government stipulating, as it must, art’s public purposes that justify public funding? Or do they insist that public funds should be expended for no defined public purpose?

Mr. Will downplays the benefits of art, including the promotion of “civically valuable dispositions,” “community and connectedness,” “diversity,” and “self-esteem,” ultimately concluding that art is the equivalent of macaroni and cheese, a tasty but largely empty food. He says snidely:

The idea that the arts will wither away if the NEA goes away is risible. Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Personally, I agree that food, like macaroni and cheese (though preferably more nutritious), is actually a good thing that deserves government subsidies, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that art deserves encouragement and support from the government. Sure, many artists will continue to produce art without government support — that’s always been the reality for the vast majority of artists — but is that the way it should be? The message defunding the NEA sends is that art isn’t important. Is that what the American public really believes?

I can think of hundreds of ways I benefited from arts programs, which helped me get through elementary school, a relatively tough time in my life academically. Research shows us that the arts make us better students and better thinkers, and history and life experiences tell us that the arts soothe, inspire, engage, entertain, educate, and unite us. In the divisive Trump Era, all of these benefits are more important now than ever.

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*The image is from Todd Parr’s It’s Okay to the Different, which is what comes to mind whenever I think about macaroni and cheese. I am a big fan of Todd Parr’s work, even though I don’t think it’s okay to eat mac n cheese in the bathtub!

Lawmakers Want to Take Away Your Right to a Fair Trial #StopHR985

An update on HR 985, a bill that protects corporations and civil rights violators by making certain types of lawsuits virtually impossible: It passed the House on March 9, 2017 (220 yeas to 201 nays). This is very bad news. The next stop is the US Senate.

The Misfortune Of Knowing

hr-985-beware

Many civil rights and mass torts lawsuits, including cases similar to the one at the heart of Amelia Elkins Elkins, could never happen if Congress passes H.R. 985, the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017.”

In Amelia Elkins Elkins, a “courtroom drama” retelling a Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Elkins family turns to the courts for justice after the matriarch’s untimely death. This fictional lawsuit is similar to real lawsuits happening across the country that stem from unsafe vaginal mesh products made and/or marketed by companies like Johnson & Johnson, Ethicon, and Bard. H.R. 985, if passed into law and signed by Trump, would make it harder to bring these types of cases to court by changing the procedures for multidistrict litigation, including by imposing new requirements on where cases can be filed, forcing trial courts to stop cases mid-way through for endless appeals, hampering…

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Facing Reality & Doing Something About It

The Headlines

Every morning, the headlines reveal another national tragedy: the death of Alton Sterling on July 5th, the death of Philando Castile on July 6th, and the deaths of five Dallas police officers on July 7th.

It’s times like these when I retreat into books, into the comforting fiction that helps me hide from our hate-filled world.

This is when I read old favorites like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, books that don’t directly address the racism of their eras and were written when assault rifles didn’t exist.

However, this time, I can’t read fiction, at least not today. I have to face reality, and I encourage others to do so too.

If you haven’t watched the videos of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, please do. They are graphic and highly disturbing, just like the open casket at Emmett Till’s funeral 60 years ago.

We have to confront the brutality of these killings and its underlying causes. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — and far too many others — died at the hands of police officers because they were black. We have to face racism, including our own implicit biases, and we have to recognize how this racism infects every system in our country, from access to education to the administration of justice.

We also have to watch the video of Alton Sterling’s son, a trembling child devastated by the senseless loss of his father. Anyone who isn’t moved by the emotion in this video isn’t human.

And now we have a video from Dallas of the man shooting police officers, turning a peaceful protest of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile into the deadliest day for police officers since 9/11. The shooter had an AR-15. Why on earth would anyone have such a weapon? That’s a question our politicians have to answer.

In the United States, we have an election coming up in November. People who want our government to face the problems ravaging our country, such as systemic racism and the proliferation of guns, must register to vote and get to the polls. We have to hold our representatives accountable.

Our reality is too devastating to ignore.

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The image is a composite of these headlines:

On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

Tonja Carter, the lawyer currently serving as Harper Lee’s new “watchman,” is still at it. Now, she says that Lee may have written a third novel (a rumor that’s been around since the Watchman announcement, as I mention in my “Killing Our Heroes” post).

In the Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2015), Carter speculates: “What of the other pages that have for decades sat in the Lord & Taylor box on top of ‘Watchman’? Was it an earlier draft of ‘Watchman,’ or of ‘Mockingbird,’ or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don’t know.”

Carter’s uncertainty would make sense if she were managing a literary estate. However, Harper Lee is still alive.

So, now I’m wondering: If Harper Lee has the competence to publish Watchman, why can’t she just tell us how many novels she wrote?

The Misfortune Of Knowing

Harper Lees Lumpy Tale

Did you hear that Atticus Finch is an unapologetic racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird?

The novel has been marketed as a sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird — an agent of Lee’s even suggested that Watchman was meant to be the final installment of a trilogy — but, as the La Times says in its guarded review of Lee’s latest publication, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (Just as I thought).

The stories surrounding the origin and discovery of Watchman have never made any sense. HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, have claimed that Carter herself was the one who discovered the draft in the fall of 2014, even going so far as to quote then-88-year-old Lee as…

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Amelia Elkins Elkins: A New Retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion

Hi Everyone! This is the final day to download a free ebook copy of Amelia Elkins Elkins (Click Here). Thanks for considering it.

The Misfortune Of Knowing

Amelia Elkins Elkins Cover_June 2015 Available Now (Click Image)

In 1817, if childbirth didn’t kill a woman, then there were good odds that a “miasma” would. Now, thanks to modern medicine, a woman’s demise at the prime of her life is uncommon enough to deserve an investigation. That is what two lawyers at the Harville Firm promise to do when Amelia Elkins Elkins, a member of a prominent family in Philadelphia, contacts them in the wake of her mother’s untimely death.

In this retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Amelia and her sisters turn to the American court system to seek justice for their mother’s death. It’s too bad that their conceited, silly father is doing everything he can — inadvertently, of course — to hinder their success.

This is the description of my new book, Amelia Elkins Elkins, an homage to Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. In this retelling, Anne Elliot is now Amelia Elkins…

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A 7-year-Old Asks: “Why Do Colonial Women Nag All The Time?”

Williams HouseMy 7-year-old twins enjoy historical fiction, anything that gives them a glimpse into how people lived in the past. It was hardly surprising then that one of them would choose Ginger Howard’s William’s House from the school library. The beautifully illustrated book features a fictional family that has moved from England to the New World in 1637. The father of the household, William, builds a home just like the house he grew up in across the Atlantic.

His house is perfect — that is, until the hot New World summers spoil his family’s meat and vegetables, the drier autumns turn the thatch roof into a fire hazard, and the wind threatens to crush his house with fallen trees and branches.

His wife Elizabeth is the first to react to these dangerous conditions, saying repeatedly, “Something must be done!”

William makes the necessary alterations, from building a root cellar to clearing the surrounding trees. While it’s hard to believe the speed with which William completes his DIY projects, the way he transforms his house into a uniquely colonial American structure is an important lesson for children about adapting to new surroundings and new ideas. The book also contains many interesting details about colonial life.

However, the book’s focus on William’s work, always prompted by Elizabeth’s command that “something must be done,” caused my daughter to ask, “Why did colonial women nag all the time? Doesn’t Elizabeth do anything else?”

While there are clues about Elizabeth’s work, the text does not adequately address what she’s up to while her husband alters their house. It’s as if the pudding, bread, and succotash the family eats arrive on the table by magic.

To address my daughter’s misunderstanding, I told her that, in the past, many people expected women to take care of their families inside the home while men worked outside of the home on farms or in businesses. However, I added, many colonial English women also worked on farms, doing everything from working in the fields to milking cows. I didn’t talk about indentured servitude and slavery and how those vile systems changed the division of labor in the household. That part of the conversation will come later, as will a more detailed discussion about the way our society has retained some of the gender norms from William’s and Elizabeth’s time.

For now, it’s enough for my daughters to know that real-life versions of Elizabeth didn’t just get to put their feet up as they ordered their husbands around. I knew I got my point across when my daughter replied, “They should’ve called this book ‘William & Elizabeth’s House.’”

Indeed. While I might expect a book from 17th Century to discount Elizabeth’s contribution to her family’s survival, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a book from the 21st Century to do that. But at least it encouraged an interesting conversation with my children.

*The book was illustrated by Larry Day and published in 2001.

So What’s Up With NPR’s Thankless Listeners?

Happy New Year!

2014 ended the way years always do: with fireworks, champagne, and a proliferation of “top ten” lists. I typically ignore these polls and countdowns, but there’s one that has continued to annoy me into the New Year. It’s NPR’s “Grammar Hall of Shame.”

As I tweeted on December 31st, which is known in our household as Mr. A.M.B.’s birthday:

NPR Tweet_December 31

Here’s the background: NPR asked its readers and listeners to let them know what “misused word or phrase” rankles them the most. The audience obliged, and NPR boiled the responses down to the top ten.

You can see the full list here. I agree with a few, but not these [… DRUMROLL, PLEASE…]:

10. Not answering “thank you” with “you’re welcome.” This one’s probably more about etiquette than grammar. But responses such as “no problem,” “sure” or “thank you” go against what many in the NPR audience say they were taught.

9. Saying someone “graduated college” instead of “graduated from college.” A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The “from” makes a big difference.

2. “So.” Please, please stop starting sentences with that word!

My two cents:

With #10, I’ll resist judging the respondents for misunderstanding the difference between etiquette and grammar. What I’m wondering is why anyone would be snobby enough to judge another person — a person who has done something helpful enough to warrant a “thank you” — because that person responded with a “sure” or “no problem.” That doesn’t sound like genuine gratitude to me.

With #9, NPR says “the ‘from’ makes a big difference” when someone says “graduated college” instead of “graduated from college.” Really? I think it makes no difference at all for the exact same reason: “a college graduates a student, not the other way around.” So, the meaning is clear either way. I find it hard to believe anyone who graduated college would not understand the meaning of this sentence.

As for #2, so why do I have to stop starting sentences with “so”? NPR doesn’t say in this article. From what I’ve gathered from other sources, language purists think that starting a sentence with a word that has traditionally been a midsentence conjunction “alienates audiences” by making the sentence seem rehearsed. Meh. I don’t think anyone should take it personally. It’s just the natural progression of language. “So” aids the transition from one sentence to another, like beginning a sentence with “however.”

As I wrote in The English Language Will Betray You (If You Let It),

The point is that the rules [of language] will change on us, whether we want them to or not, and people who make mistakes will only resent us if we correct them (not that I am a grammar expert). What may seem like a redundancy today may take on a meaningful nuance tomorrow as a result of changes in technology or usage.

I agree with C.S. Lewis: “there are no right or wrong answers about language.” Unless it’s your job to worry about other people’s grammar,* then just let it go.

One of my hopes for 2015 is that fewer amateur grammarians will try to demonstrate their superiority by imposing arbitrary or transitioning language rules on others.

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*Theo & Monica, editors like you get a free pass. 😉