NEA Offical Resigns, Conservative Bloggers Claim Victory

A controversial conference call, claims of government power abuse, and another scalp for the blogosphere

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The communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts, Yosi Sergant, resigned Thursday, a month after becoming the target of conservative ire for suggesting in a conference call that NEA-funded artists use their work to support the Obama administration. Specifically, Sargent asked artists "to pick something, whether it’s health care, education, the environment," and apply their "artistic creative communities' utilities and bring them to the table." Conservative bloggers, including an artist who participated in the call, considered this government propagandizing and a misuse of NEA funds. A brief history:

  • An Unusual Request  The outrage began on August 25, when filmmaker Patrick Courrielche blogged about being "handpicked" along with 75 other artists to participate in a conference call on the president's volunteer service initiative with Sergant and other government administrators. On the conservative site Big Hollywood, Courrielche accused the NEA of improperly trying to influence artists' work.
  • 'Corralling the Community' The Washington Times entered the debate on August 27. Linking to Courrielche on the Water Cooler Blog, Kerry Picket viewed the conference call as a clear abuse of government power. "Now in the role of government, Obama's team is using its power to corral the artistic community through the National Endowment for the Arts."
  • 'Agenda Art' Glenn Beck interviewed Courrielche on September 1, amplifying the charges of propaganda. The next day, Kerry Picket posted the transcript of a conversation between the Washington Times and Sergant in which the NEA official revealed that the Corporation for National and Community Service set up the conference call.
  • Sergant is 'Reassigned' On September 10, Sergant's "reassignment" from the position of communications director to an unspecified position within the organization drove the story across the blogosphere. Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post attributed Sergant's move to the fallout from Beck's polemic. Kerry Picket posted a time line of the NEA's "[transformation] from arts funder to political powerhouse."
  • Epic Rivalry Resumes  On September 17, vintage culture-warrior George Will weighted in via his column in the Washington Post. Will directed mainstream attention to the controversy, equating the artists who participated in the call with lobbyists: "Time was, artists were proudly adversarial regarding authority, the established order, etc. "Epater le bourgeois!" and all that. Now they are just another servile interest group seeking morsels from the federal banquet." The Atlantic Wire's Mara Gay unpacked Will's piece.
  • The Defense September 21 also produced a few voices to defend the NEA, or rather to parry the conservative assault. Pareene at Gawker mocked the NEA criticism as a weaker version of that heard during the 1990s culture war. Anonymous Liberal challenged Andrew Breitbart, the owner of Big Hollywood: "If Breitbart can produce any actual evidence that NEA resources or money were being improperly used for political purposes, I'll join him in calling for an investigation and for accountability. But this recorded call is pretty weak tea, especially by Bush era standards." Breaking ranks, Political Byline's conservative blogger Patrick agreed. 
  • The Mainstream Media Finally Notices on September 22, the New York Times' Jeff Zeleny reported on a new policy directive from the White House instructing "government agencies to keep politics away from the awarding of federal grants." Zeleny wrote that the White House believed it was in the clear legally. A day later, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal wondered why Sergant was still employed at the NEA. He, too, likened the story to the ACORN fiasco, and bashed the administration's hypocrisy on transparency.
  • Yosi Sergant Steps Down Thursday, the embattled Sergant finally stepped down. The Washington Post noted Sergant's connection to the Shephard Fairey's iconic Obama "Hope" posters. Conservative bloggers are less satisfied than irritated at the mainstream media for taking so long to pick up the story. Many, like Big Hollywood's Ben Shapiro, remain livid at the Obama administration for trying to keep the matter quiet and implying that Sergant went rogue. 
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.