Echoes of the Culture War in Hip Hop Funding Feud

Federal art agencies reignite a culture war replete with liberal celebrities and rap-bashing conservatives

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Are the culture clashes of the 1990s coming back? Conservatives complain that President Obama has politicized The National Endowment for the Arts and the Committee on the Arts and Humanities. George Will has been particularly incensed about subsidizing "medicore," liberal artists.

On Tuesday the debate got a whole lot louder. New NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman riled conservatives by hinting that mural painting and graffiti might get funded. Then the Committee on the Arts and Humanities got blasted for tapping Hollywood celebrities to serve as its public advocates. Pundits have begun parsing the merits of hip-hop, and it's difficult not to notice the echoes of the 1990s culture war. Pundits wage war over art:

  • Courting Controversy  Lee Rosenbaum interviews profiles Rocco Landesman in The Wall Street Journal. The picture he paints is one of a vividly partisan chairman with questionable initiatives. Rosenbaum seems to find the idea of using taxpayer money to fund hip-hop horrifying. "Funding hip-hop—the best of which is rhythmically poetic, but commonly punctuated by profanity, violence and/or misogynistic sexuality—could put the previously embattled agency back in the crosshairs of the decency police."
  • Art Doesn't Work  At The American Spectator, Ryan L. Cole finds it galling that Landesman would ask for still more money for the arts in the middle of a recession, and to subsidize "lurid" pieces of art nonetheless. His goals include an increase in the agency's $155 million budget which, in the middle of a recession, he describes as "pathetic" and a return to individual grants to artists -- the now banished funding formula that paved the way for taxpayer-financed exhibitions of the lurid work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.
  • Famous People Help the President, and Rush Limbaugh  New York Magazine's Adam K. Raymond says asking Hollywood celebrities to promote the Committee on the Arts and Humanities may not do much to refute the charge that Democrats are "out of touch" with Americans. "The biggest names are Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington, Edward Norton, and Forest Whitaker. But it's not just actors. Obama also tapped cellist Yo Yo Ma, editor Anna Wintour, and ketchup magnate Teresa Heinz, while simultaneously making Rush Limbaugh's job so much easier."
  • Hating On Hip-Hop. How Original  Hamilton Nolan of Gawker says The Journal, "bless its nilla heart, breaks this story and undermines it in the course of two paragraphs," in which Rosenbaum says hip-hop is, at its best, "rhythmically poetic, but commonly punctuated by profanity, violence and/or misogynistic sexuality." Nolan says he's heard this before. "Sure, rappers have rhythm. Many can dance! But, you know...bitches and hoes. Guns and malt liquor...Glocks and rocks. The WSJ thinks you know what it means. The things those people talk about. "
  • Will Hating Hip-Hop Bring Back Jobs?  The music blog TwentyFourBit says "a debate about the appropriate use of NEA funds is important, but to single out hip-hop once again isn’t going to help the arts or the economy." And they say The Journal clearly knows little about music. "I know this is hard for a business and finance newspaper like the WSJ to understand, but pigeonholing music genres is a slippery slope."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.