At times I sit and struggle with the routine. The day-to-day. How to get along in the pandemic and still stay in touch with what I remember as normal. I have silent rituals that I perform. These rituals go unnoticed; they have no load-bearing functions on life itself. They are practiced to make sense of the time, to make sense of life.
Sometimes the ritual becomes routine, and I don’t notice. At other times, I catch myself thinking about them when something forces a change in my habits. The changes are not seismic but a shift nevertheless. It doesn’t take long to revert to the familiar. It’s the familiarity that makes sense of it all. It’s a downy comfort in knowing it’s a safe path I tread, no signposts needed, and the view is the same. At every step of the way, our habits keep us anchored, and it is the anchor that enables us to focus, but when does routine become an inhibiting factor, when does it cloud our perspective?
Many of the visual artists I know here in Ireland are in the “grant loop.” One artist, in particular, submits approximately 40 arts proposals per year. She applies for grants, schemes, and theme exhibitions. I suspect many of the proposals she sends out are not necessarily what she would normally choose to do, let alone make art about. I can only wonder what kind of work she would create if she were to lock herself away with her own thoughts.
Artists and arts organizations have a long history when it comes to grant applications. The grant application has become a science unto itself, one which takes a certain alchemy to master. In the majority of past UMVA newsletters, grants and grant writing were constantly discussed and chewed over, but it was the fear that the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) would disappear, that sent a shiver up many a spine.
In a UMVA newsletter dated May–June 1995, there was concern that the Maine State Commission on the Arts (MAC) was looking at reduced funding from the NEA, leading to the opinion that “foresighted artists and organizations are already looking elsewhere for their funding.” At the time, some in the Union believed that “the UMVA will continue to exist and produce local arts events so long as there are dues-paying members.” This was a novel idea, somewhat egalitarian and grassroots, to say the least, yet the spirit was strong. There was a philosophical belief within the Union at this time that it must establish a clear definition of what it was. This is from a newsletter dated March–April 1995: “it might be better for UMVA to define what we as artists really need to perform our role in society. Then we can tell the politicians what’s best for us and the arts. Let’s write the music instead of dancing to a bureaucratic tune.” Yet funding would continually pose problems, and grants seemed the best solution.
In 1995, the NEA was under threat of abolition. In fact, the NEA had been under this cloud of dissolution many times before. Since its beginnings in 1965, the NEA had been threatened with defunding or complete annihilation at least five times. There always seemed to be someone in the House of Representatives with an ax to grind, a distaste for not just a particular artwork but those individuals who supported the art in question. What if . . . (here comes a dark thought) the political establishment of that time had been successful in destroying the NEA. The artistic landscape would have changed overnight. Large “Blue Chip” institutions, such as major city museums, opera, symphony orchestras, and the like, would have been looking at not just downsizing but a scorched earth scenario. These institutions and their executive directors would have fallen, as well as their staff. Of course, the cynics among us might say they were bloated organizations to begin with, and why should someone working for the NEA “Miscellaneous Administrative Program” job make more money than a hospital nurse? Why indeed?
I am not suggesting something akin to a dystopian novel, where these institutions crumble and burn, and people like myself wander in a barren landscape devoid of culture. No. Not at all. Yet, there lurks within society today something that could easily threaten more than art and the institutions that promote it.
6 January 2021 saw the halls of Congress shattered. We all saw the carnage and shook our heads in amazement. We all saw how close we came to a coup d’état, how very near our democracy was to being abolished. The next day, we breathed a sigh of relief when we realized that all would work out, and the perpetrators (read traitors) would be punished. Yet I thought, could this be just the beginning? Might a new administration, one that was sympathetic to these dystopian scenarios, find much to do away with in the future. Oh, the fun they could have, with the gallows newly erected, a gleaming guillotine to bring art to its knees. People might just see this as another casualty of someone’s war, someone’s hopes, and turn a blind eye.
Defunding, abolition, dissolution, the debate goes on, as well it did within the Union. In 1995 UMVA members, out of frustration, openly expressed the idea that maybe it was time to see the NEA dissolved. A Union meeting took place in Brunswick that year where they debated the proposition: (“It’s time to kill the NEA”). The debate and subsequent arguments were leveled against the politicians who dearly wanted to see this venerable institution done away with, at the same time, Union members saw this institution as a bloated behemoth sucking money through the public’s straw. UMVA newsletter February 1995: “It might be worth sacrificing the NEA, if Congress also put an end to corporate welfare.” But old habits die hard, and the routines that keep us anchored never seem to dissolve. On the next page, there was this: “At the Brunswick meeting in November, it was suggested that the Union consider making some arrangement with a grant writing specialist to further UMVA interests.” Whaat?!
At that time, there were mixed opinions about the NEA and public funding, how to keep all the balls in the air and the cash flowing, and those who saw the irony of it all (“Artists who chase the golden goose may lose their way. Don’t let the cackling in Washington distract you”: UMVA newsletter February 1995). It seemed things were at the crossroads, an existential tune playing itself out, and the ghost of Robert Johnson reminding us all that the devil is always in the details. Would we dance to it, all the time hoping the golden egg wouldn’t arrive with too much baggage attached?
Old habits, like old institutions, die hard. And when they pass on, we are left with a choice: rebuild on old footings or construct what appears to be new. Whatever the choice, we need to be cautious and sidestep the past’s mistakes.
Through it all, artists will continue to pursue the intangible thing. The odyssey will continue, and we will find ways to make ritual from it. In our studios, the making of art requires more than routine, it demands from us that we create something as honest as we can, and in doing so, we will have made the gods take notice.
All the best to those on the journey.
Image at top: UMVA Newsletter, February 1995.