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The Art of War

Shamelessly seeking patrons

The budget cuts being proposed by the Trump administration intend to target justice department programs addressing violence against women, legal assistance for low-income Americans, funding for minority businesses, and most measures to protect the environment. Yet outrage, in the sphere of American writers and artists, seems to be reserved for what is seen as the final blow against civilization in the United States, the possible dissolution of funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Running these agencies costs very little, one is assured by the liberal media and blogosphere, which argues that they cost less than Trump’s golfing excursions to Florida and the price of security for his family in New York, taking up less than 0.001 percent of federal funding while providing so much in return. On the page dedicated to the issue by PEN America, an organization of which I find myself an increasingly bemused member, the opening exhibits illustrating “the great work” done by the NEA and the NEH consists of their service to members of the U.S. military, with the NEA involved in a “partnership with the Department of Defense to offer creative arts therapy programs” and the NEH engaged in the “Warrior Scholar Project.”

Since Trump has proposed to increase military spending by $54 billion, perhaps some spare change will be found for the programs mentioned above. For any shortfall, especially for warriors metamorphosing into scholars, one can surely depend upon the university boards that, in the supposedly enlightened years preceding Trump, appointed Bob Kerrey to be president of the New School, invited David Petraeus to teach the virtues of fracking to students at CUNY, and asked Karl Eikenberry, until the appointment was withdrawn because of faculty and student protests, to head the Buffett Institute of Global Studies at Northwestern University.

In the meantime, though, perhaps there should be some talk about why so many American writers and artists as well as the organizations close to them are critical of Trump but not of the American state, or even of America itself. Why do the arguments offered by PEN America and its allies in the liberal media counter the Republican disdain—not just for the arts, but for compassion, for dignity, for life itself—with exhortations that remind one of what American art has done for American war?

The idealized image of the American writer remains that of the individual uncontaminated by pressure from state or society.

In fact, well through the Cold War and all the way into the neoliberal decades that preceded Trump, the received wisdom in America about writers functioning under state patronage was that it was a feature of totalitarian societies and tinpot Third World republics, redolent of the constrictions of socialist realism and the power of culture apparatchiks who measured writers according to their conformity with approved ideas, dealing out censorship to the brave and prizes to the most compromised. This was no doubt what Salman Rushdie, former president of PEN America, had in mind when in 2012 he described the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who had just received the Nobel Prize, as a “a patsy of the regime.”

Unsympathetic individuals might point out that Rushdie, a belligerent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and self-described warrior in “the battle against fanatical Islam,” might himself be called a patsy of the U.S. regime. The same might be said of PEN America’s appeals to the good relations between art, the military, and America. Yet the idealized image of the American writer remains that of the individual uncontaminated by pressure from state or society, their support for wars an entirely voluntary matter, their writing as well as their thinking formed in the crucible of a free society and a free market that rewards talent and independent thinking and demands no conformity in return.

This fiction of independence and innocence survives whatever insidious nexus between state and writer the historical record might offer. Joel Whitney’s recent book, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, offers an enthralling account of the weird, hallucinogenic mix that incorporated the CIA, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anti-Communist advocacy group funded by the CIA), and The Paris Review, with its worldwide web of deception ranging from ensnaring Gabriel Garcia Marquez into publishing his fiction in a right-wing magazine to putting select American writers in the “joint emploi” of literature and the CIA.

Liberalism in politics, capitalism in economics, and imperialism in world affairs.

It is just such a flourishing of finks that PEN America seems nostalgic for as it talks about budget cuts for the arts and the threat posed by Trump to free expression in a time where the CIA are the good guys all over again. None of this should be surprising given the insularity of American literary circles, made up of an elite whose rarefied habitat is the liberal consensus formed by mainstream magazines, universities, private enterprise, and nonprofits, and to whom the visceral reality of poverty, frustration, and rage comes as a surprise whether it takes place in America or elsewhere. T.S. Eliot described himself memorably as “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” His literary descendants today operate along an even more rarefied realm of patrician superiority, tending towards liberalism in politics, capitalism in economics, and imperialism in world affairs.

There are brave exceptions, of course, to this lineage, historically and in the present. Those who speak out, offering counter-traditions of solidarity and empathy, those who are aware, in James Baldwin’s words, of “the lie . . . of pretended humanism.” But also those who are misfits, who are marginalized, who are struggling or impoverished, who understand that the task of writing today is not to serve as window dressing for organized violence. They know the hollowness of protests that seek to shore up a power that would pretend to humanism. They know the emptiness of art whose greatest pride is war.