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On the right, and into the American arts

Partnerships with the Pentagon are among the ways conservative interests in the arts are increasing.

June 25, 2004|Chris Jones | Chicago Tribune

In recent weeks, Gary Sinise, the co-founder of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, has been hitting the talk-show circuit to promote his campaign to provide school supplies for the U.S. military to distribute to Iraqi children.

But as he talks to the likes of conservative comedian Dennis Miller and conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Sinise also has been pushing a broader agenda: his view that the American media are either burying or ignoring all the good news about the work of the American military in Iraq.

"The media concentrates on the negative things," Sinise told Scarborough on a recent show, "and never, never on the positive things."

Although Sinise emphasizes that he doesn't see his Operation Iraqi Children (www.operationiraqichildren.org) as a political issue and has no wish to use his fame to "spout politics," his involvement in the Iraqi cause is part of a burgeoning involvement of conservatives in the traditional liberal enclave of the American arts world. There's also a notable recent interest in linking the arts to the military campaign in Iraq.

In April, the National Endowment for the Arts announced a new program called Operation Homecoming that would pair such authors as Tom Clancy and Mark Bowden with returning American servicemen from Iraq to encourage the members of the military to write about their personal wartime experiences. The NEA initiative is a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense. And Chicago-based Boeing Co., a major defense contractor, is the principal sponsor.

Sinise's heartfelt support of the Iraqi military mission -- nurtured, he says, by his two recent visits to American troops stationed in Iraq -- flies in the face of the traditional stereotype of the liberal Hollywood actor. Sinise, whose film credits include "Forrest Gump," "The Green Mile," "The Big Bounce" and "Ransom," has a different set of views.

"We were successful in removing a horrible dictator," the actor said in an interview recently. "Griping and complaining about it a year later doesn't serve a real purpose, in my opinion."

Before Dana Gioia, a poet and former business executive, took over at the NEA, the notion of partnering with the Department of Defense would have seemed unlikely to the agency's many conservative detractors. But as part of the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities program, the Department of Defense also has signed up as a $1-million underwriter of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's upcoming tour of "Macbeth." With venues including gymnasiums and aircraft hangars, "Macbeth" will visit a projected 16 U.S. military bases over the next year or so -- beginning after Labor Day at Maxwell Air Force Base near Montgomery.

"It was very important to Mr. Gioia and to the Department of Defense that we went on the actual bases themselves," said Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. "There will be some very interesting audiences."

Content restrictions? "Not yet, anyway" Thompson said.

Gioia, who has attracted a lot of praise from conservatives for his refashioning of the NEA, says he made the case for the Defense Department booking on the grounds that young military personnel are bombarded with officially sanctioned pop culture from rock musicians to Hollywood movies to cheerleaders. So why not a little Shakespeare?

"It's symbolic," Gioia said in an interview. "The Department of Defense hadn't ever worked with the endowment before. It's a reconciliation."

Gioia has retained many of the NEA's more traditional programs of support. But over the last year or so, he also has announced programs in which the NEA is not so much making grants to others as running cultural programming itself. That move was essential to calming a hitherto hostile conservative base.

For years, many conservatives have railed against the political leanings of the arts world and opposed the use of public money in arts funding. "The arts establishment is in thrall to left-wing political imperatives," says Roger Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion. "It's a world that has taken as its official motto Andy Warhol's observation that art is whatever you can get away with.... It shovels you between ennui and disgust."

It's axiomatic that much of the mainstream discourse in arts circles would be regarded as the language of the fringes in other fields.

Tony Kushner, venerated as one of the leading American playwrights by a plethora of critics and commentators, has described himself as a socialist writer greatly influenced by Marxist thinking. His recent play, "Homebody/Kabul," is intensely critical of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

From the subversive political message behind the musical "Hairspray" to Michael Moore's attack on the Bush team called "Fahrenheit 9/11," it's self-evident that in the contemporary arts world, a political liberal happily can float without running into too much debris.

As with Moore's movie, opposition to the war in Iraq is common among artists.

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