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Monday, December 3, 2012

Are NEA Literary Fellowships Unconstitutional?



What Would Mark Twain Say?
By Uke Jackson

On November 30, 2012, the 177th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, the National Endowment for the Arts posted the eligibility requirements for applying for a tax-payer funded NEA Literary Fellowship. I’m not eligible but that puts me in good company. Mark Twain could not have applied either.
                You see, Mark Twain was a self-published author. Twain, as Sam Clemens, ran his own publishing enterprise and paid to have his books printed. Either and both of these facts would have left him out in the cold as far as today’s federal grant-making bureaucracy.
        Today, there’s a pretty good chance the old man from Hannibal would have whole-heartedly embraced the technologies for self publishing such as Amazon’s KDP platform and CreateSpace. However, using these innovations disqualifies writers from applying for an NEA Literary Fellowship.
                The bureaucrats at the NEA are not Luddites by any means, though. Applications are only accepted online and the NEA arbiters of literature will not accept hard copy anything from applicants. Some might say the reason for these restrictive eligibility requirements are the overwhelming numbers of individuals availing themselves of the new technologies.
       Isn’t that tantamount to saying the NEA cannot do its job without being elitist or anti-democratic? It’s interesting to note that any author published by Simon & Schuster or Penguin also should be disqualified, as both those companies have started divisions which will publish authors who pay to bring out their books. Will the NEA make exceptions for authors bound by contract to these corporate entities?
       With hundreds of thousands of authors choosing to bypass the traditional gatekeepers, and with ongoing negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff, the NEA Literature bureaucrats are treading awfully close to the edge. As word of their egregious and undemocratic approach to awarding tax payer money spreads, the vast number of indie authors who are also taxpayers may choose to make a ruckus, and rightfully so.
       The NEA has long been a bugaboo for Republicans. Democrats could win the current round of negotiations by throwing the entire NEA under the bus. It would be the sort of symbolic gesture (the $146 million overall annual NEA budget is minuscule in Federal terms) that would allow Republicans to save face and take home a butchered sacrificial lamb. That would be a damn shame.
       The NEA supports all sorts of great programs, including music education efforts, small museums, and historic buildings and neighborhoods, as well as cultural institutions like symphony orchestras, operas, and  regional theaters. Yet, as word of the NEA’s elitist approach to dispensing writers’ fellowships spreads, the potential hue and cry from a very verbal constituency could be devastating to the entire agency.
       The NEA has no business carrying water for corporations and academe. Frankly, their eligibility requirements for creative writers smack of a violation of the Bill of Rights First Amendment prohibition against restricting freedom of the press. Corporations may be people under the law. But no one ever said they are the only people allowed to publish books with de facto government subsidy.
       With Kickstarter.com this past year dispensing twice as much money to artists as the NEA (keep in mind that NEA money often goes to administrators and other purposes as well as creatives), a good argument can be made for doing away with all Federal grants/fellowships for individuals in any creative discipline.
       The NEA Literary Fellowship administrators cannot be allowed to both embrace and reject 21st century technology just to make their jobs easier. Rocco Landesman, the outgoing NEA Chairperson, should suspend the NEA Literature Fellowships immediately. As currently restricted, they have no place in our constitutional democracy.  


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