…called our Cultural Establishment, of crooked little men
and cash-flush caitiffs and assorted other denizens of the ongoing cultural
scam with their crooked little smiles and crooked sixpence.
Have you ever wondered where all the trashy
literature and modern anti-art comes from? Or, rather, have you ever scratched
your head in wonder about who paid to have it produced? In large part, we, the
taxpayers pay for it, through Federal, State, and local taxes. These
unreadable, boring, super-naturalistic or unclassifiable novels, those
“controversial” or shock-jock or feminist shock-crotch plays, the sculpture
that looks like debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the
crucifixes in jars of urine, the welded-together auto parts, the cheapjack,
hand-held camera movies one can find by the wheelbarrow-load on Netflix, each
crediting half a dozen or more oddly-named production companies – these are
also the products of private grant money.

Private sector grants are made annually in the
billions of dollars. So, we can’t blame the Federal, state, or local governments
for everything that’s rotten. The boards and selection committees of dozens of
“charitable” foundations, big and small, are also responsible for littering the
cultural landscape with consumable, throw-away rubbish.

This private grant business – or, I should say the
private grant racket, as it’s as much a racket as are the government’s –
together with the Federal government encourages, promotes, and enables
mediocrity and the otherwise unsalable in the culture. The irrational, the
sub-average, the hackneyed, and the prosaic passed off as “novel” or “radical”
are the touchstones of virtue worthy of a lifetime sinecure, a prestigious
teaching job, and lots of money. It is the practice of elevating the
undistinguished distinguished only by their banality.

Government grants today are the whores’ whelps of
the Depression era Works
Progress Administration
(WPA) and the Federal Writers’
Project
(FWP). Their official progeny are the National
Endowment for the Arts
(NEA) and the National
Endowment for the Humanities
(NEH).
In sum, private and government grants have also
turned fringe writers and artists into the foremost. Receiving a grant,
fellowship, residency, or all-expenses-paid “quiet time” vacation at some
artists’ or writers’ colony or community is one’s official induction into the
cultural establishment. For example, see this Wikipedia entry on one of the
more famous “retreats,” Yaddo:
Yaddo is an artists’ community located on a 400-acre
(1.6 km²) estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Its mission
is “to nurture the creative process by providing an opportunity for
artists to work without interruption in a supportive environment.”[1] On
March 11, 2013 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
It
offers residencies to artists working in choreography, film, literature,
musical composition, painting, performance art, photography, printmaking,
sculpture, and video. Collectively, artists who have worked at Yaddo have won
66 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 61 National Book Awards, 24 National Book Critics Circle Awards,
108 Rome
Prizes
, 49 Whiting Writers’ Awards, a Nobel Prize (Saul
Bellow
, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976), and
countless other honors.
There are even sites that promote the writing grant
applications as a profession. Remember those matchbook correspondence school ads
that asked if you wanted to become a painter or a medical billing expert or a
dog handler, and “here’s how”? These are the online equivalents of how to get
started in writing government and private grant applications for yourself, for your
community
or business
, or for
others
.
I began taking notes for this column to discuss PEN,
and out of curiosity I went onto the PEN America Center
site to see what writers – known to me and unknown – were members of this
organization. There seemed to be hundreds
of members
– perhaps, I imagined, over a thousand.  I tried counting them, but it would’ve taken
me two mind-numbing hours to complete just one column of names and as a result
would have grown cross-eyed. And there were two
columns. I got through about 1/20th of just one column before calling it quits.
Then a PEN staffer answered my query about the
number of living, dues-paying PEN members: “Roughly 4,200.”
Red highlighted names are links to a writer’s own
blog site or to some program he is connected to or affiliated with. This
double-columned list, which seems to go on for several scroll-downs, is just
chock full of names of famous writers you have never heard of:
Many of these writers are recipients of MacArthur and Guggenheim
Foundation grants and “fellowships.” The MacArthur Foundation is singular in
its awards to some of the most ditzy “artists” and writers. The mission
statement of the MacArthur Foundation goes:
Now
led by President Julia
Stasch
, MacArthur is one of the nation’s largest independent foundations
with assets of approximately $6.3 billion and annual giving of approximately
$220 million.
The
Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to
building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the
MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global
conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how
technology is affecting children and society.
The Guggenheim Foundation’s purpose is similar in
ends and means:
United
States Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife established the John Simon Guggenheim
Memorial Foundation in 1925 as a memorial to a son who died April 26, 1922. The
Foundation offers Fellowships to further the development of scholars and
artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and
creation in any of the arts, under the freest possible conditions and
irrespective of race, color, or creed. The Foundation receives between 3,500
and 4,000 applications each year. Although no one who applies is guaranteed
success in the competition, there is no prescreening: all applications are
reviewed. Approximately 200 Fellowships are awarded each year.
About those Guggenheim Fellowships, here is a clue:
Often
characterized as “midcareer” awards, Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for
men and women who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive
scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.
Fellowships
are awarded through two annual competitions: one open to citizens and permanent
residents of the United States and Canada, and the other open to citizens and
permanent residents of Latin America and the Caribbean. Candidates must apply
to the Guggenheim Foundation in order to be considered in either of these
competitions.

I’ve seen some of the “productive scholarship” the
Guggenheim subsidizes. It’s on a par with “The History and Social Status of
Maori Tattooing Arts,” while much of the “exceptional creative ability”
sustained by the Foundation is along the lines of the notorious ribbon fence in
California. See also the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Richard Serra.
Many, many MacArthur, Guggenheim and other foundation
“fellows” are “double dippers,” that is, they are recipients of both government
and private grants. To wit:
Anthony Cerulli’s
next project, Sanskrit Medical Classics in Crisis: Language Politics and the
Reinvention of a Medical Tradition in India
, which he will pursue as a
Guggenheim Fellow, explores the impact of European colonial medicine on the
transmission of knowledge in one of India’s classical medical traditions, Ayurveda….
Cerulli
has been the recipient of fellowships from the American Council of Learned
Societies, European Institutes for Advanced Study, Fulbright Foundation, and
National Endowment for the Humanities. He has held appointments as Directeur
d’études invité at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris,
Chercheur invité at the Institut d’études avancées in Paris, and twice as
scholar-in-residence at the Rochester Zen Center in western New York. Since
2008, he has taught at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where he is Associate
Professor of Religious Studies and Asian Studies. Since 2009, he has been the
Managing Editor of the journal India Review.
PEN (comprising
of PEN International
and PEN World) opposes censorship
and champions the freedom
of speech
of many foreign writers jailed or persecuted by their
governments. Its mission statement reads:
International
PEN, the worldwide association of writers, was founded in 1921 to promote
friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere; to emphasize
the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world
culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to act as a powerful voice on
behalf of writers harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for their views.

PEN is strictly non-political, a non-governmental organization in formal
consultative relations with UNESCO and Special Consultative Status with the
Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

PEN is composed of Centers, each of which represents its membership and not its
country, and membership of its Centers is open to all qualified writers,
journalists, translators, historians, and others actively engaged in any branch
of literature, regardless of nationality, race, colour or religion. Every
member is required to sign the PEN Charter and by so doing to observe its conditions.
PEN is supported
by a Mulligan stew of major corporations and government agencies, including the
NEA and the Open
Society Institute
(the latter is a George Soros creation to help bring
about Obama’s “transformed America”). But PEN can’t be “strictly non-political”
if is associated with the United Nations, with the Open Society Institute, with
the Ford Foundation, and with other left-wing “charitable” entities.
PEN’s overall opposition to censorship and restrictions
on freedom of speech may be commendable, but it is a policy which operates in a
moral and intellectual vacuum. There are some thirty PEN affiliates in various
countries. It views freedom of speech as an intrinsic value that ought to
thrive in any political context, and as a “right” that should be respected
irrespective of the character of a country’s political system. It is a
“floating abstraction.” Without property rights, there can be no freedom of
speech. If a government owns or controls all venues of expression, then
demanding that it guarantee its citizens freedom of speech is whistling into
the wind.
On a personal note, I would not be invited to join
PEN, nor would I be able to receive any kind of grant, government or private,
even if I applied for one, because my fiction has no “edge.” It’s not
“mainstream.” It performs no discernible or definable “social good.” It wasn’t
written as a “community service.” It would probably be deemed “violent,” “homophobic,”
“sexist,” and even “Islamophobic.”
No, this is not a “sour grapes” column. I haven’t
written it because I’ve been overlooked or ignored by today’s cultural
establishment and wish to send a zinger to PEN or any other leftward cultural
organization. My name and book titles are not household words in the homes of
establishment critics. I’d be unwelcome in any secular synod of contemporary
writers and artists.
Frankly, I’m grateful that I’ve been ignored or rendered
invisible in today’s culture. I’d rather be known for the company I keep, and
that’s all my fans and loyal readers.