By far the most awful combination of things is the mixing of arts and politics. And I don’t mean politicians who like the arts. All politicians like the arts, to some extent. There may be an exception somewhere. I suppose there might be a junior senator from someplace who can’t see a painting without flying into a rage, or see a book of literature without rushing to build a bonfire, or watch a movie without screaming at the screen that it is lies, lies, all lies. We’re in a weird time in American politics, and I won’t assume that, among the people who govern us, there isn’t at least one person whose contempt is for the arts as a whole.
But most read books, or at least look at the pictures. Most watch film and television. Some look at paintings and sculptures, although I have found that these are things that often confuse politicians unless they are strictly representational and have some sort of patriotic theme. Some listen to music, albeit mostly Lee Greenwood.
But it’s often the case that when a politician rises from his or her seat to speak about the arts, what follows is a travesty. Most of them seem to have somehow found a way to teleport themselves back to the Armory Show of 1913, and they’re standing in front of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and sputtering, “There’s NO NUDE! There’s NO STAIRCASE. CAN’T YOU SEE WE’RE BEING TRICKED?” It’s an embarrassment, it really is. It’s one thing to be ignorant; it’s another thing altogether to think everybody shares your ignorance, and that, if you rise in front of Americans and condemn art for confusing you, everybody will nod their head and say, “Finally, somebody is speaking out against cubism!”
Case in point: Matt Dean. As you no doubt have heard, our House majority leader got into a public snit last week as part of an assault on the Legacy Amendment. For whatever reason, Dean decided to phrase his criticism of money set aside for the arts as a personal expression of contempt for writer Neil Gaiman, “who I hate.” According to Dean, Gaiman is a “pencil-necked weasel who stole $45,000 from the State of Minnesota.” It should be noted that Dean later recanted, sort of, saying that his mother was making him apologize, which suggests that our bicameral is now run by the sorts of children who used to throw spitballs and stuff other kids into lockers until a teacher caught them.
We’ll get into the specifics in a moment, although I will note that Dean was wrong on every element of his charge: Gaiman stole no money, the amount in question is not $45,000, and Gaiman does not have a pencil neck. But first I would like to note that the local press, to a large extent, fell for this rhetorical flourish hook, line and sinker. Instead of the flood of stories asking, “Is this really the sort of language that we can now expect from our lawmakers?” or “Why didn’t Dean feel the need to get his facts straight?” we instead got a veritable cataract of, “Are there problems with the Legacy Amendment?” stories.
So it goes. Mark my words, this is the first in what will be a sustained Republican assault on the Legacy Amendment, because it supports things that many of our current crop of Republican leaders are hostile to, include Minnesota Public Radio and the environment and art. But they do not need to offer up anything resembling an articulate complaint. They just need to locate examples of what they think are self-evidently egregious overspending, call somebody names from the floor, and let the media take up their narrative.
Minnesotans deserve better than that. After all, the Legacy Amendment was not something that was forced on us. It was something we voted for, because a plurality of Minnesotans agreed that the environment and the arts are important enough that a fractional percentage of our sales tax should go into supporting it.
But, no, no intelligent narrative here. Dean went after Gaiman, and went after him personally. So here are the facts of the case.
First, for those of you who don’t know who Neil Gaiman is, he is one of the world’s premier fantasy and speculative fiction writers. He was born in Hampshire, England, and made his reputation with a series of highly regarded comic books. He has a parallel career as an author of fiction, and his work has made the New York Times bestseller list. His dual writing careers have netted him a string of awards that few other writers can claim, including a Bram Stoker Award, no less than 19 Eisner Awards, a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a John Newbery Medal. These are the top honors in horror literature, comic writing, science fiction, and children’s literature, and winning them all is a bit like winning an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and also, on the side, a Grammy.
Incidentally, “Coraline,” a 2009 animated film based on Gaiman’s book of the same name, was up for an Academy Award or Best Animated Picture. Gaiman himself has done a respectable amount of television and film writing, including a gig on the current incarnation of “Doctor Who.”
Oh, and did I mention that he lives here in Minnesota? He lives here in Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, where he keeps bee hives and submits their honey to the county fair. Matt Dean was not specific as to why he hates Neil Gaiman. We’re going to assume it has something to do with a fear of bees.
So what is this $45k that Matt Dean was on about? Well, to begin with, it wasn’t $45k, according to Gaiman, but $40k. Is the difference significant? Well, perhaps not exceptionally so, but I think it is worth asking our public representatives that if they choose to publicly excoriate our award-winning writers, they get their facts right. The money was spent to pay Gaiman’s speaking fee to have him appear at a library in Stillwater. It was a four-hour event, including an hourlong speech by Gaiman, who then took the money and, minus his agent fees, donated it to a domestic-violence charity and literacy and library-based charities.
Does this seem like a lot to pay somebody for an hour of speaking? It is, as Gaiman admits. He does not like to give speeches, although he does so, from time to time, sometimes for free for causes he supports. But, in general, in order to keep himself from giving public speeches all the time, he has set his fee at a level where he can’t refuse if somebody offered him the money. Obviously, he didn’t speak in Stillwater because he is greedy, as he didn’t keep the money. According to Gaiman, they offered to pay his fee, and he said it’s steep, and they told him they had already budgeted the amount, and it wouldn’t matter if they paid him less, as the end of the year was coming up and the money wouldn’t carry over to the next year.
Did the library overpay? Well, this is a subject that can be discussed, and no doubt will. I don’t think so. I believe artists deserve to get paid market rates for their work, and the market has determined that Gaiman can make $40k for an appearance. For a writer at his level, it’s not an enormous amount of money — Sarah Palin makes $100,000 when she speaks. And, unless an author just wings it, they’re not getting paid for just the time they are speaking. Depending on travel time, a public speaking engagement can consume a day, or several days. And there is preparation time for a speech, which can be several weeks or even months of work to ready an hour of material. It’s still a healthy paycheck for even that amount of work, yes, but Gaiman is at the point in his career when he can command that sort of paycheck.
But can the library afford it, and would that be money better spent elsewhere? The answer to the first part of the question is, yes, the library could afford it; it had budgeted for it. Would it have been better spent elsewhere? That’s going to be a matter of opinion, but let’s keep in mind several factors here. First, the money came out of a fund that was specifically set aside to bring authors to public libraries — at market rates — so it’s not as though the money could be spent on, say, more library books (you can read more about mandated library funds in this PDF). Second, this was reportedly an inaugural event, designed to get people excited about the program. They probably could have gotten a less expensive author for the event. They could have gotten me, for instance. I was even recently anthologized with Gaiman in “People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy.” In fact, I recently had a reading for a collection of essays I cowrote about alcohol. I think about 25 people showed up.
Each of the 500 seats at the Gaiman event was filled. And the speech was broadcast on MPR, and is available for download, which is, in my opinion, nothing to sneeze at, and usually not cheap. It associates the speech with the library, and expands the audience for Gaiman’s speech by an impressive margin. Gaiman has a huge fan base — an international fan base — and they can all virtually be an audience of the Stillwater library, in perpetuity.
But I don’t find this an especially interesting discussion. You can agree or disagree that this was worth spending the money on, just as you can agree or disagree on anything the state government spends money on. We’re spending $25k on Tim Pawlenty’s official portrait, when we could probably hire somebody from art school to do it for $25. We spent great scads of tax money building our stadiums, and that primarily benefits a cabal of millionaire business owners and millionaire athletes. If we were to begin making lists of government spending that we disapprove of, it would never end.
But it is interesting when people offer up something from their list. And it’s interesting when they have their facts wrong, or are incomplete in presenting the facts. And it’s interesting when it’s phrased in emotional, insulting language. For me, the question of why Matt Dean decided to target Neil Gaiman like this is far more interesting than the question of what money was spent, how, and who it went to. Because, at it’s core, the facts of the case are that the money was spent exactly as it was earmarked to be spent, and that’s exactly what we voted to have done with it when we voted in the Legacy Amendment.
As I said, this won’t be the last time we see the Legacy Amendment under assault like this. Because it’s not about funds being misspent. It’s about funds being spent in a way the Republicans who currently run our bicameral don’t like. They’re not looking to fix the Legacy Amendment. They’re not looking to make sure the library spends its money in the best way possible. From what I can tell, they’re looking to end this kind of spending. They’re hostile to public money being spent on the arts in general, and will cherry-pick examples of what they think are overspending, or ill-considered spending, in order to undermine that spending.
Let me end with a prediction: We’re going to see more of this, in the great, miserable theater of politics. We will see Republicans pointing to work they consider offensive, and fanning themselves, and declaring that it is intolerable that any public money spent would be on such things. And, bit by bit, they will try to shape the narrative about this subject into an opposition to the Legacy funds. Because what could be worse than Minnesotans voluntarily setting aside some of their tax money to support the arts, or literacy, or the environment?
That’s money that could much better be spent giving big businesses tax breaks.