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Neil Gaiman, Matt Dean, and the assault on the Legacy Amendment

British author Neil Gaiman
REUTERS/Richard Clement
British author Neil Gaiman

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!”

Matt Dean
Matt Dean

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.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 05/09/2011 - 11:48 am.

    They have done the same thing with the salaries paid to some directors of battered women’s shelters.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/09/2011 - 12:51 pm.

    I could argue that the money paid our legislators is misspent. The state spends over $6 million per year to pay legislators that, this session, have managed to put forward a handful of proposed state constitutional amendments merely as a political ploy, and not because there’s a large public interest in them. They’ve managed very little else of note. And, what about the money that people fork out at tax time that is earmarked for campaigns? Did they hire any speakers for campaign events? Overpay for a TV spot? And should we ask to have that money paid back?

  3. Submitted by Jane Cracraft on 05/09/2011 - 01:26 pm.

    I usually say “the most awful combination of things” is dumb + mean. I think that is mutually compatible with what you assert.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/09/2011 - 02:14 pm.

    The attack on the arts also includes the Perpich residential high school for the performing arts. If the Right gets its way, it will become a charter day school, thereby destroying its value for aspiring artists who happen to live outstate.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2011 - 02:35 pm.

    Well said, Max.

    Canceling the 20th century (along with much of the 19th, and now, the 21st) is the primary objective of the current iteration of the Republican Party. A return of Robber Barons, poorhouses, starving children and an indoctrinated but uneducated populace are among their goals, happily supported by far too many corporations that appear to want, not educated citizens, but trained workers who don’t question authority. An assault on the arts and the environment, not even especially well-disguised, fits right into this plan.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2011 - 02:38 pm.

    Thanks, Bernice – I noted that story this morning, as well.

    Thanks also to Max for pointing out that Sarah Palin, not quite in the same literary league as Mr. Gaiman, is routinely paid $100,000 for an appearance, and she neither speaks for an hour, nor does she donate the proceeds to charity.

  7. Submitted by Susanna Patterson on 05/09/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    Matt Dean is an architect by training. The last time I looked, architecture was one of the arts. When he ran against Kate Christopher in 2008 however, he used images of her at work (she is a sculptor) to belittle her for being an “artist”. He promulgated a wholly false dichotomy between himself — “a businessman” — and his opponent, when in fact they are both “artists” and “businesspersons”. Evidently he feels that his political position requires him to repudiate the arts as “frivolous” in order to pander to what he believes is his base.
    Also: at a recent Town Hall meeting, he exhorted his constituents to “keep it civil”. If only he were willing to follow his own advice!

  8. Submitted by Steven Liesch on 05/09/2011 - 03:38 pm.

    Orwell was right if I follow the LOGIC behind the “majority leader’s” statement.Therefore, Senator Dean is opposed to democracy.

    A look at the uses of Legacy Funds and a history of the Amendment’s background may prove some of the arguments behind the “sausage making” of legislation and the will of the people.Legislation requires compromise as the disparate backers of the Legacy Amendment understood.

  9. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 05/09/2011 - 03:47 pm.

    It’s worth noting that in his pretend apology, Dean backed off accusing Gaiman of stealing the money, but said Gaiman should have given the money to charity. Gaiman not only had, but had mentioned this a bunch of times already in coverage of the story. Dean just can’t be bothered to check if his assumptions are correct before he throws around accusations.

  10. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 05/09/2011 - 04:01 pm.

    Dean is indeed trained as an architect. Whether he practices as one is a question. He is not a member of the state chapter of the architect’s professional association, AIA, and his website has to be the worst on record for design professional.

    He tried to raise a ruckus about Gaiman some time ago via his twitter account, without much success. Dean appears to be a frustrated comedian as well as an underachieving architect.

  11. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 05/09/2011 - 04:42 pm.

    IF the library was justified in spending this much money on a speaker, then they clearly failed big time because they only attracted 450 audience members. That’s almost $100 per attendee.

    Gaiman’s made it quite clear he charges a lot because he doesn’t want to do a lot of public speaking. How incredibly insistent of the library to “bribe” him into doing their event anyway!

    Granted, the Republicans are being jerks about this, but I’m considerably “left of center” and haven’t stopped being offended by the Legacy Amendment since it was passed by an electorate that really didn’t understand what it was getting.

    Bypassing the legislative process to get funding is FRAUD. Using Constitutional amendments to bypass the legislature may be convenient, but check out how convenient things are in California where they referendumed their way past the legislature too many times and now the entire state is grossly underfunded but has no options for raising taxes thanks to amendments that shackled their legislature.

    Yes, fund the arts and nature, but do it honestly. If the legislature won’t fund these things adequately, vote the naysayers out. If you can’t, then you’ve just proven you don’t have enough supporters to be entitled to subsidies.

    As I’ve said in other forums, raising the minimum wage would do more to help the arts than any amendment or or bill. When burger flippers make a living wage, society will again be affluent enough to support the arts. Supporting the arts when working people are on welfare is putting the cart before the horses.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/09/2011 - 09:26 pm.

    Good point about the lack of manners on the part of the Republican. Maybe Dean can find a role in the upcoming Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter film. although I suspect the role of Lincoln has already been assigned.

  13. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 05/10/2011 - 07:36 am.

    Ummm! Technically Niel Gaimen is a “cheesehead” residing on the east side of the ST. Croix river. With the “personal attack” out the way the Sarah Palin analogy is wrong because that was privately done. The Jersey Shore “Tookie” analogy that Gaimen offered is better (for $30K Rutgers students were enlighted to “study hard, party hard”. Ahh!, doesn’t it make you want to recruit a Rutger’s grad?

    In the 1960’s and 1970’s I lived in Dinkeytown for a dozen years and attended hundreds of U of MN guest lectures. The one that popped up when I was thinking of this was the late Psychologist BF Skinner. In the opening of his speech he explained how he tried to apply his behavior modification techniques to his house cat. Nothing worked.
    His wife fed the cat of mix of dry and canned cat food and she had one of those newfangled (then) electric can openers. His wife turned on the can opener and the cat came running. Skinner decided to subject this formal analysis and found that under 20% of the cans opened by the can opener were cat food (intermittent reinforcement) and that the the process can be done accidentally. Skinner conclusion (joke punchline) was “I discovered there is more than one way to skinnerize a cat”. (laughter and boos from the audience).

    Skinner was an alum of the U of MN so I hope they got a good price on his expenses. That said, for the most part you don’t get much new from the speech of someone when you have already familiar with their work. It’s rather like buying a CD of a musician versus seeing them in person at a larger venue. It’s basically inspiration and “bragging rights”.

    When the $45K story broke at the Star Tribune I had never heard of Neil Gaimen. In the spirit of scholarly research I checked Wikipedia and Gaimen’s website and spent a dollar plus tax to rent his movie “Coraline” from Redbox. (actually adding a bit of money to the “ArtPork amendment” fund)…. Clever enough movie, a family children’s movie that actually pokes a bit of fun at the “intelligentsia” types who listen to and watch public broadcasting. (IE: Coraline’s “square” parents). According to the movie Coraline grossed over $100 million. ……….

    It is safe to say that $45K is “market” for Gaimen and his work does not seem to have any political slant. The real fault seems to be with the people who made the decision to spend money on this event. I compare it to a youth baseball program that would spend a big chuck of their guest appearance money on, let’s say, the Twins baseball Joe Mauer. Compared to Mauers “day job” money it isn’t much and “market” may justify it. …….. It’s bad because money is either fungible or perceived as being fungible.

  14. Submitted by Max Sparber on 05/10/2011 - 09:54 am.

    “Ummm! Technically Niel Gaimen is a “cheesehead” residing on the east side of the ST. Croix river. ”

    Not anymore. He lives just outside of Minneapolis.

  15. Submitted by Sharon Snyder on 05/13/2011 - 08:49 am.

    “‘Ummm! Technically Niel Gaimen is a “cheesehead” residing on the east side of the ST. Croix river.’

    Not anymore. He lives just outside of Minneapolis.”

    No, Mr. Gaiman does live in Wisconsin. He’s been in the same house there for over a decade. He does say he lives “near Minneapolis” because despite being on the Wisconsin side of the river, Minneapolis is still the largest city near him.

  16. Submitted by Max Sparber on 05/13/2011 - 04:50 pm.

    He is repeatedly identified as living in or near Minneapolis, and has identified himself on his blog as a Minnesotan:

    “Where do you live now?

    In Minneapolis.”

    He does identify himself as living an hour outside Minneapolis in this article:

    I suppose he might live in Wisconsin and is just especially circumspect about it. Do you have any actual evidence that he lives in Wisconsin?

  17. Submitted by Sharon Snyder on 05/19/2011 - 09:14 pm.

    I don’t have any physical evidence. I just have several friends who are also friends with him including his co-beekeeper Sharon, so I know from conversations with them that he’s over in Wisconsin.
    When Sharon had her birding friends out to Neil’s house to band birds they said in their blog posts that they were “near [city in Wisconsin].

  18. Submitted by Joshua Abell on 06/23/2011 - 05:29 pm.

    Dean sounds like a world class jackass, but I don’t see how his objection to funding the arts is any different from Democrats’ objections to funding the sports stadium.

    I’m wholeheartedly against funding either activity, but if the People have directly voted for the Legacy amendment, Dean’s antics are actually directed at the people of Minnesota.

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