An Open Letter to the Arts Community
by Guillermo Gómez Peña

Part I | Part II-IV

Guillermo Gómez Peña
Guillermo Gómez Peña © Pedro Meyer, 1997


(This letter carries the outrage of my saliva and the fears and aspirations of my many artistic communities. Written 6 months ago, it is one of my humble attempts to contribute to our clarity and valor, in the era of the Blue Dragon).

Dear colleagues:

Since the mid 90's, as part of the much-touted "backlash", the US political right managed to successfully demonize and defund contemporary art, labeling critical artists as "decadent," "elitist," and "un-American." As a result, the budgets of federal and state arts agencies were progressively sliced down, and soon the efforts of private foundations to pick up the slack became insufficient.


Then came "9/11"…

The dramatic attacks on the US provided the Bush administration with the much-needed moral authority to implement overnight, a regime of intolerance, censorship, and paranoid nationalism. Their particular brand of religious machismo was not that different from the extremist beliefs of those they allegedly opposed. Their master discourse stated: You are either with "us"(the "good guys") or with "them"(the "evil" ones); "and God Bless America!" a hundred-thousand times, (and no one else). And artists and intellectuals suddenly found ourselves caught between two forms of fundamentalisms - not really knowing if we were perceived as part of the "us" or the "them." Remember?

In this cartography of fear, new and resurrected borders were drawn overnight dividing families, communities and nations. Brand new enemies and abysmal ethical contradictions were imposed on us, and the arts communities were no exception.

First came state-sponsored censorship: movies and art shows containing references to political violence were indefinitely postponed and a long list of innocuous songs alluding to violence and airplanes were banned from the radio. Remember our complete disbelief? Then, a high-tech form of McCarthyism came into effect with Carnivore and other digital surveillance systems, and thousands of "suspicious" Websites and virtual networks were dismantled. Finally came the public burnings of books and audio-CDs sanctioned by the theological rhetoric of our Holy Attorney General. He was embarked in a personal crusade against Satan himself. Remember?

Under this rarified climate, the corporate owned electronic and printed media engaged in a "no questions asked" policy. Wrapped in the American flag (made in China), most US journalists began to willingly perform the role of stenographers for the Pentagon. The US became the only western "democracy" in which generals and intelligence agents perform the role of news commentators. And those "liberal" anchormen, correspondents and commentators who deviated from the script were instantly fired. Remember?

In academia, conservative students began to report on their outspoken professors and their "anti-American" behavior. In some universities, conservative alumni threatened to withdraw their financial support if those outspoken professors weren't silenced. Those students and teachers who dared to organize against the supernintendo policies of the Bush administration were inundated with hate mail and death threats. Remember?

As more flags appeared, Chicano/Latino and grassroots organizations throughout the country were cowardly tagged with jingoistic statements by anonymous "patriots". In San Diego, the legendary murals of Chicano Park were defaced by white supremacists while in San Francisco, the windows and digital murals of the Galería de la Raza were tagged with anti-immigrant and anti-gay phrases. One night, a passing car shot a bullet into the Galeria window. It felt like the 1970's in Central America.

The word "terrorist" surreptitiously expanded to signify, at first all radical Muslims, then all Arabs and Southeast Asians and finally all Arab-looking people including Latino immigrants - documented or not - and brown people with foreign accents. (Since 9/11, those US-based Latino artists, who travel abroad regularly, including myself, have been systematically detained at airport checkpoints, body searched and interrogated; and many of our art materials, props and costumes have been confiscated without an explanation or an apology. We have slowly learned to endure the post 9-11 humiliation rituals at airport security checkpoints. We are all slowly learning to live with ethnic profiling as official culture).

The drastic measurements of the Homeland Security Office, and the scary Patriot Act which turned the country into the largest neighborhood watch program ever, paired with the tightening of borders and the new immigration and travel restrictions began to affect international cultural exchange. Visas were denied or indefinitely postponed. And foreign artists from countries in Bush's ever-expanding black list were no longer allowed in the land of freedom and democracy. Remember? (Unfortunately many myopic cultural institutions from Europe, Asia and Latin America have responded by "boycotting" US artists, as if this would hurt the Bush administration at all).

Then came the expected defunding of the arts. The budget priorities of the new Republican Junta were clearly National Security, law enforcement and the military. As the attention of the country focused on a myriad of threats (some real, most mythical), a fictional "Axis of Evil" and the much-touted "weapons of mass distraction", Bush and cronies managed to surreptitiously dismantle the funding sources of all progressive communities, including the alternative and experimental art worlds.

In this ambiance of manufactured hysteria, art was sent from the back seat of the funding bus straight out the back door. The unspoken yet pervasive narrative stated: " Who needs art when we are fighting international terrorists." In California alone, the Arts Council lost 19 million dollars out of its 20 million-dollar budget. Today, California, the 5th economy of the world, holds a pitiful continental record worthy of Ripley’s Believe it or Not: the second smallest per capita budget allocated to the arts…after Bolivia: 3 cents per person per year.

The fear of losing one's funding or one's job created a more insidious problem: self-censorship. Throughout academia and the art world, with a few exceptions, we were all in silence, scared of not knowing the exact placement of the new borders of tolerance: of not knowing the shape and direction of the probable repercussions of our outrage. Our European and Latin American colleagues kept asking us the same unpleasant question: How come the artists and intellectuals in the US are not speaking up and putting up a good fight? When are you guys going to break the silence? All we could do was raise our shoulders in total disbelief. "What irony," I wrote to one of my publishers late last year, "Mexico, my original homeland, is clumsily learning to live with the new dangers of freedom and democracy; while we here in the US, my new homeland, are learning to live without freedom."

Part I | Part II-IV