Art: Political Theater


The number of those who claim to have won the Cold War single-handedly grows every day. First, conservatives claimed to have intimidated the Soviets with their unflinching commitment to an arms buildup. Then liberals argued it was their devotion to peace and diplomacy that eased the Soviets' fears. Now members of the National Endowment for the Arts executive council claim the victory.

At the NEA's August meeting in Washington, D.C., council member Lloyd Richards, dean of the Yale School of Drama, said "the revolutions of the last year would not have been possible without the ideal of artists from the United States." Thus, he argued, the NEA should support controversial performance artists like Karen Finley—known for lathering herself with chocolate—and Holly Hughes, the "tough girl" lesbian eroticist. They challenge the government, he said, not unlike "Vaclav Havel, an artist who traduced the state."

But it is unlikely that a woman who puts gelatin in her bra and bounces around reciting Village Voice verities inspired East Europeans to throw out their Soviet masters. The comparison with Havel is particularly strained. Havel experienced censorship: The government banned his works and threw him in jail. Hughes and Finley simply found their subsidies cut off, which caused the tough-girl revolutionary to leave the meeting room crying. Pauvre enfant terrible.

The council threw out these grants and three others recommended by the advisory Inter-Arts Panel. The panelists who had backed them were members of the organizations that would sponsor the performances and stood "to receive remuneration."

The NEA is shot through with such conflicts of interest. There is a revolving door at the endowment that would send a tachometer into the red. NEA grants to the Guthrie Theater Foundation in Minneapolis jumped from $300,000 in 1986 to $1.2 million in 1988, after Edward Martenson, formerly head of the NEA's theater program, became president of the Guthrie, reports George Archibald of the Washington Times. The Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, found its NEA booty similarly augmented the year after Nigel Redden resigned as the head of the NEA's dance program to become the festival's general manager.

NEA Administrator John E. Frohnmayer promised at the hearing to devise stronger, stricter rules governing conflicts of interest in grant-recommending panels. But several council members argued such rules would hurt experimental art. They claimed that the NEA could not avoid having panelists who are involved with the grants it considers.

Council member Wendy Luers said that the performance art "field is much smaller [than traditional art circles], and you have to draw panelists from a much smaller pool." And Phyllis Curtain, also on the council, said, "If you're going to find peer panels to judge a particular field, you have to find the people who are involved in it." Luers and Curtain defended the experimental arts panel, but with a curious defense—one refuting the claims that NEA-sponsored performance art is challenging and creative. "Finding a panel of, let's say, diverse views in this field is not all that easy," said Curtain. And that's the problem. How committed to experimentation can a group of artists be if their views are all the same? Indeed, there is something fundamentally absurd about peer review of avant-garde art: Truly original artists have no peers.

The majority of the projects the Inter-Arts Panel recommended reflect the left-wing sensibilities for which performance art has become famous. One project brings together Los Angeles homeless to participate in performance pieces. One bestows money on the Citizen's Environmental Coalition to plant toxic-eating foliage in some contaminated soil. (The process of the soil becoming clean will produce an "invisible aesthetic.")

But the paradigm grant is for a roundtable discussion by the Road Company of Johnson City, Tennessee: "Community leaders, scholars and Road Company members will develop the specific agenda of discussion. Possible topics include industrial and economic development in the area, the definition of culture for the region, and ethics in city government and in other local institutions." This is art only in the sense that someone claiming to be an artist says it is.

Can one listen to M.K. Wegman, the chair of the Inter-Arts Panel, defending the group's choices before the council without yawning a weary yawn? "This work is often about something," Wegman said. "These artists are incorporating the complexities of science and technology into art or taking as subject matter the hopes of the disenfranchised, the anger of the oppressed, the corruption of the environment, or the breakdown of political systems.…The subject matter of these contemporary artists is contemporary life in all of its complexity and diversity."

Diversity? Right. The community of performance artists represented by the Inter-Arts Panel is no less insular than a Connecticut country club, and no less homogeneous in its views. Most of the votes on grant proposals were unanimous or nearly so.

And as the council discussed grants, in front of the Old Post Office, OUT!/DC, a gay group, held a homoerotic performance-art festival. The group had disrupted the NEA meeting in the traditional fashion, chanting "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" Thrown out of the hearing, the group set up shop on the dais of a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Over the statue's pedestal, the group taped crudely rendered drawings of lesbian lovemaking.

The performances disappointed; they lacked even the base shock-appeal that is performance art's main currency. The randiest the event got was a ritual denunciation of Jesse Helms, accompanied by a chorus of gay couples kissing and fondling. It was not particularly shocking to anyone who has lived in San Francisco. (They're here. They're queer. We're used to it.) And without the shock, the show evaporated: There was nothing there. The material was as dull as anything the NEA did approve.

Franklin seemed unperturbed, even though a condom had been looped over his outstretched hand. Had he been able to speak, I doubt he would have expressed outrage. He would just have told them all to get a job.

Eric Felten covers Congress for Insight magazine.