An Honest Policy Discussion

It’s a bit far down the list of things that are worrying most Americans about the present administration, but it seems that the National Endowment for the Arts is once again on the budgetary chopping block. Congressional Republicans, especially in the House, have long talked about removing the agency’s funding, and White House staff officials have indicated that the president intends to get rid of it altogether. Concrete budget plans have not yet been announced, and won’t be until May, but the writing – or at least the tweeting – seems to be on the wall.

There are a few reasons why this hasn’t caused mass panic yet among my fellow arts professionals. One, as mentioned above, is that there is a vast list of other things for all of us to be worried about right now. Another, more cynical reason is that the NEA’s budget is already so pitifully small that most of us don’t receive direct benefit from it. But if the arts community seems somewhat blasé about this particular horseman of the Trumpocalypse, there’s one great underlying reason. Namely, that this has been going on for decades. For as long as some of us have been alive.

The politicization of the NEA came to national attention with the so-called “NEA Four” – performance artists (Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck) whose individual grants were approved by the NEA’s peer review process only to be vetoed by its chairman for the projects’ political content. While the four won the subsequent lawsuit, the NEA stopped giving individual grants at all as a result of the attention. The notoriety of the case tends to make people think it’s the reason why, starting with Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Congressional conservatives have been trying to abolish the agency outright. The NEA Four court case isn’t the inciting incident here, however. Instead, we need to look to an incident in Minneapolis in March of 1994, involving that city’s Walker Arts Center and the performance artist Ron Athey. And as it happens, I was living in Minneapolis that very year, and since I still remember the actual facts of the case I figure it’s my duty to record them here, before history re-writes them as it sees fit.

Ron Athey is the sort of performer who subjects himself to extreme physical torture in his works as a means of political confrontation; there’s a portrait of the man here, if you’re not too squeamish to read it.  In 1994, Athey was touring a piece of his entitled Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. As part of the work, Athey made light cuts in the back of his co-performer, applied paper toweling to the wounds, then used a pulley to lift the towels into the air for all to see (I told you this wasn’t for the squeamish). In most cities where this played, this piece was reviewed by people who understood the work for what it was, and who published those pieces in their respective papers’ Arts and Leisure sections. Some responses were positive, some negative – it’s a free country, after all, and nobody has to like s&m-themed performance art if they don’t want to. However, in Minneapolis, Star-Tribune critic Mary Abbe did not bother to attend the piece herself. Instead, she compiled some second-hand complaints she’d heard about the show – complaints which turned out to be false. She reported that the HIV-positive Athey had used his own blood in this moment (he didn’t), and that he’d used the towels to flick the (not actually) tainted blood at the audience (he hadn’t). And this erroneous reporting made it not to the Star-Tribune’s Arts and Leisure section, but to the front page of its Metro section, the better to cause maximum panic. I distinctly remember reading that article while reading up on 80s performance art for one of my classes, and after the initial discomfort over its content (because c’mon), wondering just how such unsophisticated, biased, alarmist reporting could appear in a major metropolitan newspaper.

Well, members of the United States Congress didn’t share my concerns over the Star-Tribune’s journalistic standards. Instead, folks like Jesse Helms read it into the Congressional record to serve as proof that these decadent artists were completely undeserving of support from the NEA, and that the agency was fatally compromised as a result. The House of Representatives did indeed remove the NEA from the federal budget, although the Senate re-instated it. One cannot imagine today’s Senate doing the same.

Now, I can already hear some of you proclaiming that those Congressional squares of the mid-nineties were right, and you don’t want your tax dollars going to support something as outre as this. And I can’t really disagree with you – in terms of where I’d send my own contribution checks, there’s a long, long list of worthy causes ahead of this in the queue. But you know who also agrees with you? Ron Athey. In contrast to the NEA Four, he refused government assistance for his work on principle, not wanting any outside bureaucracy to have a say over his vision. The NEA grant in question went to the Walker Arts Space venue in Minneapolis, which didn’t even present the work themselves – it was staged at a place called Patrick’s Cabaret, which was co-producing with the Walker. The Walker used part of its own (NEA-supported) budget to assist Patrick’s Cabaret with expenses in bringing this project to their stage. In other words, they arranged a travel stipend.

Of $150.

Gas money.

The whole two-decades-long crusade to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts? To scuttle programs whose primary purpose these days is to bring culture into inner city and rural areas which might otherwise not receive its benefits? It ultimately rests on $150 in gas money. And it rests on an accounting of events which bears no relation to the actual facts.

We've spent twenty years patiently explaining the economic and social benefits of arts funding, and it seems clear that such patient discussion is beside the point  Because when people are making policy decisions based on inaccurate and willfully misunderstood facts, it’s a pretty safe bet that they don’t actually care about policy. They’re looking for an excuse to do what’s already in their hearts, and likely has been for a long time. And that’s as true of things like the drive to repeal the ACA or the implementation of the “travel ban” on Muslims as it is of the quest to defund the NEA. You can tell by the fact that, whether it's undoing the ACA or the NEA, the people who stand to lose the most from it come from the conservative rural areas whose representatives are clamoring the loudest for these things to be destroyed.  And you can get a sense of what’s driving all this based on the artists involved – Athey and the NEA Four specialize in provocative gay-themed work centered around confronting the AIDS crisis and a hostile cultural climate. We’re free not to like it – mid-90s performance art is pretty ham-fisted and obscure, after all. But the quest to destroy it has something much darker at its core. A desire to point at this gloriously wild cultural landscape of ours and say “okay, get rid of that, and them, and those folks over there, and we’ll finally have a decent country again.”

And here I’m actually willing to give this administration some credit. One this one point, at least, they’re finally being honest.

UPDATE:  Well, this wound up being a timelier post than I'd hoped.  Actors' Equity Association has a petition to preserve the National Endowment for the Arts, which you can sign here.  For further ideas and ways to help, you can check out the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, here.

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