L.A. is a cheapskate. It touts itself as the next capital of art, but treats its artists like illegal aliens. The pitiful amount of support Los Angeles offers its artists is a disgrace. . . New York spends $8.87 per capita on the arts, Baltimore $6.36, Miami $5.20, L.A. $1.53 . . . We are hayseeds, living in the boondocks, so far from the center of the art world we can scarcely get a whiff of what real art smells like . . .
We adulate state-supported geniuses like Pina Bausch and Maguy Marin, whose spectacles are the product of healthy arts environments elsewhere. Where are the intermedia spectacle-makers, the postmodern circuses, the landmark critics, the thriving artistic companies of Los Angeles?
You know where they are. They’re standing in line with you and me at LAX, heading out of town.
Under its second editor, Kit Rachlis, the paper reacted nicely to the 1989 NEA/Jesse Helms flap over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. The Weekly put three writers — Michael Lassell, Michael Ventura and Ralph Rugoff — on it, and put Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ on the cover, above the headline "What’s Wrong With This Picture?" It was smart, and effective. Inside, Lassell issued a call to arms (and fingers and legs and genitals):
This challenge to First Amendment freedoms ought to provoke every artist and art institution currently receiving NEA funds to produce the most confrontative, affrontive art imaginable — to fill books with it, cover gallery walls with it, roll it across cinema screens, sing it and dance it and write it until this country comes to understand that we are the American people only when the tyranny of people like Jesse Helms goes down in flames. Clearly, fucking well is the best revenge.
Meanwhile, Ventura basically interviewed himself on the subject of government funding of the arts.
I’m going to re-create a conversation I’ve had many times. X is the other person. M — that’s me.
X: Why don’t you apply for an NEA grant?
M: I don’t accept money from people who drop napalm on children . . .
X: Aren’t you being a little extreme?
M: Possibly — but not as extreme as dropping napalm on children.
X: The people who give out NEA money are not those kind of people.
M: You’re right. But they’re the sort of people those kind of people feel safe with. Doesn’t that make you wonder? Makes me wonder . . .
X: You’ve taken money from film studios, and you despise them.
M: Guilty. I tend to think ill of most people who have enough money to pay me. It’s a defect in my character.
Only Ventura could turn a national moral flap into something about himself. (Of course, as usual, he did it well.) But the highlight of the cover package was Rugoff’s well-reasoned piece comparing the Helms-D’Amato take on art to that of the Nazis, who in 1937 organized a "denunciatory survey of contemporary art" called "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art). Rugoff was one of the few Helms critics who also understood that neither Mapplethorpe nor Serrano — nor anyone else, for that matter — existed in a cultural void, that:
. . . going back to the Salon des Refuses, modern art has defined itself as an oppositional culture, a reaction against Academy-sanctioned art . . . Rather than cater to the lowest common denominator — the "mass audience" targeted by Madison Avenue and Hollywood — modern art developed by pursuing loftier agendas, cutting itself off from the concerns of the general audience. The result has been an arts culture that leaves John Q. Public as befuddled as his Nazi counterparts . . .
As in 1930s Germany, very few people actually "understand" modern art, a fact dramatically underscored by the reaction to Piss Christ. (The aggressively literal misreading of the piece as a degradation of Jesus Christ — as though Christ were somehow made of plastic — indicates an inability to deal with basic conceptual tools, such as metaphor.) Rather than attempting to restrict the NEA’s granting procedures, Helms and company should clearly be seeking to augment the agency’s education programs. Hopefully arts organizations, and artists themselves, will also reconsider their responsibility as educators. Scorn for public opinion, long a trademark of modernism, isn’t going to wash anymore.
One of the Weekly’s strengths has always been the number of staffers and writers who are themselves artists and musicians. While this has produced informed looks at others, on occasion it has given the paper an opportunity to respond personally. In 1994, for example, there was yet another flap over the NEA, this time regarding a performance piece at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis by one Ron Athey, an artist who also happens to be assistant to then and current Weekly editor Sue Horton. In a piece called "Blood, Boots and White Weddings," Athey explained his work in general, as well as the "special baptism ä piece" he performed called "Washed in the Blood," during which:
I stand on a riser over Darryl and scrub his back with a Betadine solution. I recut existing scars (we cut and heal them up to three times). There are 12 cuts, each about one-and-a-half inches long. That’s three sets of three parallel lines, in a sort of perpendicular stair-step formation, a traditional African tribal pattern, and a triangle, the symbol of queerness. The bleeding is always heavy at first, but it slows down. Paper towels are pressed against the wound, making an imprint, then they are alternately passed to the two assistants, who clip prints to the line and send them out over the audience. The prints are not touching any heads. They only come close to a couple of people, mostly over the aisles or completely stage right. This act has been performed in L.A. for at least 2,000 people: three nights at Highways, one night at Los Angeles Theater Center, three club nights.