How do you gag an artist? Way back in the George H.W. Bush years, it was believed by certain members of the Christian right that you could silence provocative and seemingly outré cultural expression merely by cutting government funding. In what became known as the Culture Wars, Republican congressmen including then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and Orange County's then-freshman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher famously set their sights on the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Bush-appointed NEA chairman at the time, John Frohnmayer, quickly buckled under and in 1990 rescinded individual artist grants for performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck. When those artists subsequently filed suit against Frohnmayer, it gave birth to the so-called NEA 4 and created what emerged as the government censorship cause célèbre of the decade.
The NEA 4 successfully won back their grants in a lower court but lost the eventual Supreme Court case, allowing NEA to consider standards of decency in its funding decisions. In addition, Congress stopped the NEA from giving out grants to individual artists.
This weekend, Long Beach's Carpenter Center revisits that controversy with a rare NEA 4 reunion of sorts staged over two evenings. The performances will help to culminate “The B-Word Project,” an ongoing, 18-month series of activities, performances and discussions dealing with censorship, which is being hosted by Cal State Long Beach.
For the Los Angeles art world, having Finley, Hughes, Miller and Fleck sharing the same stage is a major coup. For the right, the evenings may constitute their worst nightmare.
With the exception of Fleck, who will be doing new work, the artists will be performing excerpts of the work whose themes of gay identity, angry feminism and explicit body imagery originally brought them into Helms and co.'s crosshairs. It will be the final proof that gagging an artist is a far more thorny and paradoxical proposition than the NEA 4's detractors ever dreamed possible.
As difficult as it is to get the NEA 4 on the same stage, it is impossible to get them in the same room. So L.A. Weekly conducted a series of phone interviews to ask the artists about the notoriety of those years and how the controversy in effect catapulted them from the downtown demimonde into globe-trotting art-world superstars.
What is immediately clear is that, although they have moved on with their careers and their lives, the artists all wear the NEA 4 label proudly if sometimes begrudgingly. For the L.A.-based Miller, a longtime LGBT activist and politically perhaps the most deliberately provocative of the group, his role in the Culture Wars is “old history,” albeit historically profound.
“It obviously was a historically important thing,” he says. “It is studied in university theater programs all over the place and was the most visible theater controversy” of its day. But, he adds, “That was also a time where I was just as likely to be seen as a member of [AIDS organization] ACT UP or the founder and artistic director of Highways [the performance space in Santa Monica]. It was just one more hat.”
For the New York-based Finley, whose name appears on the title of the Supreme Court case that emerged from the controversy (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley), there's nothing tired about the label. “I think it's an important signifier for the public to have a title for a legal case that went to the Supreme Court,” she says. “I think that [what it] represented was the politics and the content of our work, and being part of the fabric of American life — an acceptable part of American life. And I think we're seeing that happen.”
For his part, Fleck is “proud to be connected with Karen and Tim and Holly. No, I don't go bragging about it, but I wear [the NEA 4 label] proudly.” The L.A. theater and art-scene veteran, who divides his time between performance art and paying for the privilege with Hollywood film and TV roles, enjoys talking about the experience. “Especially with Hollywood types,” he says. “That there's something else besides sitcoms out there. Let's expand our dialogue.”
It wasn't always so easy. In the immediate aftermath of the NEA publicity, Fleck found himself constantly on the defensive and fighting the more outrageous misrepresentations of his work. “It was, like, 'No, I'm not a masturbator. I don't masturbate onstage. No, I don't pee on the audience,' ” he recalls. “It was just like kind of always saying this is not who I am.”
On the other hand, it also gave him a crucial insight into the power of his art — it “made me realize there must be something important to what we're doing if it gets such a reaction from the conservatives,” he says.
Hughes agrees, though for her the power emerged more from the fear and cynicism of the cultural moment. “We were all dealing with sexuality and gender and the body at a time when the country was just in a state of panic, particularly about HIV and AIDS,” she says. “AIDS sent this huge panic through American culture, which the right exploited and pressured the government to respond. Instead of helping people with HIV, they attacked art and attacked work.”
As far as the actual performances went, Hughes doesn't believe that “anybody gave a rat's ass. … I mean, virtually on both the right and the left. It was just that once they realized that by combining an attack on art and sexuality and the body, they had a winner.”
But for Finley, the NEA 4 came out victorious, with the continued relevance of the four artists and the influence of performance art itself. She points to the Russian feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot, recently imprisoned after staging a guerrilla performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
“We're still seeing that performance can be a political expression,” Finley asserts. “You know, we weren't jailed for what we did. But it's 20 years later and we can still see performance as being disruptive.”
The NEA 4 will disrupt The Carpenter Center with Holly Hughes and Tim Miller on Thursday, Sept. 27, and Karen Finley and John Fleck on Friday, Sept. 28. 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. (562) 985-7000, carpenterarts.org.