Two weeks ago, in response to the images from Abu Ghraib prison, Rush Limbaugh observed that the scenes “look just like anything you’d see Madonna or Britney Spears do onstage . . . and get an NEA grant for.” I don’t know — maybe Limbaugh has seen more Madonna and Britney shows than I have, and can therefore attest to their tendency to force grown men to beat off at gunpoint. But what concerns me more is Limbaugh’s dated attack on the once-unfettered National Endowment for the Arts, long ago reduced to a lesser corporate partner in America’s arts-funding-as-public-relations shell game. Since then-Senator Jesse Helms introduced it as a politically convenient target in 1989, the NEA has hardly had the authority to fund an Iowan community symphony orchestra independently, let alone support any individual performer who crosses puritanical boundaries. Just to be clear about this: The NEA’s most visible project these days is “Operation Homecoming,” a writing workshop for returning troops and their families at military bases across the country.
For every outrageous opinion Limbaugh spouts, I assume 10,000 more Americans say it silently along with him. On the NEA remark, however, he probably had closer to 10 million. “NEA-funded” remains code-speak for performance art, and few crusades in the last 20 years had so-called Christian ideologues and left-leaning pundits chanting in more perfect unison: “Why should my tax dollars pay for this?” In that regard, I can almost see the NEA–Abu Ghraib connection — ever since the U.S. government started using my tax money to bomb Afghanistan, I’ve been asking the same question.
I got to thinking about Limbaugh’s NEA-grant remark on the way to Friday night’s show at Highways, the second night of its 15th-anniversary celebration, or “quinceañera,” as artistic director Leo Garcia dubbed it. Back when Helms launched his attack, Highways was just getting started, and NEA money and the funding it seeded were important to its operations. The performance artists labeled the “NEA Four,” Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller, were all in some way Highways-affiliated. Fleck performed there frequently, Miller co-founded the organization, and Hughes’ and Finley’s legacies endure. In a sideway homage to Finley, the notorious “chocolate-smeared woman,” comic Beth Lapides told the Highways audience on Friday that she stopped calling herself a performance artist “because I got tired of telling people what I do and hearing, ‘Oh! So you shove yams up your ass?’”
For all the nudity and profanity and rage — and, yes, self-importance — that came to be associated with performance art 15 years ago, there was a deeply humane intent to much of the work done then. The queer black poets and the deaf woman from Texas and the chocolate-smeared woman herself all sought to connect us with a certain common feeling that unites us, to maybe even see something divine in the people we fear and the people we hate. They stopped at nothing to get that message out, even if it meant screaming naked in the streets. “We always speak our mind,” Finley incanted in her 1990 poem “The Black Sheep,” which could have been the anthem of that generation of performers. “[We] appreciate differences in culture/believe in sexual preferences/believe in no racism no sexism no religionism/and we’ll fight for what we believe.”
Performance art was about other things back then, too, like finding the odd beauty in the sounds of new machines and extending the power of expression to people who didn’t necessarily have traditional skills. At Highways on Friday night, The Dark Bob, lip-synching over a capricious audio soundtrack, emceed a show that included Anna Homler playing a pocket theremin as if it were a precious Stradivarius and Rudy Pérez threading his way among dancers as a blind man. Much of it was beautiful, some of it was brilliant, most of it was way, way better than what I expected. And almost none of it had anything to do with those old saws transgression and paradigm subversion. It played instead like the aftermath of a decadeslong struggle to break the world open, a struggle that failed and has since resolved into a community of like-minded artists committed to nothing more lofty than enjoying each other’s company. Fleck wrapped himself in the flag, sang songs into a broken mike (“It’s Highways,” he sighed); Barbara T. Smith unveiled a new kind of misfit, the Old Woman, and celebrated the titanium rod in her hip, the new toys that help her live, and all her “boyfriends” — a roster so long Linda Albertano had to come onstage and read half the eclectic list — who turned out to be not lovers necessarily, but muses like Leo Castelli, Barbara Gibson, Highways founder Linda Burnham, Terence McKenna and the recently deceased Dr. Roy Wolford. Rachel Rosenthal, who claimed to have retired from performing and taken up painting, brought her art teacher onstage to critique slides of her lyrical pastels and watercolors, but the critic was soon drowned out as Rosenthal filled the stage first with her own dogs, then her dogs’ friends and her dogs’ friends’ owners. Rosenthal reserved special attention for the most underserved dog, a barely ambulatory mutt named Gadget, adopted by a woman, Rosenthal said unseriously, who “has no taste!” But maybe taste is overrated. Criticism and art have their place, Rosenthal implied, but love trumps them all.
“Black Sheep destinies,” Finley says in her poem, “are to give meaning in life, to be angels, to be conscience, to be nightmares, to be actors in dreams . . . We understand universal love/We understand unconditional love. We feel a unique responsibility a human responsibility for feelings for others.” Though the artists themselves might not like to hear it this way, it is a perspective on life far more Christian — far more like Jesus among the lepers — than any version of Christianity espoused by this country’s increasingly vengeful leaders. As such, it is the precise and polar opposite of the message transmitted from the Abu Ghraib pictures themselves, as well as from Rumsfeld’s and Bush’s attempts to squelch the outrage, and Senator James Inhofe’s implication that the people in the photographs deserved what they got (a speech for which he should burn in the hell he claims to believe in). In word and image, the administration’s performance in the last year has been obscene in its hatefulness and perverse in its arrogance. It’s time we discontinued its funding.