Forget the Speeches The NEA is a Racket On the Chopping Block CON

January 22, 1995|By LAURENCE JARVIK and NANCY STRICKLAND

When Jane Alexander, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, seeks to justify her agency's existence, she often says NEA's mission is to provide "seed money." The endowment's small contributions, she maintained during a recent talk to a convention of art teachers at the Washington Hilton, allow local arts agencies to raise more funds. The resulting art is a vital boost to the economy and ticket sales, she claims.

What Ms. Alexander doesn't seem to notice when she gives this account is that to many of the NEA's critics, the idea of a federal "seal of approval" on art is the greatest anathema of all.

And when projects funded by the NEA (and therefore given the seal of approval) create a public outcry, the agency takes the politically useful stance of plausible deniability. A good example is the controversy generated by Ron Athey, an HIV-positive "performance artist" who carves human flesh.

During a performance at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year, Mr. Athey cut a design into another man's back and blotted the blood on paper towels which he hung on a clothesline over the audience. Reacting to the furor touched off by this so-called art, the NEA maintained that it had only $150 tied up in Mr. Athey's performance. It neglected to mention that the Walker Art Center received more than $100,000 in NEA money.

Meanwhile, popular institutions like symphonies and art museums, which flourished long before there was an NEA, are fully claimed by the endowment as total dependents. Alarmingly, the NEA seeks to say, "If not for us, there would be no art in America. Oppose us and you are opposing the joys of millions of schoolchildren." Indeed, the NEA imprimatur is perceived as so vital to a successful career that applicants have sued the agency when grants were turned down. In one recent case, the endowment settled a quarter-million-dollar lawsuit from four disgruntled "performance artists."

But why should any agency be given so much power? Although the NEA likes to pretend that it is discovering the Vincent van Goghs of tomorrow, it has yet to point to a single example working today. A far stronger case could be made that the NEA is itself a kind of Academie Francaise, a cozy club of rotating prizes and honors, distributed among a fairly limited group of well-connected insiders. Rather than fostering rebels, the bureaucracy rewards resumes.

Although the NEA claims in its public relations hype to be above politics, this is not true. In fact, Ms. Alexander openly boasted to a Chicago convention of arts administrators in April that she was working "closely with the administration" to fulfill its political objectives through the NEA by concentrating on "work in the community." In other words, Chicago-style ward-heeling, with the main beneficiaries not artists but political operatives who call themselves "arts advocates."

Ms. Alexander boasts shamelessly of the hundreds of "arts agencies," the mini-bureaucracies, the endowment has created nationwide. When we saw an ad for a calendar of artistic events for an "arts agency" here in Washington, we immediately sent away for it. Instead of a calendar of events, we received a four-page newsletter that mostly listed the local "arts agencies" we could work with to get more money from Congress. Such a system ends up subsidizing everything but art.

The NEA makes its grants only to "professionals." Amateurs who truly love art need not apply. The result is that most of the so-called "professional" artists funded by the agency

are manifestly deficient in technique and aesthetic conception, proficient only in grantsmanship. Ron Athey's act was little more than a sadomasochistic strip show. In Tim Miller's "performance," he stood nude and tried to will himself an erection -- unsuccessfully. Karen Finley stands naked onstage and talks about herself, as if her own childhood, recalled uncompellingly, were the most fascinating subject in the world.

These are just a few examples of Ms. Alexander's notion of art as a sort of politicized therapy, art as a species of social work. They are profoundly philistine and unconvincing as art of any kind.

After the fall of communism in East Germany, a funny thing happened to the most successful writers who had won prizes and government funding over the years. With the collapse of the corrupt regime, the people decided they didn't much like the feted darlings of the oppressive former ruling elite and stopped buying their books. The feeling became stronger with the disclosure that the one of the most famous literary "dissidents," Christa Wolf, had cooperated with the Stasi, the dreaded secret police. Ms. Wolf eventually wound up with a position at the Getty Center for the Arts in Los Angeles, the same group that sponsored Ms. Alexander's recent talk to the art teachers in Washington.

Not surprisingly, one artist favored by the NEA is Jenny Holzer, best known for her "truisms" -- political slogans that were displayed in New York's Times Square and elsewhere on electric billboards.

In the 1990 Venice Biennale art exhibit, two of her mottoes were "Change is valuable when the oppressed become tyrants" and "Abuse of power comes as no surprise." They are applicable to the NEA today. The endowment has become a corrupting influence, alienating people from art while subsidizing bureaucracy. It is tainted and self-serving, and should go.

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