The guardian of the avant-garde Spokesman: Roberto Bedoya is dedicated to defending the interests of artists in a hostile time.

January 10, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Legions of people in this city have their own P.R. experts, image consultants and press kits, so it should come as no surprise that Roberto Bedoya's constituency also has a spokesman.

His clients are, however, not the typical Washington crowd. One smashes coffee cups on a conveyor belt for a living. Another, a transgender body-builder, photographs himself in various intimate poses. A different one has filled 5,000 plastic baggies with water and stapled them to a wall in the name of art. One more is a creator of "The Thunderthigh Revue."

Bedoya is their voice in Washington. Consider him a diplomat for the avant-garde.

The 46-year-old artist from California is director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations, a group that represents the interests of individuals whose work is often derided, decried, or just plain detested by decision-makers in Washington.

Bedoya's cause grabbed the spotlight this fall when the Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments in a lawsuit lodged in part by the artists' group. The association is fighting a law barring federal money for artists whose work does not meet a federal "decency standard."

As usual, this spokesman for all things shocking finds himself in the middle of a controversy. It is, he says, right where he wants to be.

"I don't want to represent a watercolorists' association -- I think we both know we're not quite on the same page," he says bluntly. "This group is very much a minority voice in the arts. The censorship these artists face, it's an attempt at erasure -- it's as though people are saying, 'We don't think these are real artists.' Well, this just shouldn't be."

The Supreme Court case stems from a battle that began eight years ago over the so-called NEA Four -- four performance artists who sued the National Endowment for the Arts when they were denied grants after North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms led a charge against them.

Part of that battle is over: Those artists later settled and got their money. But Bedoya's group, which represents more than 600 artists and arts organizations, kept the suit alive by challenging the constitutionality of the law governing grants, which features a provision requiring grant recipients to achieve "general standards of decency."

While Bedoya considers that language too vague, the NEA and the Justice Department do not. In the case, they argue that funding decisions are based on artistic worthiness, not censorship, and that it is perfectly legal to allow matters of decency and respect to help determine who gets federal grants. The case is expected to go before the court in late March.

Already, Bedoya's small-scale operation is humming as a result.

On a recent morning at the group's tiny downtown office, which is crammed between a dilapidated storefront and an electronics shop blasting hip-hop music out its front door, the phone is ringing. One line is on hold. Bedoya's assistant -- the other half of the outfit -- is out for the morning. At the moment, Bedoya is running a sort of one-man show about the First Amendment. His audience: an Australian reporter, calling to chat about the case.

"This is a democracy," he is saying, putting down the mouthpiece briefly to invite his next visitor to eavesdrop in the meantime. "The ideal is civic discourse."

He puts the caller in touch with an artist who can speak broadly about art censorship from a first-hand perspective -- "a good friend of Andres Serrano," the artist whose depiction of a crucifix supposedly suspended in urine caused a political stir nearly a decade ago.

After he hangs up, he hammers home his point. These aren't just phonies out there to titillate, he says, but artists with legitimate messages.

It is as if someone has hit his play button and put his volume on high. He is fidgety, arms and hands in motion as he talks, excited by the chance to be more than "Roberto Bedoya, cultural commentator," as he says of himself, but Roberto Bedoya, cultural warrior.

"I intuitively and viscerally know I'm doing the right thing by speaking for these artists," he says, his brown eyes holding a hard stare. Never mind those calls from his Roman Catholic Mexican-American mother begging him to stop defending art she calls blasphemous. Says Bedoya: "My mother, who loves me she just doesn't get it."

But plenty of others agree with Bedoya's mom. It's clear Bedoya is an odd-man-out among congressional operators used to waging political war.

"Avant-garde is supposed to be expressive and without oversight, so how can they be asking for government funding if they want to be free?" asks Jon Brandt, a spokesman for Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and foe of government arts funding. "What they're saying is, 'We want the system to support us and yet we want no responsibility to the system.' "

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