'Command Performance': considered peevishness

June 04, 2000|By John Muncie | By John Muncie,Sun Staff

"Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics," by Jane Alexander. PublicAffairs. 322 pages. $27.50.

Maybe Jane Alexander learned her lesson too well. 0 When she was appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993 she was a political rookie, ignorant of inside-the-Beltway survival skills. Techniques like wheedling, schmoozing, flattering, backslapping, appeasement, obfuscation and creative begging were not in her repertoire.

When she left the NEA four years later, she seems to have become a pretty good student. Thanks in part to her gamesmanship, the embattled federal agency survived a concerted attempt by conservatives to drive a stake through its heart.

But the fire and the idealism that led her to the NEA in the first place is mostly missing from "Command Performance," a memoir of her years in Washington. This is pretty dry stuff. She writes as if she were a politician thinking of higher office, rather than an acclaimed actress who has at least mouthed, if not felt, the high passions of the world's greatest playwrights and screenwriters.

The NEA was founded in 1965 to help identify and fund a wide variety of artists and arts organizations. It was out of the spotlight until the late 1980s, when Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and other works became lightning rods for social conservatives. Amid growing controversy, John Frohnmayer was bounced as NEA chief, the agency's budget was cut, and the move was on to abolish the NEA altogether.

Into this mess walked Alexander -- Tony and Emmy award winner, Oscar nominee and life-long liberal. During her four years at the NEA, conservative Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America, used the agency as a political football; the Christian right demonized it; avant-garde artists damned it for abandoning them and the First Amendment. Alexander was excoriated in editorial columns, called a pornographer, a whore, a degenerate.

Cool. Bring on the melodrama. Lay on Macduff.

But there is little sword play and less blood in "Command Performance." Given a chance to retaliate in print, the former Jane of Art merely manages a straightforward chronology and a considered peevishness. Alexander does say that the brain of majority whip Tom Delay "could fit in an eggcup" and she believes that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond is an ignorant troglodyte. But these are not unusual insights. And toward the end of her story she allows as how President Clinton may have even less idealism than honor. But, shoot, everybody knows that.

As NEA chief she had to tread lightly around such antagonistic senators as Jessie Helms and Robert Byrd, but why now? I wanted to be told -- and wasn't. We want to know what toll the compromises took, how pressure was brought to bear and what she thought about the controversial art she had to defend.

"Command Performance" also fails to delve deeply into the issues. If, among other things, art is meant to contest the status quo, should government, which represents the status quo, have a role? And if it has a role, what should be its powers of restriction? What is the First Amendment's relationship to community standards? Who gets to decide?

Alexander responds meekly. Even when she's not quoting from her own speeches, her defense of artistic freedom and a benign governmental presence has the platitudinous sound of boilerplate from policy wonkland.

John Muncie is arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. From 1987-1995 he was assistant managing editor for features at the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise.

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