The NEA Four

Here’s my third Staff Pick essay written for the Torrance Art Museum:

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Government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced controversy since its creation in 1965, and the recent allocation of $75 million to the NEA placed in the Covid-19 relief package once again stirred up some animosity toward the program. As both an artist and art-lover, I appreciate the recognition of the arts for federal relief during this time of crisis, yet find it still not enough. After all, the arts in general contributed $877 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017 with over 5 million people employed within the arts and culture sector earning $405 billion. The war operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq have created $6.4 trillion of financial obligations/debt. So is $75 million dollars in crisis aid to fund the arts really worth raising a fuss over? Putting aside the immeasurable cultural value and the numerous scientific studies that show how important the arts are for mental development, those financial figures alone should satisfy opposition to a proportionately small amount of money compared to what the arts delivers to the economy. Unfortunately it does not.

The ongoing battle over funding the arts in this country reminds me of the infamous NEA Four case in the early 90’s. The NEA Four is the group name given to four performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) who were originally granted NEA awards only to have them revoked by congressman and NEA Chair John E. Frohnmeyer after congress (spearheaded by Jesse Helms) passed a “decency clause” as criteria for the government to judge works. The four artists sued the government for wrongly turning down their grants. While the artists won their case in district court, it ultimately worked its way to the Supreme Court in 1998, which ruled that the government’s decency clause does not interfere with artist’s first amendment rights. The NEA had already had its funding severely cut by Congress, but after the court decision they did away with funding to individual artists altogether.

Karen Finley
Karen Finley

Sadly the biggest victims of all in the ongoing battle against NEA funding and the so-called “Culture Wars”, are not artists like those of the NEA Four, but the citizens of the United States who live in small, rural communities in great need of funding and access to the arts in general.

As a rural teenager at the time, I was slightly aware of the significance of the controversy as it made national news. Impressions formed in my mind by the events profoundly affected my own appreciation (or lack of appreciation in some cases) towards performance art – in my mind, and perhaps many others,  it would be permanently connected with “indecent”. The NEA Four situation came shortly after other enormously public controversies surrounding the NEA funding of money; $35K towards an exhibition which included the homoerotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and another $10K award to visual artist Andres Serrano who made Piss Christ (a photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine). Going to battle over a small amount of tax payer money being used towards such indecent works of art made for a good distraction from money spent on wars (an estimated $61 Billion for 1990’s Gulf War).

John Fleck
John Fleck

So just what was deemed indecent about the NEA Four? For the sake of brevity I shall limit my description of each performances to one sentence, which is rather like showing a one inch square section of 6’ X 8’ canvas painting. Karen Finley created a performance called “We Keep Our Victims Ready”, which involved stripping to the waist and describing sexual assault while smearing chocolate on her body ending with a poem about social isolation and the AIDS crisis. John Fleck’s work “Blessed are the Little Fishes” dealt with concepts of faith and religious authority, and involved an onstage toilet prop and live urination. Holly Hughes’ performance of “World Without End” served as a memorial to her mother, with concepts about the battle of the sexes, her father’s abusiveness, fast food culture and growing up in the suburbs. Tim Miller’s works focused on AIDS activism, challenged the Reagan Administration and medical institutions for contributing to the enormous death toll, and often involved a portion of time with the artist naked. 

One of the purposes of performance art is the unfolding of visuals and themes over time, allowing for viewers to process information and develop various thoughts and emotions about the work. Performance art is an experience that cannot be easily condensed or simply described, much in the way that words cannot replicate the visuals of a work of graphic art. There were many reviews from audiences who actually experienced the NEA Four’s works, that said the performances helped provide catharsis, acting as a communal therapy of sorts – an invaluable process that cannot be measured or easily replicated by other methods. I know for many peers viewing performance art is their church, and experiencing such works evokes similar feelings to a religious rite or ceremony, which many conservatives support. 

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There is no question in my mind that the quickly enacted “decency law” of Congress in 1990 and the repeal of NEA funding was a thinly veiled attempt to silence LGBT activism and the complicated issues which the AIDS crisis brought up. Three of the NEA Four artists identified as LGBT and the fourth dealt with AIDS issues and sexual assault. There is a reason the motto Silence Equals Death was created. To censor such works of art as those of the NEA Four was a masked attempt to erase the opportunity for community healing and avoid dealing with the elements which plague society. It’s not a difficult stretch to see parallels with how the Nazi regime censored work they labeled Degenerate art.

Some felt that the amount of attention garnered by the NEA Four during the process ought to have been good for their careers, as there is no such thing as bad press except no press at all. It should be noted that along with the attention, the NEA Four received cancelled performances, hate mail, phone calls, and death threats by people who never actually experienced their work in person; just its labeling as “indecent” by some members of Congress. 

I do so enjoy beautiful, satisfyingly simple and seductive works of art, but I am equally capable of recognizing the immense value in complicated and controversial works of art that challenge our perceptions of the world. One doesn’t have to like a work of art to be capable of appreciating it. Performance art can be a powerful vehicle for expression, to hold a mirror up to society, illuminate important issues that need attention, and reshape our perspective. What constitutes “indecent” in one viewer’s mind may be the exact emotional undercurrent another person is feeling that needs to be expressed. As the world grows ever more populated and problems mount, there are more and more festering wounds, which art has the potential to heal in ways not capable by any other means – if we give artists and arts organizations the opportunity and appropriate amount of funding to do so.

Tim Miller (center under Wilde sign with megaphone) at Protests in LA
Tim Miller (center under Wilde sign with megaphone) at Protests in LA

It should be noted that the NEA was originally created along with the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965 under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to help improve the quality of life for Americans, particularly those in impoverished communities. They were formed during the era of the cold war space race, and there was a growing imbalance in the emphasis on the sciences – humanities and the arts needed some help in order to contribute to LBJ’s vision of The Great Society.


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