Reviews > Culture

NEA's chilling effect

Culture | Support the arts: Abolish federal funding

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

Performance artist Karen Finley lost her case. Hours after the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision that the National Endowment for the Arts could consider issues of "decency" when doling out their grants, Ms. Finley retaliated by reprising her masterpiece, "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman."

Ms. Finley, with three other performance artists, had sued the NEA after congress attached stipulations in 1990 that would restrict taxpayer funding for art that failed to follow "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." The four artists, feeling their rights to free expression were violated and fearing the "chilling effect" on the creation of great art, took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. With only Republican appointee David Souter dissenting, the justices ruled that deciding not to pay for something is not the same as censorship.

(Of course, future Karen Finleys might take hope that six of the justices would offer some protection for funding indecent art. Justices Scalia and Thomas offered a strong dissent from the ruling, arguing that Congress has every right to forbid funding of indecent art.)

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In an off-off-Broadway theater in Manhattan, Ms. Finley demonstrated the great art and the great ideas that would be subject to the "chilling effect" that would turn America into a cultural wasteland. As reported by Patrick Pacheco of the Los Angeles Times, the event began with a chorus line of nine go-go dancers warming up the crowd, who were seated on plastic buckets turned upside down. Then the great artist came to the stage, topless, wearing just about nothing but a pink feather boa, screaming, "I'm a loser! I'm a [expletive] loser!"

Improvising a rant on the "chilling effect," she later raised the question, "Will having a career in the arts now mean that you have to come from money or create propaganda to support the state, or be a white straight man?"

She portrayed herself as having been "sexually abused on the Senate floor," claiming a (non-literal) "humiliating, sexually abusive" relationship with arts-funding critic Sen. Jesse Helms. "He eroticized my career, my work, my livelihood," she wailed. "I'm an abused woman on the job. As a federal employee, he harassed me."

Building up to the actual work of art, Ms. Finley re-enacted her 1990 opus that got her funding cut off. The Guggenheim award-winner and recipient of previous NEA grants rubbed chocolate all over her body. She explained to art critics who might be interested in interpreting her work that it symbolized excrement. Then she invited audience members, for a small fee of $20, to lick it off.

Her performance raises a number of questions. First, why did she need a federal grant to perform this particular work of art? How much does chocolate cost, anyway? Surely not the thousands of taxpayer dollars that constitute the typical artist's grant.

Second, doesn't Ms. Finley's performance prove that her laments about censorship, chilling effects, and restrictions on freedom of expression are not valid? The government did not stop her from smearing chocolate on herself. That would be censorship. The court simply ruled that the government was under no obligation to pay for the chocolate. Nor should taxpayers be coerced to do the licking-let those who wish to support this particular work of art cough up the $20 themselves.

But the most fundamental question has to do not with the decency provision but with a provision in the NEA guidelines that has not been in dispute: the requirement that all grants be awarded on the basis of "artistic merit."

What, exactly, is the artistic merit of "The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman"? What are its aesthetic qualities? Where does it rank among the great achievements of Western art? What, exactly, does it add to America's high culture? And where is the work of art once Ms. Finley takes a shower and puts her clothes back on?

NEA panelists and apologists tend to invoke today's cliché of obligatory relativism-that art means different things to different people-but this is only a confession that they do not have any standards themselves. The fact is, those who support the arts, who want a flourishing art world and a vital, creative culture, should oppose federal subsidies for the arts.

President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation in 1965 that created the NEA, part of his grandiose vision of a welfare state. Those who think the end of subsidies would mean the demise of the arts should ask themselves a version of Ronald Reagan's question: Are the arts better off today than they were before 1965? Even the century's controversial art, from abstract expressionism to pop art, came into existence before 1965, with no federal funding. What significant artists or artistic movements have come into the culture since 1965 with the support of the NEA? Can anyone think of any?

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