Four performance artists denied National Endowment for the Arts fellowships on what they say are political grounds filed suit Thursday in Los Angeles federal court seeking an order overruling the grant rejections.
Lawyers for the four said they would also file a petition for a temporary restraining order today that would bar the arts endowment from spending the $23,000 earmarked for the fellowships until the dispute is resolved.
The performers--Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, both of New York, John Fleck of Los Angeles and Tim Miller of Santa Monica--have become known as the "NEA Four" in arts circles.
Their work is highly political. All but Finley are gay and include homosexual and lesbian themes prominently in their work, which has received broad critical acclaim.
Finley's performances are stridently feminist in tone. She has appeared on stage partially clothed, her body smeared with melted chocolate and alfalfa sprouts to symbolize denigration of women by forcing them to wallow in excrement and sperm.
Finley and Miller previously had received numerous NEA grants.
The plight of the four attracted national attention last summer when NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer overruled the unanimous vote of a grant-review panel and rejected the fellowships. The decision was made after Frohnmayer reportedly told a meeting of arts activists that the NEA's precarious political situation necessitated denial of the grants.
The endowment currently faces battles in Congress to secure renewal of its legislative franchise and appropriations for the 1991 fiscal year.
The lawsuit, which was assigned to U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima, seeks an order compelling Frohnmayer to reconsider the rejections on grounds that the fellowships were denied for reasons other than questions about the performers' artistic excellence.
Frohnmayer sacrificed the artists "because of the controversial political content of their work," according to the complaint. "He did so with the aim of suppressing the expression of plaintiffs' ideas."
The NEA has declined to give reasons for the grant rejections. And Frohnmayer turned down appeals of his decision by the artists earlier this month.
The furor over the fellowship denials has made the four artists--and Finley, in particular--heroes within the arts community and prominent players in the continuing drama over the NEA's political future.
The action, filed by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, was undertaken by a consortium of five arts attorneys assembled by the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, an activist artist group.
The suit asked for an additional $50,000 in damages to Finley, whose privacy rights were violated, the complaint charged, by an alleged NEA leak to conservative columnists of her confidential NEA grant application.
The NEA, which has a budget of $171.5 million this year, gives grants to artists and arts institutions nationwide. Its political turmoil began in April, 1989, with a controversy over NEA support of two exhibits containing controversial photographs. One of those, a show of work by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is currently the subject of a state court obscenity prosecution in Cincinnati.