Free speech can be expensive--just ask L.A. performance artist Tim Miller. Miller was one of four artists whose Solo Performer grants were vetoed last June by National Endowment for the Arts Chairman John Frohnmayer. The move, Miller claims, was an attempt to "throw a little tidbit of appeasement to the radical right in their efforts to suppress the chance for articulate gay men and women to have a voice in our society."
If that was the intent, it has backfired in a big way. The controversy has only heightened public interest in Miller's freewheeling, associative performance monologues, drawn from sometimes painfully personal anecdotes and observations that deal frankly with homosexual lifestyles in contemporary America. In September, Miller's "Sex/Love/Stories" drew turn-away crowds at Santa Barbara's Contemporary Arts Forum, and Miller will repeat the work in two performances Friday at UC Santa Barbara.
Few audiences are neutral about Miller's work. Supporters in both the gay and heterosexual communities maintain that his honesty and insight transcend barriers of sexual preference, tapping into universal themes--alienation, the need for human connection, fear of dying and the call to political involvement. More critical responses dismiss him as self-indulgent and needlessly confrontational.
"I wouldn't say my main goal is to shock and affront people," Miller said last week. "Though I may in fact sometimes have that effect, my real goal as a performer is to give voice to my experience as a gay person in the most humorous, alternately pushy and charming, sometimes politicized way that I can. And to draw attention to certain issues and injustices in our society--my work is often focused around both homophobia and our society's pathetic response to AIDS in particular, and our ever-declining health care in this country."
These topics are explored in depth in "Sex/Love/Stories," a one-hour series of narratives with an evolving focus from the intimately personal to a broader social perspective. "The first section deals with relationships, including one I had with someone who died from AIDS, approaching it from a very personal point of view. I do not have AIDS, that's not in my experience, but many, many gay friends of mine have died, including people I've been intimate with. And then the next section is really the flip side, going from the personal building blocks to more of a community, political action context. I want to show both the pain and the emotion, and also put forth the possibility for action . . . both suffering and change.
"I think art can change the way people view the world. I think art can also change the world itself." As an example, he cites his involvement with ACT UP/LA in a yearlong effort to pressure a reluctant Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors into creating an AIDS ward at L.A. County General Hospital. "Here was this enormous hospital in a county of 12 million people, and it didn't have an AIDS ward, but after vigils, civil disobedience actions and media events, eventually the enormous county bureaucracy swung into action and paid for a state-of-the-art facility, which I'm certain would never have happened otherwise," Miller said.
Miller, 33, traces much of his urgency for political action to his apple pie roots. "Growing up in Whittier during the Nixon Administration was a very big influence. All the Nixon-mania in his hometown--I really felt that where I lived was this 'Important Place' or something. I think from the very beginning it created a real personal relationship to my country and to my role and responsibilities as a citizen to it, and then having to handle the level of betrayal and lies of that president--it was extremely hard for a 15-year-old, since I had made him my hero, and I refer to him a great deal in my work. He pops up his head every few minutes--it's still like an archetype to me. . . ."
Miller views the veto of his NEA grant as a modern version of blacklisting, a disturbing example of an attempt to simplify and control public attitudes by restricting access to a range of opinions. In a way he sees an irony there. "If anything, I think sometimes my work is too available, too familiar, too--you know, ingratiating. Partly because I'm a nice middle-class WASP from Whittier, and I kind of play off that."
The only way to judge whether Miller's art warrants all the notoriety is to see it yourself. Fortunately, we have the option and, as Miller would be the first to point out, that's a freedom to be appreciated, respected, and never taken for granted.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Tim Miller: "Sex/Love/Stories." Performed at 8 and 10 p.m. Friday at the Main Theatre at UC Santa Barbara. Tickets are $6. Call (805) 893-3535 for reservations or further information.