It's just after 6 in the evening on Nov. 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and the preparations for the third annual Governor's Awards for the Arts gala are getting under way. Security is tight; the arriving guests, at $250 a pop, are hustled quickly inside.
The Versailles Room is set for the nine artist and art patron honorees, sundry presenters and Gov. and Mrs. Pete Wilson to meet the press for photo and soundbite opportunities. Among the awardees are composer John Adams, author Wallace Stegner, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts co-founder Carmen Zapata and the first Hollywood star to receive a Governor's award--everyone's favorite Everyman, Jimmy Stewart.
Outside, the scene isn't quite so cozy. Hundreds of artists and activists from ACT UP, Queer Nation and other gay and lesbian organizations mill around, angry about Wilson's recent veto of a gay rights bill and ready to let him know. They wave placards and shout anti-Wilson slogans as the police hover, poised to intervene.
One face among the crowd has a special relationship with one of the honorees, although they've never met. Tim Miller--the self-proclaimed "all-American queer Jimmy Stewart"--is on the outside tonight, separated by politics and protocol from his counterpart inside. "Racist, sexist, anti-gay," Miller joins in the chant, "Governor Wilson, go away!" The demonstration surges toward the hotel's entryway and Miller manages to enter the lobby where he passes out ACT UP stickers before he is evicted.
Better known as one of the infamous "NEA 4"--the artists who are suing the National Endowment for the Arts over grants that were recommended, then vetoed, last year--Miller has gotten used to the front lines of battle.
"I'm primarily an artist, but the vast majority of my energy goes toward cultural organizing," explains Miller. "Maybe my work would be 'better' if I had more time to 'be an artist.' I don't really think so, though. It comes from the artist-as-citizen model--which has always been degraded here, just as it's been respected in Central America and elsewhere."
Performance artist and gay activist, university teacher and co-founder of Santa Monica's Highways Performance Space, Miller, 33, is both a homeboy hero to the left and target practice for the right. He recently founded (with Holly Hughes, another of the "NEA 4") the National Fund for Lesbian and Gay Artists, and last month was awarded an $8,000 NEA solo performance fellowship for the current year.
Miller has previously been awarded eight NEA grants for his work, which evokes both gay culture and local bourgeois suburbia. "Some Golden States" (1987), for example, is an operatic overture to California in which he talks about growing up in Whittier and the death of a boyfriend from AIDS. During the work, he simulates intercourse with a huge plywood cutout of the state. He frequently uses a matter-of-fact, conversational tone to address his audience . . . and his penis--a regular occurrence in the Miller canon.
"He doesn't threaten people by being too didactic or overbearing," says L.A. actor-performer Michael Kearns, whose work also deals with AIDS. "He has this boyish, sexy, ingenue quality--the Jimmy Stewart analogy is valid--that the gay and lesbian as well as the straight population can relate to.
"If we heard the things Tim talks about from someone else, it might not be as palatable."
Gentle and mild-mannered, he claims to be just a "gay kid from Whittier on Planet Earth," but he calls himself a "cultural \o7 provocateur" \f7 and was once carried kicking and screaming from a meeting where he confronted NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer. He is committed to the notion of \o7 community, \f7 but also--by nature of being an artist who performs solo in works that are very personal--spends a lot of time thinking about \o7 himself.\f7
But on a day like today--when artists and arts organizations throughout the country observe Visual AIDS' third annual "A Day Without Art"--Miller's most relevant role isn't as the lone, controversial artist. He stars instead as part of an emerging vanguard of artist-activists, a generation of women and men, many from marginalized communities, who have been politicized around gay rights, AIDS, racism and reproductive rights issues.
If historian Arthur Schlesinger's theory about history running in cycles holds true, the '90s may be as fertile a time for American political art as were the '30s and the '60s. And Miller, whose performance art has addressed the AIDS crisis more and more directly, is poised to lead the way into the fray.
"Artists are crucial to transforming society. I hold that close to me," says Miller, hunkering down in a pickup truck, heading south on Interstate 405 to a performance in San Diego. "Artists have been trained not to take that role seriously, but artists all over the country are demanding to take it back now.