IRVINE — "There's a plague sweeping the country," says Daniel J. Martinez, "that only now is being recognized." And he's not just talking about AIDS. He's also referring to "institutionalized racism, inequities in education and inequities in economics. This country is willing to spend billions of dollars on war, but unable to help its citizens."
Art, he thinks, can address all that, particularly those inequities, by giving voice and expression to all. "Art," he says, "is integral to the health of society. If we give up on art, then there is no hope."
And \o7 that,\f7 he says, is why he--an artist who teaches at UC Irvine--was in the forefront of recent controversy surrounding the embattled National Endowment for the Arts. An NEA panel member, Martinez, 34, was among those who led nationally publicized walkouts from panel meetings in Washington, D.C., to protest rulings by Anne-Imelda Radice, the endowment's new acting chair.
In an action Martinez calls "unprecedented," Radice had vetoed NEA grants to exhibits because they contained graphic sexual imagery.
"I was amazed," Martinez said this week in his first interview since the walkouts. "She was saying her personal opinion would determine" grant awards.
Martinez said he was gratified by Tuesday's federal court ruling that the NEA's "decency clause" is unconstitutional. "It confirms what (arts supporters) have been saying all along," he said, "that the NEA is doing what it wants, as opposed to obeying the laws set down by the Constitution."
Martinez, himself the recipient of two small NEA grants, is known for confrontational multimedia work that has sparked controversy, though for socio-political rather than sexual content. He and six fellow NEA panelists were recommending fellowships for sculptors last month when they learned that Radice had overturned awards, recommended by another panel, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Visual Arts Center and the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Both were for exhibitions that included work depicting genitalia.
In earlier published comments, Radice had said she would refuse NEA funding for art she found sexually explicit or offensive to religious beliefs. The endowment, she said, would have to be more attuned to congressional and public opinion ("we're talking about public money--taxpayer dollars"). She would use her own "common sense," she continued, to steer funding away from the sort of artworks that have prompted attacks against the NEA by congressional conservatives and some religious leaders.
Technically, the NEA chair has the authority to make final decisions on all grants. Still, Martinez said this week that he felt she had "completely compromised" him and all NEA panelists, who are retained because of their expertise and whose recommendations normally are accepted.
He also took issue with Radice's deference to the taxpayer. "The last time I voted," he said, "nobody asked me about spending money on stealth bombers or Star Wars or covert governmental operations."
One day before their week's work was done, Martinez and his fellow panelists suspended deliberations. "We felt we had been turned into a kind of puppet panel," Martinez said. The panel sent Radice a letter protesting that "the criteria used to judge grants have been altered and have been subjected to concerns neither stated nor defined" in grant guidelines. The same week, another panel, assessing theater applications, followed suit.
(As a result of the walkouts, $210,000 in theater grant money will be diverted to other NEA programs. The fate of the sculpture panel's $2.5 million in grant money is to be decided next month, according to an NEA spokesperson. The $20,000 to have been awarded to MIT and the Anderson Gallery will be used for other museum grants, the spokesperson said.)
Martinez said that while the sculpture panel's vote to walk out was unanimous, it was preceded by emotional debate that lasted nearly three days as some panelists wondered if a walkout would play into the hands of NEA critics and ultimately do artists more harm than good.
But Martinez asserted that panelists hardly could remain silent while the endowment was "clearly being manipulated by the White House in this election year."
Radice, he argued, was maintaining that federally funded art "has to be acceptable to the widest constituency, and anything that falls outside of this broad appeal is unacceptable. We need to fund the full spectrum of creative thought and activity, which means you will produce things that everyone will like and you'll produce things some people won't like. But it's not anyone's prerogative to let only certain types of art be made.
"The Bill of Rights says we have freedom of expression and speech and freedom to assemble. You cannot pick and choose . . . certain segments of society to have these freedoms and (deny them to) others."