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Arts Partisans Angry at Clinton Administration : Politics: They are criticizing the President for a perceived lack of support, particularly over the failure to name an NEA chairman.


NEW YORK — There appears to be no cease-fire in the Culture Wars, even under a Clinton Administration expected to be supportive of the arts. On the one side there's Pat Buchanan, declaring this month that "Culture is the Ho Chi Minh Trail to power," and he's on it. On the other, arts partisans are becoming vocal in their concern that a Democrat in the White House is not making the difference to their cause they had hoped for.

Buchanan appears so confident that attacks on the arts and Hollywood will broaden his political base that the television commentator who made life miserable for George Bush in last year's primaries organized a two-day conference on "Winning the Culture War," through his new foundation, the American Cause, earlier this month. And he took the occasion once more to pronounce the National Gallery's outdoor sculptor by the late, internationally acclaimed artist Henry Moore "petrified dinosaur feces."

The arts community is concerned over a Justice Department action on contested "decency" standards and President Clinton's delay in naming a chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. So concerned that the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA, passed a resolution at its May meeting asking the President to make up his mind fast.

"Buchanan is on the warpath; I didn't expect he wouldn't be. I don't believe Jesse Helms will let go," council member Harvey Lichtenstein, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, said Tuesday. "That's the reason we need someone (at the NEA) who is good and persuasive, who will make the case to Congress and to the country and do battle with these people. It's been four months; I think this is ludicrous."

For months now, daily rumors have anointed either actress Jane Alexander or Deborah Sale, chief of staff to New York Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine, as the new NEA head, with Smithsonian administrator Claudine Brown a distant third. This week's rumors say an announcement is imminent. Meanwhile, reauthorization hearings for the NEA begin June 10.

Aside from her role on Broadway in "The Sisters Rosensweig," Alexander has kept a low profile. However, Alexander's name has remained constantly in the news because her accountant and financial manager, James Powers, was charged in late April with taking $3 million from various clients, including $1.9 million from Alexander and her husband, theatrical and television director Edwin Sherin. Some sources insist Alexander has withdrawn her name from consideration due to financial difficulties, while others volubly deny that she is out of the running.

But Sale has been vocal on the issues--most recently at the 1993 Capezio Dance Award to Dance/ USA. "One need only remember the heroic defiance of Bella Lewitzky against the McCarthy-like climate that perverted the longstanding democratic processes of the National Endowment for the Arts," she said. "Dance/USA was there to demand that we all stand up with Bella against the national disgrace of intolerance--and we did."

Choreographer Lewitzky, who refused her NEA grant to protest an obscenity clause, was one of 16 artists and arts activists also singled out for praise this month in an unprecedented meeting at the Museum of Modern Art, in which mainstream arts powers like MOMA President Agnes Gund declared their impatience with Washington and their solidarity with the more radical downtown artists who have been the chief right-wing targets in the culture wars.

Gund said she'd written the President a letter expressing her dismay that he has yet to mention the word art . But the outrage at that meeting--and in arts circles--is focused on the one time the Administration has made a public gesture on the arts, other than a First Family visit to the Barnes Collection at the National Gallery on Mother's Day and some Hillary and Chelsea Clinton spottings at the ballet.

The Administration's one highly visible action on the arts has been a Justice Department brief that seems to take the Bush Administration's position on what arts groups characterize as "censorship." It seeks to overthrow a California Federal District Court decision that the "decency" provision for NEA grants was unconstitutional.

The case, Finley vs. NEA, was originally brought in September, 1990, on behalf of performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, often called the NEA Four, against the NEA chairman who had overturned a peer panel recommendation that they receive grants.

On June 9, 1992, U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled that the NEA's decency clause, which had been stipulated by Congress, violated the First and Fifth Amendments.

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