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Art Rebate: Between a Rock and Hard Cash

August 23, 1993|ELIZABETH SISCO and LOUIS HOCK and DAVID AVALOS | Sisco, Hock and Avalos are San Diego artists who produced the Arte-Reembolso/Art Rebate project. and

Let's see if we've got this straight.

The Arte-Reembolso/Art Rebate project returned tax dollars to undocumented taxpayers. In response, an L.A. Times editorial, "Bad Show," (Aug. 6) charged:

1) . . . that the Centro Cultural de la Raza and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, have been "left in a precarious situation." Why? Because they did not censor a project commissioned as part of "La Frontera/The Border." The exhibition, focusing on the inherently controversial U.S.-Mexico border experience, is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA's mission statement explicitly mandates federal funds to "improve the institutional capacity of the best of our arts organizations to develop, produce, present, and exhibit bold and varied fare."

2) . . . that artists challenging assumptions about art, culture and society give "a pretext to reactionary members of Congress trying to crack down on the NEA." Do the reactionaries need a pretext? Unlikely. In an exchange with conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan on his nationally syndicated talk show, he was asked point blank: "If the three of us promise to shut up today, do you promise to quit bashing the NEA?" Buchanan responded: "It's too high a price to pay."

3) . . . that Arte Reembolso/Art Rebate "adds anti-immigrant feelings to an already roiled environment." How? By emphasizing the positive economic contributions of undocumented immigrant taxpayers.

Scene 1: Dawn breaks at a tomato field in north San Diego County. Three artists rebate hard-earned tax dollars to hard-working undocumented taxpayers. The art will ride these $10 bills through the circuits of a failed economy, entering a space where politics is fiction and conceptual art is attacked for being politically real. By project's end, 450 $10 rebates, signed by each of the artists, will have been distributed.

Scene 2: Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-San Diego) hitches a ride on the Art Rebate. He exploits a San Diego newspaper headline "Migrants Given Taxpayer's Cash" in a letter addressed to the NEA but faxed to everyone else first. Insisting that the NEA track down the cash, he conveniently ignores the newspaper photos showing the bills safely in the hands of taxpayers, albeit the undocumented variety. Cunningham's ruse would be easier if immigrants didn't pay taxes.

Scene 3: With the Border Patrol acting as his theatrical backdrop, Gov. Pete Wilson steps into a searchlight, posing at the international line for the 6 o'clock news. He barks anti-immigrant sound bites from a script intended to replace the U.S. Constitution with his reelection promises. Wilson is only one in a long chorus line of bipartisan politicians auditioning at the Border Follies.

Scene 4: Meanwhile, Canadian, U.S. and Mexican audiences, alerted by the international media coverage of the Art Rebate, search their wallets hoping for a sign of continental unity. The artists wonder if politicians crafting a North American economic community are capable of making the human connection.

Epilogue: The 1990's government-funded remake of "The Border" cashes in on fear, racism and scapegoating. It's the story of politicians being fitted for the emperor's same old wardrobe. Beyond the veil of tailored news releases, our collective civic imagination must see what they are actually wearing.

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