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COMMENTARY : They Can't Shut Me Up : John Fleck was one of four to fight back when their NEA grants were withdrawn. Five years later, he looks again at the embattled arts agency.

August 27, 1995|John Fleck

J ohn Fleck, 44, is a Los Angeles-based performance artist and film and television actor who in 1990 earned national attention as one of four artists to have their grants, previously approved by National Endowment for the Arts peer panels, overturned by then-NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer. The artists, who became known as the "NEA Four"--Fleck, Tim Miller, Karen Finley and Holly Hughes--were told that the reason for the denial was that their work contained "obscene" subject matter. They sued and after a two-year battle won about $250,000 in damages (80% of which, Fleck says, went to cover court costs and lawyers) and had their grants reinstated.

In the past five years, Fleck has continued to work as a performance artist, most recently in a solo work, "me," at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, but he has not applied for NEA funding since 1990. His concurrent acting work continues: He is in "Waterworld" and beginning next month will be a regular on Steven Bochco's "Murder One" on ABC. *

Oh, boy, back in 1990 the arts community was outraged that politics forced the NEA to cancel our grants. " Censorship ," we yelled. We stomped our feet. We sued. We were victorious. Victorious indeed. What a difference five years and a Republican House and Senate make.

The new NEA bill isn't as much about money as it is about politics. One hundred sixty-five million NEA dollars last year supported a $1-billion-plus nonprofit art base that contributed more than $400 million back in taxpaying dollars. (That's a good investment, which Los Angeles acknowledges with its current artists' grant program.) But with all the hoopla over how the cuts will save taxpayers money, the language of the new provisions escaped notice.

Recently, listening to a radio interview with Times art critic Christopher Knight clarified the NEA a bit more for me. He said it was an organization born from a climate of Cold War propaganda in the early 1960s. And was set up to show how civilized America was for supporting the arts. Over time the social change reflected in the NEA-supported network wasn't the kind of change influential politicians wanted to see. The new definitions the NEA is using are an attempt to rectify this gap between a desired "civilized" image and what contemporary artists are making.

Most folks don't realize that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has won a major battle over that image. It hasn't received a lot of press, but the Senate approved Helms' language barring support of materials that purport to "denigrate" religion. The bill also states that no work can depict or describe, in a patently "offensive" way, sexual or excretory activities or organs. These new provisions may sound wholesome enough--who wants to support anything offensive or denigrating?--but they are an attack on artistic content and its political impact, attempting to control and suppress unidealized ways artists can represent themselves or society.

Implicit in the new provisions' language is the idea that examining belief systems and exploring one's bodily experience may produce interesting art but often bad national propaganda. So, the cultural war continues; the righteous right versus the demonized denizens of art.

Now even Jesse Helms, one of the NEA's most vocal opponents in past years, has said he is "satisfied with the provisions that prevent government money being spent on artistic works considered pornographic or obscene in their depiction of religious items." My response? As good 'ol Harry S. Truman once said: "One man's profanity is another man's philosophy." Or more fitting, "Blessed Are All the Little Fishes": "One man's blasphemy is another man's miracle."


For me, making art is about expression, and a wide range of people express themselves in this country. Don't people have the right to be exposed to a variety of commitments and beliefs? Is being anti-church in any way denigrating our country? Our compatriots Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin didn't think so and questioned the authority of the church in their time. It wasn't until the 1950s that the phrase "In God We Trust" was put on the backs of dollar bills. As well, the Pledge of Allegiance didn't conclude with "one nation under God" until the "fabulous '50s."

Are we trying to return to those golden years of comforting a fearful nation with a repressive god/power symbol? The "patently sexually offensive" clause has an anti-feminist, anti-lesbian/gay slant to it that targets the kind of art-making used to represent issues of gender and sexuality. This language wants to give the NEA an "artistic cleansing," with all the implications of assumed dirt and self-righteous purification the phrase implies.

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