Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene CANT

By David Ribar

AUGUST 4, 1997:  In 1964, artist Carol Schneeman and several male and female friends presented "More Than Ordinary Meat Joy," a performance piece that involved group nudity, claims for the liberation of body and spirit, and protests against the demeaning use of nudity in American culture. Photographs were taken of the event; one of them shows the performers standing in a circle with their arms around one another, heads bowed together.

Titillated yet? There's more: The Whitney Museum of Art presented some of these photographs in 1993 as part of an exhibition called "Repulsion and Desire in American Art." The same year, the museum had also accepted NEA funds for general exhibition support, just as it had done in many previous years. Now enter the Christian Action Network, or CAN: They claim the Whitney used your tax dollars to make this show, and lots of other obscene art like Schneeman's, possible. Never mind the fact that the NEA wasn't even founded until 1965. What's more, no NEA money went to any of the artists who were shown in the Whitney exhibition. But then, CAN is a lobbying group wholly uninterested in telling the truth.

Most Nashvillians who follow the visual arts know about such right-wing use of the NEA as a whipping boy and as a poster child for the Decline of America. But few seemed concerned about CAN's July 7 exhibition of "NEA-funded degenerate art" at the Opryland Ramada Inn. Indeed, judging by the low attendance, how the NEA spends its money ranks much lower than the local weather on Nashvillians' media radar. There were no Christian groups in attendance, and precious few members of the local arts community showed up either. In all, there could not have been more than 50 people who visited this room between 5 and 7 p.m. What really occurred was just a clever media event timed to present CAN's case without public opposition and to further poison the debate in Congress over the NEA's future. CAN simply asked the local TV stations to cover the "event" hours before the public was invited to attend. By 5 p.m., the raw feeds were already back at the station for assembly on the evening news. Only Channel 2 tried a live feed, but by then there wasn't much to look at--nor were there many people looking at it.

So what was to see? The "art exhibit" consisted of a few dozen two-foot-square black-and-white photo-positives copied from books, magazines, or other secondary sources; none were originals in any sense of the word. Like any such third-rate presentation, CAN's "exhibit" had the intended effect of making all the originals look as cheesy as possible (imagine your high-school yearbook photo as a giant, grainy photocopy). Half the enlargements were arranged around the room on spindly easels; others were leaned against the wall at floor level--as if beneath contempt--and had to be viewed by squatting down. Two video tapes playing in loops contained a number of scenes that would not be out of place in a hard-core video, but they also included many interviews, commentary, and music. Unfortunately, the CAN folks had turned off the sound in case anyone had the foolish idea that making a judgment of a video included actually hearing it.

Martin Mawyer, president and founder of CAN (and former Moral Majority operative), chose to condemn the whole NEA by focusing exclusively on about 40 controversial or objectionable examples of visual work. His selection was not only intellectually dishonest and aesthetically laughable, it totally misrepresented the NEA's program of visual-arts grants, because most were not directly funded by the NEA. To swell the exhibit, 13 of the examples were by photographer Joel-Peter Witkin; the infamous Mapplethorpe had only one. Other works included a shot of a flag draped into a toilet; another showed two clothed infants on training potties. A third--a rather hilarious satire on narrow-minded success--depicted a tiny house nested on top of a mound of feces.

But the future of the nation is no laughing matter. According to Mawyer's exhibit, and to the CAN propaganda available at the show, homosexuality is primarily to blame for all that's wrong with America, and the NEA is just one of its tools. This overemphasis on homosexuality was not only psychologically suspect, it also tainted the real and very viable objections one could make about how the NEA chooses its grantees.

It's not just that Mawyer doesn't understand how NEA funding works; he doesn't have any earthly idea about what really constitutes obscene government spending. In terms of dollars and cents, the $200 million spent in fiscal year '96 to buy and store surplus cheese, or the $23 billion in Medicare overcharges, certainly seems more disgusting. Or how about this year's giveaway of $70 billion worth of publicly owned broadcast frequencies to the four TV networks? Obscene! I'm outraged! Ban the government!

But these are obviously numbers too large and too complicated for lightweights like Mawyer, who tries to portray the $99 million NEA budget--and the piddling amount spent on the visual arts--as morally equivalent. He and his CAN cohorts are plainly clueless about the broad mission of the NEA, and they misunderstand the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit arts institutions. Bob Hinkle, CAN's executive director, even told me that he and his wife support the arts--they went to see Cats last year in D.C. and thoroughly enjoyed it! The CAN-men do understand theater, though: Their show created a seductively fake backdrop, they looked great dressed up in conservative suits and tidy haircuts, and they were quite calm and polite in their roles as thoughtful citizens. Beneath it all, however, was the same radical intolerance and vicious, know-nothing emotionalism Mawyer finds so offensive in his left-wing foes.

Despite this, you can't ignore all their concerns. Given the volatile nature of arts funding, you'd expect the NEA would have figured out how better to control and monitor grantees and sub-grantees on the state level. Unfortunately, as the presence of the videos demonstrated, a very few artist groups continue to be maliciously dishonest in getting money for which the NEA is ultimately accountable. Such groups, like the makers of "Sex Is...," have nothing but their own ideological interests at heart, and it's these types who could ruin the NEA for us all. Everyone interested in the integrity of the NEA should condemn them, and even CAN was right to point this out.

As for some of Witkin's images: They can be shocking and frightening. But the larger point is, they were intentionally made as works of art, not as items to be sold in an adult bookstore. Nor would any adult bookstore actually carry them. The real problem with Witkin is that he never should have received three Individual Visual Artist grants in the first place. It's impossible to believe the review panels couldn't find equally deserving photographers in the years after Witkin's first award. It smacks of the kind of insider "fix" that critics of NEA's Peer Panels have complained about for years. Also, it's simply unfair to permit an artist who has won a grant ever to apply again, given the extraordinarily limited resources of the visual-arts program and the huge number of artists working today.

But CAN ignores such legitimate criticism of the NEA. The sins of the few are projected onto the innocence of the many, and judgment must be given. Of course, using CAN's own twisted logic, the Pentagon should be shut down because of those scandalous $800 toilet seats or those even more scandalous cases of adultery. Even better, churches should be forced to give up their property-tax exemptions because of the egregious financial abuses of ministers like Henry Lyons, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson. But obviously, these are absurd rhetorical positions to take.

The NEA makes nonprofit culture possible in this country. Its funding also bestows a legitimacy on groups that need matching dollars from corporations and foundations to survive. Thousands of artists reside every year in our nation's schools, offering classes and performances; thousands of organizations are able to present theater, music, dance, poetry, folk arts, and multimedia productions because of partial NEA funding. According to the NEA's own Web page, nonprofit arts groups employ 1.3 million Americans, generate an estimated $37 billion in economic activity, and return $3.4 billion to the federal treasury. They generate tourism, stimulate business development, drive urban renewal, and contribute to the vitality of a community. Since so many in Congress only seem to understand the sound of money these days, these economic points are especially noteworthy. Let's just hope Congress knows how to put dollars and sense together. CAN sure can't.

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