The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 against the "NEA Four," saying the U.S. government was within its rights to revoke their NEA grants based on their intellecutal content -- i.e. for creating works considered by some to be indecent or obscene.
Performance artist Karen Finley, perhaps the best-known of the four, responded hours later in a typically surreal press conference at which, topless and smeared in chocolate, she called the decision "a great loss to our country."
In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts revoked Finley's fellowship because of her piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready, which decried, among other things, men's emotional and physical abuse of women. In Victims, Finley smeared chocolate sauce on her body, blanketed her self with bean sprouts and placed red hard candies on the tips of her breasts. The government questioned whether public money should be given to works bordering on indecency or obscenity.
In 1996, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the 1990 Congressional statute violated not only the First Amendment (which affirms freedom of speech, among other freedoms), but the Fifth Amendment -- which states that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." The Federal Government appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in the June 25 ruling, won.
As reported by the Associated Press, the Supreme Court handed down an 8-1 decision June 25 saying that the government can deny funding to artists because there work is considered indecent. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that the law "neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles... Congress has a wide latitude to set spending priorities [and] may selectively fund a program to encourage certain activities it believes to be in the public interest." Just hours after the decision was handed down, Finley replied in her inimitable way by incorporating her response into a performance of her current Off-Off-Broadway show, the ironically timed and titled The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman at the Flea Theatre in New York's Tribeca neighborhood. The piece explores events surrounding We Keep Our Victims Ready, with returns to some of the visual motifs of the hard candies, bean sprouts and, of course, the "chocolate."
Attired only in briefs, high heels and a feather boa, and with her body coated in chocolate sauce as in her We Keep Our Victims Ready, Finley sat in a director's chair and took questions from some two dozen reporters, including Playbill On-Line's.
She said she thought the Supreme Court's decision is "a great loss to our country, and I feel that many of the institutions and a lot of the people were behind [supporting] what was going on [her performance]."
She said, "Artists are basically used as a scapegoat. As artists, we work as individuals and we're loners and some say we're weirdos. . . now I think, how do you start to go into a career in the arts? It's going to be more dependent on whether you have money or that you're making work that's propaganda or that you're a white, straight male. I think that's what it's about."
Asked what was the biggest impact of the decision on her life, Finley replied, "I think the biggest impact on me is being stalked and having threats on my life."
Asked how she felt about the fact that Justice O'Connor, a woman, wrote the decision, Finley said, "No more disappointed than if anyone else had written it."
Asked who she was angriest at, she said President Bill Clinton: "I feel that for [the legal cost of] every time that Clinton had oral sex we could provide funding for one year of the National Endowment for the Arts."
Her comments were interrupted by bursts of applause from the audience. Finley went on for about 15 minutes, after which most of the reporters departed, and her regular show resumed.
On Mar. 31, attorneys for Finley and the other members of the "NEA Four" (Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) began presenting their case to the United States Supreme Court in Washington DC in an attempt to prove that a 1990 statute, which gave Congress and the NEA the right to turn down funding of the arts based on content, was unconstitutional.
Finley, Miller, Fleck, and Hughes were dubbed the "NEA Four" after being singled out for violation of "decency and respect standards" by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).
The show, running June 17-July 4, is produced by The Bat Theatre Company and directed by its artistic director, Jim Simpson. Also performing with Finley are members of The Bat's resident company of 31 actors, The Furballs.