In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts revoked performance artist, Karen Finley's fellowship because of her piece, We Keep Our Victims Ready. In Victims, Finley smeared chocolate sauce on her body, blanketed her self with bean sprouts and placed red candies on the tips of her breasts -- she also made strong points about the way our society regards women and their bodies.
On Mar. 31, attorneys for Finley and the other members of the infamous "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 the 1990 statute that gave Congress and the NEA the right to turn down funding of the arts based on content is unconstitutional.
Where do you stand on this issue? Where do you draw the line between the government's responsibility to support free speech and the arts, and its responsibility to spend public money appropriately? Should the NEA fund Karen Finley and artists whose works offend a portion of the electorate? What sort of art -- if any -- should the NEA fund?
Post your responses to Managing Editor Robert Viagas. Playbill On-Line thanks in advance all who take the time to reply. Here are the results so far:
The national endowment for the arts should fund all forms. Who is to judge what is decent? A work may be art to one person and not to another. Karen Finley should have the free right to display her work. Those who are offended can just look the other direction. I've done a lot of research on the National Endowment and these are the strong conclusions I have drawn.
From PJ Martinek:
I generally believe that the government should support the arts. I also believe that the government should not refuse to fund an artist simply because he/she does work that offends "a portion" of the electorate.
However, Karen Finley and some others do work that offends an exceptionally LARGE portion of not just the electorate, but of the public as a whole. (Indeed, I am an extremely open-minded person and much of it offends me.) An artist who produces such work, whose work is intended to be an "in your face" statement to mainstream society should not expect mainstream society to fund that statement.
As a lawyer, I predict the U.S. Supreme Court will find that the government does have the power to place reasonable content restrictions on public grants. An artist like Karen Finley can express anything she wants in her art, but she does not have a constitutional right to public funding for that expression. (There is no constitutional right to smear your body with chocolate sauce, call that art and expect a government check for doing so.)
If the U.S. Supreme Court were to rule in Finley's favor (which is unlikely), the government would have little choice but to eliminate all funding for the arts (as that would be the only constitutional way to ensure that blatantly offensive artists like Finley are not subsidized by the taxpayers). The "right" of fringe "artists" like Finley to receive public subsidies for "art" that can be appreciated only by a handful of left-wing elitists is far less important than the need of genuine artists to receive public support for work that will be appreciated and enjoyed by citizens across the political spectrum. The Karen Finleys of the world can say or do whatever they want. They should not expect the rest of us to pay their rent.
From Stephen R. Rourke, Baltimore, (Srrurhino@aol.com):
Let's get something clear from the start. The whole idea that government should not spent money on activities that are "offensive" to some subgroup is an argument that, carried to its logical conclusion, swallows the entire government. Take me, for example. I'm deeply offended by the fact that we may not have socialized health care, but we do have socialized lung cancer in the form of tobacco subsidies (and the added taxpayer cost of paying for the health care of smokers). Do you see Jesse Helms going to bat for ME?
So it becomes perfectly clear that the whole anti-NEA argument is purely an anti-artist argument. And, even from a conservative perspective, it makes no sense to oppose public funding for artists. Public funding for the arts has existed since ancient times; gee, I thought conservatives LOVED traditions for their own sake. And when you look at the demands of consumers in the former Soviet bloc countries, you see that they demand American culture in ALL forms--even so-called "obscene" forms like Playboy. Poor Republicans! They didn't know that their opposition to the Red Menace would create new markets for Hugh Hefner! (Not that that's a great thing, but you get my point.)
The whole NEA battle, in any event, is being fought over a handful of grants (Serrano, Maplethorpe and the "NEA Four") whose grants compose the tiniest fraction of the NEA's total budget for any given year. Even assuming that these grants should not have been made, for any reason, we should hope that ALL Federal agencies operated at that level of efficiency. (The Pentagon, on which conservatives lavish unquestioned devotion, comes to mind.) Many of those grants have gone to people who often could not have found support in the private sector, and whose careers have enriched people of all ages. Julie Taymor, the director of Broadway's "The Lion King," is one example (as Times critic Vincent Canby has noted).
I say more money for the NEA and less socialism for the already comfortable sections of society. Cultures wither and countries die when they become too comfortable, not too uncomfortable.
From Karen Horn:
If people want to pay good money to see Karen Finney smear her body with God knows what and stick half a Cadillac up her private parts, I won't try and stop them. If they expect me to fork over my hard earned cash to help them subsidize the "experience" they are parasites on the backs of the workers in this country.
I don't enjoy being fleeced for anyone who'd put crucifixes, AIDS ribbons, or a Star of David in a vat of his own urine either. People may have a "right" to do these things. They do not have a right for me to fund it. They do not have the "right" to an audience.
The NEA is lucky to get so much as a nickel. They are really asking to be disbanded entirely with shenanigans like this.
Government exists to do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. I can very well decide on my own how I choose to spend my discretionary income. I don't need a "nanny" to tell me how to spend it. The NEA would be the last people I'd go to be my arbiter of taste.
I guess that some readers may believe that, since I am English, I should not comment how the US government spends it's money. However I thought I would like to have my say. I do not know the work of Karen Finley but I believe that there should be public funding for arts which may offend some people. There will always be private funding around for commercially acceptable theater and arts but it is obviously more difficult for experimental or uncomfortable work to reach an audience. It is obvious that no private funder of the arts would invest in a piece of art which is very likely to lose money. The artists believe that they have something to say about or to society, whether their feelings or views are understood or appreciated is up to the individual viewer. I believe that there is true value in unique art whether or not it is acceptable to the masses.