THE LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : June Wayne : A Famed Artist Draws the Line for the Arts Endowment: 'It's Time to be Counted'

Christopher Knight is an art critic for The Times. He interviewed the artist in her Hollywood studio

Earlier this year, June Wayne walked to the podium at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and delivered the keynote address to the annual meeting of the College Art Assn. The assembly of artists, art historians and museum administrators repeatedly interrupted her speech with bursts of applause, culminating in a standing ovation. Her topic: politics and the right of artistic free expression, at a moment when the future of the National Endowment for the Arts is in doubt.

An artist and intellectual who turned around the dying art of lithography in the United States, Wayne dropped out of high school in her junior year and held her first solo gallery exhibition at 17. Before she was 20, she was actively lobbying for the Artists Union in Washington. She sought out intellectual stimulation among friends at the University of Chicago, where the politically minded community of rigorous artists and writers included Saul Bellow, James T. Farrell and Richard Wright. When the 72-year-old artist speaks today, it is with the forthright conviction of a longtime activist and the sly wit of a gifted storyteller.

A painter, Wayne came upon the printing medium of lithography after she moved to Los Angeles, in 1941, with her husband, a doctor. Soon frustrated with the rudimentary ability of American printers, she shuttled back and forth to Paris, working in the studios of skilled master technicians. There, she produced an acclaimed 1957 edition of illustrations for the poetry of John Dunne, which was acquired by the Bibliotheque Nationale. Armed with a grant from the Ford Foundation, she established the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Hollywood in 1960. Wayne trained dozens of master printers, who went on to establish studios across the country. A decade later the workshop was permanently transferred to the University of New Mexico, where it operates today. Last month, the Bibliotheque Nationale acquired 248 lithographs spanning Wayne's career, becoming the definitive repository of her work.

Question: Practically speaking, what effect does the National Endowment for the Arts have on the day-to-day life of an artist?

Answer: It sets a tone. Most artists neither apply for a grant nor receive one, because the endowments have always been under-funded.

I would remind you that the Kennedys, when they came into the White House (in 1961), absolutely changed the climate toward the arts. Up to that time, there was no national interest. The Kennedys set a tone that was very important to the attitude of the nation toward the arts--just as a First Lady has tremendous influence on the fashion industry. I know that sounds funny, but pretty soon, women coast to coast are dressing a certain way, behaving a certain way, etc.

A President's power, I have heard it said, is really not very great except in time of war. But, he can set a tone. And the national endowment (does) that.

Q: As a young artist in the 1930s, you were on the WPA project, in which the government was the direct employer of thousands of artists. The WPA is often cited as crucial to the development of a serious cultural life in the United States. In that program, did the government impose content restrictions on participating artists?

A: No. There were no content controls. In saying that, however, I want to make clear that the government thought it was handing out relief. We thought we were employed by the government to make art for the nation. It was a glorious misunderstanding. We brought our paintings to the project, and they were supposed to go into public buildings, libraries, schools and so on. We felt a part of the country. It gave me a sense of what a community of artists could mean.

Q: And there was never any pressure, directly or indirectly, on the kind of work you were or were not to make?

A: No.

Q: Between 1947 and 1952, the arts were a focus of witch hunts--the McCarthy hearings, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into Hollywood. There was also a group, Sanity in Art, that claimed modern paintings were un-American. In 1951, the L.A. City Council passed a resolution condemning artists. Do you see any similarities between that earlier climate of fear and intimidation and the one that's emerging today?

A: The one that's emerging today is far better organized, and much more widespread. The Sanity in Art movement was national, but they were little pockets of people--some in Illinois, the Bluebonnets in Texas. There may have been five or six branches called Sanity in Art. They were looking for communists. Everywhere. And here in Los Angeles, during an election year. These things always happen, in my experience, when there's an election about to take place.

We had a little city councilman named Harold Harby. The occasion was a city-sponsored exhibition at Griffith Park, and in that exhibition was a watercolor (of a sailboat) by, as it happens, a Republican artist whose name was Rex Brandt. Rex liked to sail, and he had a certain class of sailing sloop, the insignia of which vaguely resembled a hammer and sickle. Harold Harby went to the exhibition and saw this painting, and the next thing we know, "communists invade the Griffith Park exhibition!" Before you knew it, the police were out there gathering in works of art and dragging them downtown to the City Council to be investigated.

So I thought to myself, this I have to see, because how do you investigate a painting for communism? I went down to City Hall, and it just scared the wits out of me. They had a circle of easels, with various paintings, semi-abstract. People came up and testified. There was one complete abstraction, and some woman got up and testified that this was really a secret code, and that this was how the communists were getting the details of Boulder Dam so it could be sabotaged. From this painting!

The only city councilman who held out against that awful resolution that found artists to be "unwitting tools of the Kremlin" was Ed Roybal, who's in Congress now. He stood up and said, "We're not qualified to have any opinions about art. This is none of our business." And he voted against this resolution.

We had another big bust about artists and models, in which they wanted to cause anybody who modeled for an art school to have to prove that they weren't prostitutes . . . .

A couple years later, we had a big fuss about the Bernard Rosenthal sculpture on the new police building. He had made an abstract family--father, mother, children--very abstract. Police Chief (William) Parker led that fight, claiming it was an endorsement of miscegenation and the idea of One World, because these were faceless people. He proposed the sculpture should be removed and melted down, that $10,000 of taxpayers' money had gone into this hideous sculpture.

Q: How were these events different from what's happening to the NEA today?

A: Well, Harold Harby at that time could go to the newspapers and get the thing covered. Now, we have had at least 20 years of "politics by sound bite" on television. We have the ubiquitous computer that can jerk out hundreds of thousands of letters on any subject, overnight. All politics is run that way, so attacks on the arts are run that way.

While communism is not the issue now, there are a host of other issues that have taken its place--gay-bashing, the women's movement, the abortion issue, television evangelism. So our situation at the moment is far more serious than it was then, because (artists) are not computerized. We do not have a homogeneous community. We are like cottage-industry boobs in the face of mass marketing.

We have many political agendas crossing paths with the arts, and wanting the arts out of the way because creative people are most talented at framing overriding human values. So it's bad, very bad. It's time for people to be counted.

Q: The McCarthy period was the beginning of the Cold War. Now that the Cold War has ended, some have suggested that committed Cold Warriors are in search of another "enemy within." Is this a reasonable view, or unfounded paranoia?

A: I think there must be 100 reasonable hypotheses for what's going on. You have to take a look at who the actors are, and how these things serve their personal agendas. I don't tend to think in terms of conspiracy. It's too convenient. But the patterns we're looking at cannot be accidental . . . . They are people who want power, who want to tell other people what to do. They have a lust for meddling in other peoples' lives.

I would call it concurrency. I think people seek their own kind, and we're watching a sort of agglutination, a coagulation of certain kinds of personalities. They are the most un-Christian bunch, as I have understood Christianity . . . . I firmly believe all this has a great deal to do with keeping women down . . . . They're all the same people, for example, who are against choice, who want to meddle into the most private aspects, the most painful aspects of family life.

Q: In your keynote address to the College Art Assn. meeting, you said the NEA had been compromised at the very moment of its founding in 1965. How?

A: The original proposers wanted to create a National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, as an exact parallel to the National Science Foundation, so that they would be independent of the Congress and the White House. The National Science Foundation has an intervening body that protects it from political interference. (Members) act as advisers to the Congress (and) to the office of the President, but they are an independent structure that a politician can't just reach into.

But the White House took the position, no, we won't make them like the National Science Foundation. We will give them a five-year authorization to see how they do. And (Lyndon) Johnson liked the idea of keeping them on his leash. Johnson, you know, was a man who never gave up any political power if he could help it. The endowments, then, were subject to reauthorization.

Right from the beginning they functioned well. Nobody interfered with them politically, (but) they were vulnerable every five years. As a result of that vulnerability, it was possible to keep the budget from growing . . . .

Q: So what you would see as essential is to change the structure of the NEA to shield it from political interference?

A: Well, those who created the NEA wrote language in it to prevent politicians from interfering. That original legislation interdicts what they are doing now. The word of government isn't worth a continental damn. You make a contract with the government, it's like making a contract with someone with Alzheimer's disease. The government feels free to change its mind or to lie or to do anything it wants any time it suits the purposes of people in office. So, if I had been faced with that, I would have taken the endowments as they were. Once you accept such a structure, it's very hard to change it. But that's why every five years--and this is a fifth year--there's special risk.

Q: The matter of accountability is being pressed by critics of the NEA, accountability for the specific use to which an artist puts the funds received from a government grant.

A: Well, it's an absurd charge. The national endowments are accountable. They have spent their money magnificently. And the question itself is just a dead scent across the track to cause us to go running after something. I think everybody should be accountable, and the endowment is accountable. It accounts for everything it does. But it uses experts on the subject of aesthetics. If accountability means pleasing the taste of Jesse Helms and Donald Wildmon, neither of whom are noted for their intellectual or aesthetic abilities, then the word "accountability" has no meaning to me.

Q: On June 6, Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) called for the abolition of the NEA. He said, "As long as federal dollars are used to fund art, Congress has a responsibility to its constituents to determine what type of art taxpayers' dollars will support."

A: That's one of those classic foolish statements that they give in Philosophy 1 . . . . I presume that, according to Philip Crane, if it is the Congress' responsibility to give money for Medicare, then they should be responsible for deciding which brain should be operated on by which surgeon. Is that what he's saying? That's demagoguery. And he knows it. That's Philip Crane getting himself some publicity, some name recognition.

Q: Those who claim that artists simply don't want to be held accountable also suggest that there's a certain arrogance among artists, an insistence on being seen as somehow exempt. How would you reply to that criticism?

A: Well, in view of the fact that artists, on average, earn something less than schoolteachers, I don't think that one can be very arrogant about the choice of a profession that subjects you to such scorn and abuse--which is true of schoolteachers as well as artists. Artists are taxpayers. We are entitled to due process. We are entitled to be free of defamation. The arts of this country are among the few positive cash flows we have in international trade. And I think that's quite a lot of accountability.

Q: What needs to be done by artists and others who are supportive of the NEA, over the course of the next few weeks?

A: I think that President Bush should be held to his own bill. He came out with a very simple bill in which he (proposed) five-year reauthorization and no content control. I say bravo to him for that. He should be telephoned (and) encouraged to stand by his own bill.

There's no such thing as taking away just a little bit of freedom of expression. You're free or you're not free. And I think (Bush) should follow his instinct in this case, and we should encourage him to do so. We have to do it as individuals, leading our own parade, because we do not have computer clones to do the job for us.

And as for myself, personally, I shall send a contribution to the man who's running (for senator) against Jesse Helms, in hope of reminding Mr. Helms that he's become quite arrogant in his behavior toward the American people.

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