Documents unearthed in a year-old Los Angeles lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts indicate that the NEA's chairman may have rejected four performance artists' grants last year for fear of reprisals by politicians and conservative newspaper columnists, not for artistic reasons, plaintiffs charged Tuesday.
Attorneys representing the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression (NCFE) obtained a 16-month-old sealed transcript of a National Council on the Arts meeting at which grants requests from Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller--the "NEA Four," as they have come to be known--were discussed.
During the closed-door session, held in May of 1990, council members disparaged the artists' works as "junk and garbage" and "obscene" and as stage work that was "simply throwing mud in people's faces."
But the most disturbing revelations in the transcript, according to the ACLU and NCFE executive director David Mendoza, are exchanges between council members and NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer that indicate that those who actually get NEA grants are those who are politically acceptable to a conservative Congress and syndicated newspaper columnists like Robert Evans and Rowland Novak.
"We have been forewarned by Mr. Novak on Karen Finley," said Wendy Luers, wife of the president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the National Council on the Arts, the appointed council that oversees NEA grant-giving.
According to the transcript, Luers went on to refer to an Evans and Novak column that appeared in the Washington Post, which she characterized as most Congressmen's "hometown newspaper." In the column, Novak and Evans lambasted Finley's performance piece, meant to decry the trivialization of women. In the performance, Finley smears chocolate syrup and bean sprouts on her bare breasts.
There were other similar discussions, including, for example, an exchange over the performance of Fleck.
"What am I going to say when one of our critics comes in, gets the file, sees the site report and says, 'Geez, they funded a guy who (urinates) on the stage'," the NEA chairman asked.
A panelist responded, "Who knows? Who cares? They're good."
In the past, Frohnmayer has repeatedly maintained that he rejected the grants last year upon the recommendation of the council because the performance artists' work would not "enhance public understanding and appreciation of the arts."
Frohnmayer was not available for comment on Tuesday.
"The chairman is not commenting on the record because of the pending litigation," said NEA public affairs director Jill Collins.
Last September, the four performance artists filed suit, asking U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima to force Frohnmayer to reconsider $23,000 in grants on grounds that he rejected them for reasons other than their artistic excellence. (Hughes and Miller have new grant requests pending at the agency.)
The transcripts strongly underscore the plaintiffs' arguments, said their attorneys. The ACLU and the NCFE issued the news media a packet of materials related to the case, including press releases and copies of the transcripts, embargoed until today.
Mendoza said the transcripts "clearly indicate" that, at the time, Frohnmayer rejected the artists' grants out of fear of further political and public opinion troubles. Mendoza added that he doubted Frohnmayer would have acted the same way today.
"The NEA is confident that the full record will demonstrate that the plaintiffs applications were denied for legitimate artistic reasons," said Collins.
During the May, 1990, the council session in Winston-Salem, N.C., Frohnmayer called the column a warning that the three-year-old council might "self-destruct by approving this grant" to Finley whom he referred to as "the next Mapplethorpe".
It was the provocative and homoerotic photography of the late Robert Mapplethorpe that first brought heavy criticism of the NEA in 1988 from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and nudged both Frohnmayer and the NEA council into the national spotlight. NEA-subsidized exhibits of Mapplethorpe's work prompted a Helms drive on Capitol Hill to enforce stricter standards over NEA grants.
"This is exactly what we went through in May of '88 when we voted on Mapplethorpe," said council member Jack Neusner, according to the transcript. "Nobody told us that there was going to be materials which were objectionable."
But Ray Kingston, another council member, focused on the danger of allowing a leaked version of a small portion of Finley's stage work presented in a syndicated newspaper column to influence the group's decision-making.
"It is typical of people who are trying to frighten agencies, people, artists, decision-makers, etc., to put any kind of inflammatory material in the press that they wish," said Kingston. "The difficulty for us, of course, is that we all know that and we all know that this kind of thing will go on, and we know it has gone on before in history."
According to Kingston and other council members, the problem was that the council did not have sufficient information to make decisions on grants. (The four artists' requests were approved by the NEA's peer panels before they were considered by the council and rejected by Frohnmayer.)
"The loudest thing we have heard really is the chocolate and bean sprouts," Kingston said at one point. " . . . It would be interesting to know if she has ever covered herself with ice cream?"
In another confidential memo dated July 26, 1990, the then-general counsel for the NEA, Julianne Davis, summarized all 18 council members' phone conversations regarding the pending grant applications of the performance artists, showing an almost universal rejection:
* Council member Carlos Mosely called the entire performance art category "junk."
* Helen Frankenthaler called it "junk and garbage."
* Joe Epstein called it "bad shtick."
* Phyllis Curtin singled out Finley's performance as more angst than art and John Fleck's "Psycho Opera" as sophomoric.
* Jocelyn Straus recommended that Frohnmayer reject Fleck's application "no matter what" and that neither Finley nor Hughes receive their grants either.
* Harvey Lichtenstein also singled out Fleck's performance for special criticism, likening it to "simply throwing mud in people's faces."
Lichtenstein did recommend approval of Finley, however. He noted that Frohnmayer, who had final say on the grants, faced a difficult situation because he had to "evaluate her application in a political world."