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COMMENTARY : They Can’t Shut Me Up : John Fleck was one of four to fight back when their NEA grants were withdrawn. Five years later, he looks again at the embattled arts agency.

J ohn Fleck, 44, is a Los Angeles-based performance artist and film and television actor who in 1990 earned national attention as one of four artists to have their grants, previously approved by National Endowment for the Arts peer panels, overturned by then-NEA Chairman John E. Frohnmayer. The artists, who became known as the “NEA Four"--Fleck, Tim Miller, Karen Finley and Holly Hughes--were told that the reason for the denial was that their work contained “obscene” subject matter. They sued and after a two-year battle won about $250,000 in damages (80% of which, Fleck says, went to cover court costs and lawyers) and had their grants reinstated.

In the past five years, Fleck has continued to work as a performance artist, most recently in a solo work, “me,” at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, but he has not applied for NEA funding since 1990. His concurrent acting work continues: He is in “Waterworld” and beginning next month will be a regular on Steven Bochco’s “Murder One” on ABC. *

Oh, boy, back in 1990 the arts community was outraged that politics forced the NEA to cancel our grants. “ Censorship ,” we yelled. We stomped our feet. We sued. We were victorious. Victorious indeed. What a difference five years and a Republican House and Senate make.

The new NEA bill isn’t as much about money as it is about politics. One hundred sixty-five million NEA dollars last year supported a $1-billion-plus nonprofit art base that contributed more than $400 million back in taxpaying dollars. (That’s a good investment, which Los Angeles acknowledges with its current artists’ grant program.) But with all the hoopla over how the cuts will save taxpayers money, the language of the new provisions escaped notice.

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Recently, listening to a radio interview with Times art critic Christopher Knight clarified the NEA a bit more for me. He said it was an organization born from a climate of Cold War propaganda in the early 1960s. And was set up to show how civilized America was for supporting the arts. Over time the social change reflected in the NEA-supported network wasn’t the kind of change influential politicians wanted to see. The new definitions the NEA is using are an attempt to rectify this gap between a desired “civilized” image and what contemporary artists are making.

Most folks don’t realize that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has won a major battle over that image. It hasn’t received a lot of press, but the Senate approved Helms’ language barring support of materials that purport to “denigrate” religion. The bill also states that no work can depict or describe, in a patently “offensive” way, sexual or excretory activities or organs. These new provisions may sound wholesome enough--who wants to support anything offensive or denigrating?--but they are an attack on artistic content and its political impact, attempting to control and suppress unidealized ways artists can represent themselves or society.

Implicit in the new provisions’ language is the idea that examining belief systems and exploring one’s bodily experience may produce interesting art but often bad national propaganda. So, the cultural war continues; the righteous right versus the demonized denizens of art.

Now even Jesse Helms, one of the NEA’s most vocal opponents in past years, has said he is “satisfied with the provisions that prevent government money being spent on artistic works considered pornographic or obscene in their depiction of religious items.” My response? As good ‘ol Harry S. Truman once said: “One man’s profanity is another man’s philosophy.” Or more fitting, “Blessed Are All the Little Fishes": “One man’s blasphemy is another man’s miracle.”

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For me, making art is about expression, and a wide range of people express themselves in this country. Don’t people have the right to be exposed to a variety of commitments and beliefs? Is being anti-church in any way denigrating our country? Our compatriots Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin didn’t think so and questioned the authority of the church in their time. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the phrase “In God We Trust” was put on the backs of dollar bills. As well, the Pledge of Allegiance didn’t conclude with “one nation under God” until the “fabulous ‘50s.”

Are we trying to return to those golden years of comforting a fearful nation with a repressive god/power symbol? The “patently sexually offensive” clause has an anti-feminist, anti-lesbian/gay slant to it that targets the kind of art-making used to represent issues of gender and sexuality. This language wants to give the NEA an “artistic cleansing,” with all the implications of assumed dirt and self-righteous purification the phrase implies.

Yeah, I’m grateful for the scraps Jesse and the boys left us. I’m glad school kids get to see a symphony. As Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said, without the NEA, small towns such as the one in which she was raised would be deprived in many cases of dance, theater and music programs. However, she also said: “Some people in the arts community like to say, ‘You can’t define decency, that would offend our artistic license,’ but I couldn’t disagree more.”

With definitions in place, all aspects of “the fringe” can be cut loose like mangy mutts from the thoroughbred pack. While they’re at it, cut Highways, cut LACE, cut Beyond Baroque, places where people go to experiment, let off steam and find new experiences. And yes, it’s good they didn’t just kill the NEA. It could have been a lot worse. The House wanted to abolish it completely in three years. But as far as artists like myself are concerned, they’ve effectively cut the kind of work we do out of the picture. Now very little NEA money goes to individual artists. But for the little that does, the new provisions effectively cut out artists who push the envelope of socially acceptable content or who play with their audiences’ expectations.

So now, will commerce call the shots even more for the arts? At the end of my last show (“me”), I resorted to recouping lost funds by selling T-shirts and videos. After the 1990 debacle, I stopped applying for NEA funding. My reaction to the politics of that situation had me battling writer’s block and self-censorship, bringing my performance work to a temporary halt.

It all made me sick. The whole thing became a media spectacle freak show where I felt misrepresented and put on trial. The hysteria over sexuality and religion just pushed artists to deal with those issues even more. Luckily, I’ve had two callings in life: acting and performance. Getting more acting jobs in film and television helped me finance my performances myself.

But a lot of artists who aren’t able to do that will have to support their art by working longer hours at jobs they hate. Without funding, they’ll also have to think more competitively about the marketplace. Though this may change the kind of work they do, following the new NEA provisions is likely to do the same. It ain’t gonna get any easier for artists or nonprofit arts spaces. Sadly, we need this kind of art and programming now more than ever.

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However, as Ryan Hill, an artist and my underpaid associate on this article, says: “When funding fails, anger and outrage are a great fuel.”


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