Reunion of N.E.A. 4
By JERRY TALLMER
All four were, astonishingly, dressed completely in black, as if in mourning, each and every one of them black T-shirt, black blouse, black sweater, black dress. Even the moderator, N.Y.U. librarian Marvin J. Taylor, was jacketed in black, though the violet shirt radiating from beneath that jacket supplied the stages one spot of color.
Well, here I am on the end, John Fleck observed from his seat at the far left.
A pure soul, he chastely added
Bad Girl Holly Hughes, five seats away, giggled. No, it was not going to be a mourning.
Tim Miller showed up last and late.
Tim always wanted to have a big entrance, said Fleck. The two sexual outlaws then spent 30 seconds upstaging one another.
The four stars of the evening had come from far and near two from California, one from Michigan, one from Nyack having never before assembled for any length of time in the same room.
Except at the Supreme Court, dryly noted Karen Finley, the chocolate smeared young woman of the despicable Evans & Novak column that in May 1990 threw gasoline on incendiary waters the same Robert Novak, be it said, who 14 years later would put the finger on the C.I.A. wife of a dissenter on the war in Iraq.
These were the N.E.A. 4 the four performance artists who, in that U.S. Supreme Court chamber, on June 15, 1998, heard Justice Sandra Day OConnor declare, for the majority, that the National Endowment for the Arts had the right to [take] into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the beliefs and values of the American public in granting, or not granting, monetary support to individual artists.
I dont consider this a happy occasion, Finley said early on as the spacious Rosenthal Pavilion of New York Universitys Kimmel Center was filling up last Thursday. Well see how it turns out.
Caroline Dinshaw, director of N.Y.U.s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, said: What better time than now? as she introduced the seven paneliststhe heinous N.E.A. 4 plus, for salt and pepper, performance artist William Pope L, who had once crawled 22 miles along the Great White Way of Broadway; pungent poet and performance artist Sapphire; and journalist and historian Cynthia Carr, who has covered troublemaking artists for 20 years.
Carr gave a solid rundown of the U.S. cultural wars from the Andres Serrano (Piss Christ) and Robert Mapplethorpe electric jolts of the late 1980s and the rescinded N.E.A. grants of 1990 to the Supreme Court decision of 1998. Moderator Taylor, whose library has been archiving the Downtown arts scene since 1974, said that in boning up for this evening, I had found myself getting angry all over again.
Suddenly Karen Finley spoke up, indeed gave a shout.
I dont want to focus on how horrible it was, she said. The threats, the audits, the memos on George Bushs [Bush I] desk. Whats important for me is to try to keep a sense of humor
This was really a collective era. We were icons, and still are icons.
What saddens me so much, she continued, is what the hell are they [prurient powerhouses] doing with all this money and time, when theyre supposed to be dealing with issues of the day.
Projecting their own sexual problems is, she declared, what theyre doing.
Ive decided every political leader has to take Psychology 1.
Laughter and applause.
Were not the enemy, Finley said, with a gesture that took in the table. The reason Im so angry is that progress was being made, on issues of homosexuality, of women, of minorities. Theres been a step on the staircase.
Cooler now, Finley closed with: You have to fight. Even if you lose the battle, you win by losing, somehow.
Tiny, pretty Holly Hughes (a.k.a. the lefty lesbian bully) spoke up. First off, she wanted everyone to know that the main thing now is to get rid of George Bush, and its not enough just to vote. Thats the bare minimum.
Then, shifting gears, sweetly but grittily: Karen talking about the pain, the drama, the difficulties puts us back in an unproductive place
opening all the old wounds, the old doubts
just do that on your own time
The attacks on the N.E.A. were a template for attacks on public funding of all different sorts
Most painful to me, said Hughes, was the failure of any sustained response on the left to stop this.
Then, mockingly, in the voice of a fair-weather freedom fighter:
Oh, but I have to say, Robert Mapplethorpe disgusts meand then [in her own voice] the whole discussion goes on about Robert Mapplethorpe. Well, the work [of that whole era] was provocative, it just wasnt feel good
Its very difficult to step up to the plate, said Hughes, a real slugger. I use that metaphor as a former waitress.
John Flecks turn.
What did this all do? he asked. It politicized me. Made me realize you have to draw lines. Which side are you on?
This whole fundamental absolutism thats driving me crazy. Which avenue of expression do you close down?
What wormhole do you close down? This hole? That hole?
Which is funny, because all my work now is about holes
I grew up, you know, Catholic, said the Los Angeles rebel. How can they say I cant find God in my [anus]? Why cant that be God?
Im sitting differently, said straight-faced Tim Miller who proceeded to recall the ACT UP demonstration in the face of massed Confederate flags and death threats in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was, he said, really afraid he was going to be killed.
To Miller, whose partner, Alastair McCartney, is an Australian native struggling to stay in the U.S., gay and lesbian rights to marry, to have citizenship are the ultra issue of our time.
On the one hand there is the Irish Catholic mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, who started marrying homosexual couples (incredibly exciting to me); on the other is that incredibly troubled, unstable man in the White House who wants to amend the Constitution.
As for that other man in the White House: It took 50,000 gay Americans to die before Reagan mentioned the word AIDS, said Miller, who added that the whole N.E.A. fight had been well worth it. Like Karen said, we were shaking the trees.
During the question period, someone in the audience asked why Bill Clinton, on whose watch much of the Congressional assault had transpired, should be let off the hook.
Because a disappointment is not as important as a disaster, said Holly Hughes, who chalked up Clintons delinquency to another on the quaint list of his betrayals.
That wasnt good enough for Sapphire, the high-intensity poet. By ending welfare as we know it, she said, Clinton has doomed millions of black women to poverty and misery. So [screw] him.
From Karen Finley now came four more words: I [screwed] him anyway.
You could take that just how you chose to take it. Maybe Justice Sandra Day OConnor could give us an interpretation that conforms with the general standards of decency and diverse beliefs and values of the American public.