Critics Smell the Censor at Artists Space
Village Voice, November 21, 1989, **p.
Let's clear the air about a few issues regarding the Artists Space flap. First of all, there's no such thing as an apolitical artwork. Every artwork speaks overtly or covertly about the relationship of the artist and society (What else is politics?), be it Warhol's celebration of consumerism or Pollock's proclamation of an artist's right to create unrecognizable images. You're on the wrong track talking about an artist's intentions, too: they're entirely irrelevant here. (That's why you couldn't extract your foot from your mouth by calling the question of political intention a matter of "degree.") Do you think the urges to make art and to be political are mutually exclusive? Or separable? Do you really think-God help us-that our Brechts and Picassos shouldn't be funded?
What we're actually talking about is art that doesn't fit the political agenda of the right: multicultural art in the face of English-language-only style racism or pissed-off gay art in the face of the Reagan-Bush Administration's homophobic inactivity re AIDS. Has it never occurred to you that the artists at the center of the recent causes célèbres are all gays or people of color? Or that art might be a process of carving out an identity? Why do you suppose that the new wave of Soviet art that is so highly regarded in the West was until recently unofficial art, censored by the government agents?
I've had the feeling, John, that the totalitarian cloud from Eastern Europe has floated west and stalled over Washington. Official art is no longer sanctioned anywhere, save for the People's Republic of China (your new model?). The framers of the NEA realized the divisive, un-American effects of elevating one kind of art over another 25 years ago. Why haven't you? And why haven't you learned anything from Christina Orr-Cahall's attempt to play aesthetic Solomon [by cancelling the Mapplethorpe retrospective, The Perfect Moment, at the Corcoran in Washington]?
Let's face it, art is the Pandora's box of consciousness, a kind of free speech you either support or you don't-there's no middle ground. Have you listened to yourself condemning criticism of public officials as unacceptable? Even Cardinal O'Connor-no flaming liberal-demurs at that. Far rightists have institutionalized the politics of repression in this country, but they've scored few victories in the last year. Now you do their bidding, ignoring the judgment of art professionals in favor of the directives of ideologues. Given the evidence of your brief tenure at the NEA, you're likely to preside over the dismantling of what the world regards as an exemplary model of depoliticized art funding. I'm afraid you're already fated to be the James Watt of the arts-and we can't afford to give you a second chance.
I know these incidents are stressful. Call me anytime if you'd like to talk.
Black Thursday: Frohnmayer Fiddles, Artists Burn
Village Voice, November 28, 1989 p. 31-34
The showdown between the National Endowment for the Arts and the nonprofit Tribeca gallery Artists Space over the exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing ended last Thursday. The suspended NEA grant of $10,000 was restored; funding for the show's catalogue was categorically denied. It was not a victory for the arts community, or for the new NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, or for Senator Jesse Helms, and especially not for David Wojnarowicz, the artist in the eye of the storm.
For eight days, starting with the NEA's November 8 announcement that the grant would be withheld, events have unfolded with the speed and attendant media scrutiny usually reserved for political scandals and Holly wood palimony suits. The Artists Space affair actually began in mid-October, when Artists Space's executive director Susan Wyatt initiated contact with the NEA about the show. Her purpose, she states, was to avoid "embarrassing" the NEA and Artists Space with another Mapplethorpe-like controversy. (Some have characterized this action as self-censorship; others note that until now there's been little reason to regard the NEA as the enemy.) At the outset, she had no intention, she says, of making this exhibition on the theme of AIDS a test of the not-yet-operative "Helms-compromise" amendment outlawing support of "obscenity."
Initially at issue was the text of Wojnarowicz's catalogue essay criticizing Helms, Representative William Dannemeyer, Cardinal O'Connor, and others for their support of policies that ensure the spread of AIDS. Ironically, Wojnarowicz's artworks, which hang in the show, contain similarly pointed texts. Wyatt, sensitive to recent history, says she feared that the catalogue would e misused by the right long after the exhibition had come down.
With the backing of her board of directors, she just said no to Frohnmayer's request to "return" the 1989 grant money, although the contracted check was not yet in the mail. What followed was a series of astonishingly contradictory responses by Frohnmayer (see sidebar, "Quotes From Chairman John"). After calling the show too political, he backed off using what he termed the "P word." Then he found that the exhibition's "artistic focus" had "eroded" and that the catalogue deviated considerably from the one purposed in the grant application. Until November 16, he refused to unlink the catalogue and the exhibition, although Wyatt asserts that NEA program staffer David Bancroft had granted her permission to do so, prior to Frohnmayer's involvement in the matter. Bancroft rebuts this, calling it "Susan's interpretation of our conversation."
Tension peaked at a November 15 press conference at Artists Space. Frohnmayer's hostility toward the catalogue was undiminished and Wyatt's resolve had stiffened. Litigation looked inevitable. But within 24 hours, Frohnmayer's stance shifted. Prior to an early-morning press conference at Artists Space on November 16, a delegation of four local members of the National Council on the Arts (the presidentially appointed, 26-member body that advises the chairman), led by New York State senator Roy Goodman, toured the exhibition and called Washington to urge Frohnmayer to fund the show. In midafternoon the "good news" was made official.
Like every tempest played out in the media, the entire matter may appear to have died down as quickly as it had sprung up. Many New Yorkers, however, know better - as the obstreperous and sometimes art-negative contingent from Art Positive (an AIDS-oriented, anticensorship collective affiliated with ACT UP) demonstrated outside the mobbed opening at Artists Space on Thursday night. It was becoming clear that the battle with Helms and Company for control of the national cultural agenda has only escalated.
Although Susan Wyatt is well-known in New York (and elsewhere) as the sensible and sensitive administrator of a highly regarded artists' organization or "alternative space," John Frohnmayer - with whom the arts communities must deal in the foreseeable future - was a virtually unknown quantity until last week. His behavior showed him to be decent, easily flustered, not overly bright: a player out of his league in the rough-and-tumble arena of national politics.
Frohnmayer was visibly threatened by what numerous participants at a November 15 meeting between the NEA chair and downtown artists and organizations invariably described as a "frank" and "healthy" dialogue. He naively articulated his (understandable) resentment at the press feeding-frenzy, not only lashing out at the media with a petulant "We can't work this out according to the press's timetable," but even blaming the press for its scrutiny in the first place. The most surprising aspects of his consistently inept performance were his unlawyerliness (he was a partner in the Portland firm of Tonkon, Torp, Galen, Marmaduke © Booth) and an apparently genuine discomfort at being labeled a homophobe, a response rarely seen among politicians outside of San Francisco.
Frohnmayer's dithering persona of the past weeks is both contradicted and contextualized by accounts of his West Coast record. Interviews with more than a dozen Oregonians involved in the arts and media yield a picture of a man who is personally and professionally esteemed. Richard Meeker, the publisher of the alternative newspaper Williamette Week, notes that the most damning observation he can make is that "Frohnmayer is more conservative than most people think...But he is a good lawyer and well-respected here."
Frohnmayer also garnered generally positive reviews as a member of the Oregon Arts Commission (1976-80) and as its chairman from 1980 to '84. (According to former commission director Peter Hero and others, Frohnmayer's achievements during those eight financially strapped years include initiating individual artists' grants, fostering state support of folk arts, laying groundwork among legislators for budget increases after he left office, and increasing communication with artist-constituents throughout Oregon.) Bill Foster, director of the Northwest Film and Video Center, states that in Frohnmayer's confirmation hearing, "He cited our [commission-funded] work with school kids making tapes about homelessness and the environment as an example of how art should be [socially] involved." Does Frohnmayer understand contemporary art? "Well, he wouldn't understand a Barbara Kruger."
The NEA chairman's lack of familiarity with recent art contributed to his problems at Artists Space. (A prominent Portland lawyer and art patron quipped, "I think Rauschenberg to him is a new German beer.") Mary Beebe, former director of the defunct Portland Center for the Visual Arts, found Frohnmayer a "very low profile chairman, but there were no major battles either." Christopher Rauschenberg, director of the Blue Sky Gallery - where Witnesses curator Nan Goldin's work was shown last year - echoes Beebe's sentiments: "We really don't know much about him."
Charges of Frohnmayer's homophobia seem unfounded based on conversations with several sources in Oregon's gay community. Keeston Lowery, a gay activist and assistant to Portland Commissioner and art maven Mike Lindberg, met with Frohnmayer prior to his Washington confirmation hearings and characterizes his understanding of gay/lesbian and AIDS issues as "in-depth." Lowery also notes that Frohnmayer appeared on a televised mock trial as the attorney opposing Oregon's 1988 Ballot Measure 8, which successfully repealed a gubernatorial directive against gay/lesbian bias in hiring, and that many people confuse John with his brother (and current Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate) David, "whose record isn't so good on these issues," according to Lowery.
Oregon probably boasts the most consensual politics in the country. When describing Frohnmayer, the term "mediator" came to many lips, as did a picture of a man not prone to acting unilaterally. The former helps explain his discomfort with the public events of the last week; the latter remains a mystery. Was the chairman acting unilaterally (and uncharacteristically) when he suspended the grant? How could an attorney who lists his specialties in Martindale-Hubbell (the Bible of lawyers' directories) as "litigation, libel, slander and First Amendment" have so vigorously attacked Wojnarowicz's essay criticizing public figures, i.e., First Amendment-protected speech? And how could anyone so familiar with gay issues have carelessly assaulted an AIDS-related exhibition?
According to council member Wendy Luers, Frohnmayer did not turn to the National Council on the Arts for advice, despite Peter Hero's assertion that the chairman told him "he'd like the national council to be more engaged." Jesse Helms's suspicious remark (see sidebar) suggests input from the far right, rather than from the art community. (Neither Helms nor the NEA would comment on the North Carolina senator's advisory role.) Frohnmayer, who lobbied hard for the endowment chair, may have learned that he cannot simultaneously satisfy the right and his arts constituency, one toward which he seems more temperamentally inclined. Meanwhile, the rest of us have learned that he has no comprehension of the fact that today's ideological battles are being waged on the bodies of gays and women. The massive and largely celebratory prochoice rally in Washington took place four days after the Artists Space grant was withheld; unfortunately, none of the speakers at the rally made the connection.
The Artists Space controversy hits the NEA at the most vulnerable point in its 24-year history. Washington observers cite serious morale problems at the endowment. The troubled agency is riddled with vacancies: five of its 13 arts program directorships are vacant. Stephen Goodwin, director of the literature program, announced last week that he will not renew his expiring contract and claimed no connection between his resignation and current events, although sources close to Goodwin assert that he has been "deeply disturbed" by recent NEA events. Against this backdrop, Congressman Pat Williams is pursuing a wily strategy that proposes mandatory legislative reauthorization of the NEA, which would extricate the endowment from the 1990 election-year politics.
Normally, the NEA would be reauthorized for five years in 1990. Endowment supporter Williams says that he will seek to reauthorize the status quo (including the Helms-compromise amendment) for a single year and then go ahead with normal reauthorization in 1991. How will the shift in the duration of reauthorization come about? "We'll have eyeball-to-eyeball discussions between the NEA's active supporters, and we'll see [in January] if there are serious objections." What about Helms? "The Senate hasn't scheduled reauthorization hearings yet," Williams says.
Helms was, of course, the biggest loser in last week's fracas in Tribeca. Credit for this goes to the nonestablishment artworld forces that mobilized so quickly. Wyatt worked closely and publicly throughout the week with the National Association of Artist Organizations (NAAO) president Inverna Lockpez and Washington-based NAAO director Charlotte Murphy. Members of Art Positive spoke frequently at press conferences and tried to make sure that the issues of homophobia and censorship remained linked, although their statements invariably ended up on cutting room and editorial office floors. Along with curator Goldin and artist Wojnarowicz, Art Positive members repeatedly called for Frohnmayer's resignation, once to his face at the November 15 meeting of downtown artists and organization representatives at Artists Space.
Ad hoc support came from Visual AIDS (the organizers - I am a member - of the upcoming December 1 "Day Without Art" to which the scheduling of Witnesses was pegged); PEN; Leonard Bernstein, whose refusal of the National Medal of Arts riveted public attention; New York City's Department of Cultural Affairs; the Coalition Opposed to Censorship in the Arts; and the Art Dealers' Association, which donated $10,000 to Artists Space. (At a board meeting on November 17, Artists Space committed net proceeds from donations it had received to an as yet undetermined artist-advocacy project.) David Dinkins sent a chiding letter to Frohnmayer, with carbons to Wyatt, New York State Council on the Arts chair Kitty Carlisle Hart, and DCA commissioner Mary Schmidt Campbell, but he, as well as the vast majority of elected officials at all levels, did not go fully public. Notably absent was support from NYSCA (is having no public relations director really an explanation?), the U.S. branch of the International Association of Art Critics, and the entire museum community. The silence of the museums was a disquieting reminder of the existence of several "art worlds."
Artists organizations fought this battle, and it seems that they, too, are capable of making artists feel disenfranchised; institutions and individuals inevitably have different needs. Having signed a waiver holding the gallery harmless for any legal costs arising from the publication of his catalogue text, artist David Wojnarowicz feels that Artists Space should have rejected the reinstatement of the NEA grant.
Wojnarowicz believes that the division of the fundable show and the unfundable catalogue sends the message "to every space in the country that they should never touch work of this kind or the work that I do. I'd call it legalized murder," he continued. "The NEA's action legislates the silence of gays and lesbians, the silencing of PWAs [persons with AIDS], and the denial of safe sex information for people to protect themselves."
As the events at Artists Space unfolded last week, the powerlessness of artists to control the uses and abuses to which their work is subjected seemed strikingly analogous to the powerlessness of PWA's to control the medical treatment on which their lives depend. Plenty of people have speculated that Wojnarowicz's new and unwelcome notoriety will lead to increased sales of his art. But how so you compensate for the Post likening your work to a glorification of Hitler, or the Washington Post characterizing it as "the rambling death bed curse" of a person dying with AIDS?
SIDEBAR: QUOTES FROM CHAIRMAN JOHN
"I believe that the use of Endowment funds to exhibit or publish this work is in violation of the spirit of the Congressional directive."
-NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer in a letter to the director of Artists Space, Nov. 3
"A large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature."
-The New York Times, Nov. 9
"We all live in the real world here and we have been through an exceptionally difficult time, and I think the last thing we need is for public funds to be used to try to rub it in the face of the critics."
-The Washington Post, Nov. 9
"Any show that is primarily intended to make a political commentary must be privately funded," Frohnmayer told me. But isn't any exhibit about AIDS political? "No, it's a question of tone."
-The Village Voice, No. 47
"Obviously, there are lots of great works of art that are political. Picasso's Guernica and the plays of Bertold Brecht are strongly political."
-The New York Times, Nov. 10
"I think it has sounded like I was saying you look at the political content and you decide whether or not you like it. What I meant to say was you look at the artistic quality and you decide on that..."
-The Washington Post, Nov. 11
"The word political, I'm coming to see, means something different in Portland, Oregon, than it does in Washington, D.C."
-The Washington Post, Nov. 11
"In looking at the application...there was a substantial shift and, in my view, an erosion of the artistic focus."
-The New York Times, Nov. 14
After viewing a controversial art show on AIDS, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts yesterday said the Tribeca show is "without artistic merit."
-New York Daily News, Nov. 16
"I visited Artists Space in New York City yesterday and saw the exhibition 'Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.' Prior to this time I had seen only the catalogue...I have agreed to approve the request of Artists Space..."
-The New York Times, Nov. 17
"I can understand the frustration and the huge sense of loss and abandonment that the people with AIDS feel, but I don't think the appropriate place of the national endowment is to fund political statements."
-Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10
Frohnmayer said yesterday that he did not want the NEA's withdrawal from the Artists Space show to suggest that the agency was not "invested in the AIDS epidemic."
-The Washington Post, Nov. 11
"I described that [the erosion of the artistic focus] with the P word, and it was taken by the arts community as a suggestion that I had been influenced by political pressure..."
-The New York Times, Nov. 14
Senator Helms said: "I do not hope that Mr. Frohnmayer is not retreating from his voluntary commitment to me..."
-The New York Times, Nov. 17