Is the NEA Dead?
There are two ways of looking at this situation. The first is to see the National Endowment for the Arts as valiantly doing everything possible to keep itself alive. The other is to see the NEA in a pact with the devil, willing to eat its own "lesser" children to save the "better" ones from the ax. Like so many other tales of intrigue and bad behavior, this one begins in San Francisco.Canyon Cinema, a distribution and promotion company for artistsÕ video and experimental films, operates out of S.F. and has consistently received NEA funding over the past 15 years. In January of this year they were quite pleased to receive a letter from the NEA announcing that they were to be awarded $15,000Ña sum not only astounding in that it was more than they had ever received, but in that the NEA had been forced by the U.S. Congress to halve its budget in the past two years. The grant was to go toward production of Canyon CinemaÕs distribution catalog, which lists over 3,000 titles and runs some 450 pages.Two months later, the mailman brought some not so good news: On second thought, the NEA had decided Canyon Cinema was not so worthy of a grant, and could they please just ignore that first letter? Since no contracts had been signed, Canyon Cinema was screwed. What had happened in those intervening two months? Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, had been conducting a thorough review of NEA programs via the House Committee on Education and the WorkforceÕs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which he chairs, and which is responsible for overseeing the NEA. Hoekstra has publicly stated that the elimination of the NEA is high on his to-do list.To achieve this end, Hoekstra and his chief lackey, economist Derrick Max, have been conducting a questionable "information gathering" campaign against a whole range of arts organizations, from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York to SeattleÕs 911 Media Arts Center. Most of the organizations and artists targeted are media-based, and forthrightly deal with sexuality in their work. Tactics utilized by Hoekstra and Max have included the full frontal approachÑ"He [Max] came in like a Nazi demanding files," said one NEA staff member, according to the National Campaign for Freedom of ExpressionÑto the sneaky: Max reportedly contacted several organizations on HoekstraÕs list pretending to be a part of the NEA, requesting materials from the organizations as if they might be getting grants.NAKED PEOPLEThe San Francisco Bay Guardian reported the following sequence of events in the Canyon Cinema case: Max, without fully identifying himself, contacted Canyon Cinema requesting a catalog, and they complied, although they wondered why he just didnÕt get the one out of the NEA library. The next day a reporter for the New York Times calls Canyon Cinema to get their reaction to HoekstraÕs complaints to the NEA about Canyon CinemaÕs catalog (which has a few pictures of naked people and some "sexually explicit" text in it).On March 17 Hoekstra writes the NEA regarding the "troubling" nature of films distributed by Canyon Cinema, and on March 28 the NEA writes to Canyon Cinema: "Upon further review of this application and the supporting materials, the Arts Endowment has made the determination to reject this application," although the grant had been approved by two peer review panels and had been signed off on by the NEAÕs advisory council and the Chair of the EndowmentÑcompleting every step now necessary to get an NEA grant.The Bay Guardian goes on to quote Max as stating, "Our letter to the NEA laid out the case. The NEA agreed with Hoekstra, and they actually did not fund the organization. WeÕve been told it was a direct result of this [investigative] process," and the NEA as replying, "Decisions are made on applications based on artistic merit and not politics. The primary criteria for awarding grants is artistic excellence and merit. It always has been and it is now. These are absolutely not political judgments."Oh, please. The NEA and Hoekstra know that they canÕt legally deny grants based on "indecency"Ñthey lost in court when Karen Finley and three other performance artists sued them over the indecency language, and NEA-bashers have been hurting ever since. It now seems they have found a way to influence the grant-making process to their ends, apparently with the full complicity of the NEA. NEA COMPLICITYIt is the complicity that is the most troubling aspect of this whole debacle. How can there be any debate if the NEA is willing to cover for the censors? Even Hoekstra himself carefully claims not to have influenced the NEA in any way to change its decision, despite what Max blabbed. But HoekstraÕs agenda is perfectly clear: all of his targets were artists and organizations dealing with sexuality and sexual orientation.Last year Hoekstra proposed that the NEAÕs budget be cut by the amount it had previously granted to black lesbian filmmaker Cheryl DunyeÕs award-winning film Watermelon Woman (currently playing in the Seattle International Film Festival). Watermelon is a film which, when viewed by members of a conservative family coalition in HoekstraÕs home district, got comments like "I donÕt think this is obscene by the court definition," due largely to the fact that there is only one 90-second sex scene in the filmÑless than your average TV drama.Hoekstra, in an attempt to create his own enemies list, requested from the NEA information on 14 other "lesbian films" to see if the NEA had funded them, as well as a list of all other NEA grantees for the past three years that received money for media distribution. The NEA turned over some 16,000 pages of material. Among this material was information on SeattleÕs 911 Media Arts Center.THE SEATTLE CONNECTIONPeter Mitchell, 911Õs Communications Director, says that they were not contacted by Hoekstra or his flunkies, to the best of his knowledge. (In fact, they didnÕt know they were under investigation until contacted by a local writer.) Apparently HoekstraÕs committee reviewed prior grant application materials from 911, as well as the notes of the peer review panels that looked at 911Õs applications. 911 did not receive NEA money this year, but thatÕs because they didnÕt apply.Taking the fall were Canyon Cinema and several other organizations, including Women Make Movies (N.Y.C.), Highways (Santa Monica), and HallwallÕs Contemporary Arts Center (Buffalo), all major supporters of queer artists. HallwallÕs grant was decreased by the amount of the media arts component, which makes the target group du jour pretty obvious. Senator Jesse Helms failed to turn America against obscene performance artists; Hoekstra has set his sights on the menace of the Õ90s: queer media artists.The comparison of Hoekstra to Helms is not an idle one. Apparently Helms is too busy now that he has a committee chairmanship to bother with the piddly little NEA, and has left new-kid-on-the-block Hoekstra to take over. For assistance, Hoekstra has turned to (you guessed it) the Rev. Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, old pros at NEA-bashing (they got that whole Mapplethorpe/ Serano thing rolling). The text of a Hoekstra letter to the NEA has shown up in an AFA fundraising letter that pins the destruction of morality on the NEA.COMPLIANCE IS EVERYWHEREWill this alliance prevail, even with the NEA furiously backpedaling from their support of any artist Hoekstra doesnÕt personally care for? ItÕs hard to tell. The agreement struck in the House two years ago to eliminate the NEA in the Fiscal Year 1998 budget is rumored not to have enough votes to pass (and the Senate never agreed to any such thing). However, at the time of this writing, the budget about to go to Clinton has no money allocated to the NEA, and anti-Endowment rhetoric ran high at the recent meetings in HoekstraÕs committee. Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader, has stated, "I shall do everything in my power [to see that the Interior bill leaves the committee] without continued funding for the NEA."Meanwhile, back at the NEA, regardless of the funding debate, it seems to be all over. Once you have internalized the censorship, once you have begun to censor yourself, the censors have won.The NEA can not continue along this path and expect to receive the support of artists and arts organizations. It would be much better to see the Endowment go down in a blaze of glory, fighting for the rights of artists in a free society, than become a willing apologist for conservative censors. Unfortunately, it may not be that the end is almost upon us, but that it has already occurred, behind our backs.