Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics.
By Jane Alexander. Public Affairs. 335 pp. $25.
When Jane Alexander took charge of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1993, hopes were high among the cultural elite that the much-loved actress's glamour, status and theatrical skills would disarm the foes of the beleaguered agency and bring sweet reason to the ongoing furor over government support for art. Even the less mainstream members of the art world—who, with the help of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, were pursuing a legal challenge to Congress's infamous "decency and respect" requirement for federal arts grants—hoped that the political frenzy that had roiled the NEA ever since the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and Andres Serrano's work in 1989 would finally subside. Both groups were sadly mistaken, and Alexander's new book recounting her four traumatic years at the NEA goes a long way toward explaining why.
Catharsis-through-memoir seems to be an occupational hazard for recent NEA chiefs: John Frohnmayer, Alexander's embattled predecessor, produced a particularly bitter and self-justifying one, Leaving Town Alive, in 1993. Alexander's is more balanced and philosophical, if equally passionate about art, literature and theater—the loves that inspired her to put her acting career on hold in 1993, just after a triumphant turn on Broadway in The Sisters Rosensweig, and plunge into the political minefield. Reading about her sordid education in realpolitik makes one want to cry for the debased state of American politics. Alexander herself frequently doubted the wisdom of her decision to undertake this purgatorial journey, during which she drove herself relentlessly, put on many excess pounds, suffered severe health problems and ultimately had to downsize and restructure the agency radically in order—as she thought, at least—to save it.
Alexander's education began with her preconfirmation visit to Senator Nancy Kassebaum, who "told me point-blank that I could not defend controversial art and to not even bother to try." She nevertheless gave a dynamite speech at her confirmation hearing. It was perhaps her finest hour, before the political compromises wore her down. "Should the Senate confirm me," she said," I cannot promise that under my chairmanship the arts will be free of controversy. The very essence of art, after all, is to hold the mirror up to nature…. We are, as Hamlet says, 'the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time,' and as such, the artist often taps into the very issues of society that are the most sensitive."
For all her charm and commitment, though, the storms did not abate. Performance artist Ron Athey's reportedly blood-spattered show at the Walker Art Center in 1994; the National Council on the Arts' decision to veto recommended grants for Andres Serrano and two other controversial photographers the same year; a grant for the film Watermelon Woman, about "a group of African American women who were lesbians"?one controversy followed another as the "rabid young bucks" (Alexander's choice phrase) in Congress strove to reduce the NEA to penury if not eliminate it entirely. Alexander's patience wears thin amid "the usual huffing and puffing by Jesse Helms," the not-so-benign neglect of Bill Clinton and the antics of the Christian Action Network, which staged an NEA "funeral" complete with a coffin carrying petitions for the agency's demise. "I was starting to lose faith in the process," she writes with no small understatement; the endless "cajoling, strategizing, and schmoozing" was getting to her. By mid-1995, "I felt muzzled;…perhaps I would be more help to the artists of America on 'the outside,' where I could speak freely about freedom of expression and the homophobia on the Hill."
But she holds on for two more depressing years (buoyed periodically by the spirit of camaraderie among agency staff). She roots for Karen Finley and the three other performance artists (Tim Miller, Holly Hughes and John Fleck) who were plaintiffs in the constitutional challenge to the decency-and-respect law and is distressed when the Clinton Justice Department opts to appeal a federal circuit court decision striking it down. The law required the NEA to consider "general standards of decency" and "respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public" when awarding grants, and the plaintiffs' attorneys argued that it was both intolerably vague and unconstitutionally "viewpoint discriminatory"?that is, it mandated discrimination against unpopular ideas, which the First Amendment generally prohibits, even in government subsidy programs.
Alexander mangles her description of NEA v. Finley, though, assuming incorrectly that the four artists were actually denied grants because of the decency-and-respect clause. This is a common error among those recounting the NEA's strange history in the nineties, but a simple reading of the Supreme Court decision would have cleared it up. The denial of grants to the artists took place before the clause was enacted; in fact, a major reason for the Supreme Court's eventual decision rejecting Finley et al.'s argument was that the NEA insisted that the clause had never been applied to anyone, so it was unclear (at least in the Justices' Olympian view) whether it would really lead to viewpoint discrimination.
Alexander is right, however, that the Supreme Court's decision in NEA v. Finley was exceedingly "muddy" and failed to acknowledge the chill on artistic freedom caused by the mere presence of the decency-and-respect language in the NEA law. Courts do follow the election returns, as Mr. Dooley observed: The Justices were surely aware that a victory for the First Amendment in Finley in 1998 could well have been the NEA's death warrant in Congress, for the demagogic appeal of arts funding controversies had still not subsided. Even though the dredging operations of right-wingers to uncover the latest scandalous arts grant were no longer front-page news, their argument that tax money should not pay for "pornography" or "blasphemy," so successful in crippling the NEA, had by the end of the decade become part of the political culture. Throughout the country this not-with-my-tax-money rhetoric was being used to dismantle controversial artworks (or sometimes just nudes) if exhibited in government-owned spaces, to defund repertory theater productions (Tony Kushner's play Angels in America was a common target) and to lobby for "family friendly" public libraries in place of existing no-censorship library policies.
All of which leads to the deeper questions about government funding raised by Alexander's book and by the culture-war devastation she chronicles. What would a good, freedom-enhancing set of policies look like for many varieties of government-funded expression, from arts grants, libraries, museums and public broadcasting to the salaries of state university professors? Despite the importance of intellectual freedom in all these areas, limits on what can be said or done with government funds are not the same as actual bans on speech?a distinction that those opposing the decency-and-respect clause didn't always acknowledge. Taxpayer-funded speech comes in many packages, from government-approved messages that by definition propound one viewpoint and exclude others (prodemocracy, for example, or antismoking), to government-supported "public forums" like streets and sidewalks, where denying access based on the speaker's viewpoint would be a cardinal First Amendment sin. The NEA was vulnerable to the political storms of the nineties because although its legislative history contained splendid rhetoric about the importance of artistic freedom, it was easy to confuse federal arts grants with official sponsorship. At the least, it was not clear where on the spectrum of government-subsidized speech an arts funding agency should sit.
The Justice Department's lawyers, defending the decency-and-respect clause, reached for a middle ground category of "patronage," located somewhere between the government's propounding of its own viewpoint, in an officially commissioned artwork, for example, and the open forum of student activities at a state university or a taxpayer-supported town square. The vague criteria of decency and respect were appropriate in this area of taxpayer-supported expression, they said, even though more explicitly homophobic or otherwise viewpoint-discriminatory selection tests might not be. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it in that muddy Supreme Court decision, "when the Government is acting as patron rather than as sovereign, the consequences of imprecision are not constitutionally severe."
One problem with this middle-ground compromise, however, is that the very vagueness of the terms "decency" and "respect" augments their capacity for self-censorial mischief. Another problem is that they are, in real-world terms, viewpoint-discriminatory: code words for avoiding art that is sexually challenging, politically subversive or offensive to somebody's religion.
Alexander doesn't ponder these larger questions—hers is a personal story, a cautionary tale about the mire of Beltway insiderdom, and her policy arguments don't go beyond heartfelt love for the arts and a hope that the Supreme Court "would uphold the First Amendment" in Finley. A new academic field of "cultural policy," however, is beginning to look at the tension between artistic freedom and political reality in the many communities where some variant on "decency and respect" is advocated as a criterion for publicly supported art. With support from arts foundations, cultural policy centers are now operating at Princeton, Ohio State and other scholarly enclaves, while the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington, DC, is attempting to bridge the academic and policy worlds with seminars, conferences and web pages.
The flourishing of cultural policy centers is a promising sign, although they sometimes tend to sidestep the artistic-freedom issue?an understandable response, after the drubbing the First Amendment took in the nineties, but not one calculated in the long run to resolve the tension between taxpayers'-money rhetoric, on the one hand, and the need to protect the "very essence of art," as Jane Alexander put it, on the other. One of the objects of cultural policy studies is to gather empirical information about whether Americans are really as polarized on culture-war issues as our leaders and mass media would have us believe. Professor Paul DiMaggio at Princeton, for example, has found a marked disparity between Americans' actual beliefs and the polarization that some politicians and pundits like to announce. "Rather than representing an accurate diagnosis of the American political condition," DiMaggio wrote in a recent paper, "the 'culture wars' account has served as an interpretive frame with an intrinsically conservative bias, generalizing to the American people as a whole a strident antagonism thus far visible mainly among political elites and well-financed social movement organizations."
But code words like "decency," "respect" and "family values" continue to dominate the rhetoric. Jane Alexander's book, like the cultural policy movement, is a timely reminder of the need to keep diversifying the vaunted marketplace of ideas and make space there for provocative art—even with government funds.
MARJORIE HEINS was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in NEA v. Finley, the constitutional challenge to the Endowment's "decency and respect" standard, and is now directing a Free Expression Policy Project at the National Coalition Against Censorship. She is the author of Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars (New Press) and the forthcoming Not in Front of the Children: "Indecency" in History, Politics, and Law.