After delaying it for approval by its acting chair, Richard Martin, the National Endowment for the Arts rejected funding for performance artist William Pope.L’s eRacism retrospective exhibition. The exhibition was scheduled to take place in 2002 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art. MECA?the lead applicant in a consortium proposal which also included two other contemporary arts institutions, DiverseWorks Art Space of Houston, Texas and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in Oregon?had requested a $42,000 grant from the NEA in support of the exhibition.
The grant had been recommended by the agency’s advisory review panel and approved by the National Council on the Arts. Although no specific reason was given (the NEA does not comment on applications that are not funded), the ultimate rejection by the acting chair, evoking memories of earlier such incidents, raised questions of censorship.
William Pope.L’s work has included a series of "crawls" through urban areas, a machine grinding text and images from contemporary African American culture into "pulp"; a performance in the Boston Financial district, where the artist he sat on a ‘throne’ of Wall Street Journals and attempted to ingest the stack of newspaper on which he was sitting, while making periodic phone calls to the senior vice presidents of the district office of the Wall Street Journal in Boston. He is a professor of Theater and Rhetoric at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. In the mid 1990’s when the Arts Endowment was still directly funding individual artists, he received one of the last NEA individual artists fellowships. He was recently selected to participate in the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York in 2002. In the performance, which is speculated to have caused the NEA to back out of supporting the retrospective, Pope.L walked around New York City wearing a huge (extendable to 14 feet) white cardboard penis, as a commentary on the pervasive supremacy of white phalluses. For that one project a 25-year retrospective appears in jeopardy, Pope.L noted to the Portland Press Herald.
It is disturbing that the NEA’s own panels and National Council on the Arts can be overruled for any reason, or no reason at all?at least no publicly stated reason. With no public visibility, the NEA process becomes suspect, especially as we occasionally learn of, say, the inexplicable delay of a grant to the Berkeley Rep for the production of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, or the withdrawal by former NEA chairman, William Ivey, of a grant for a documentary film by William Dong profiling families with gay adult children. Judging by the evidence of recent grants the NEA has been transformed from an agency whose goal was to stimulate free expression, risk, innovative and challenging work, to one that censors anything that could potentially be used to spark controversy.
A brief look into art history would prove that the most controversial art has been the one to open new avenues for aesthetic thinking. This art will, of course, appear with or without government support. But in a country where free inquiry and innovation are founding values, it is a shame to have the leading national art agency shudder at the sight of anything that might trouble the most conservative of congressional representatives.
For more information contact:
Svetlana Mintcheva, Arts Advocacy Coordinator
National Coalition Against Censorship