METRO TIMES DETROIT
Richard C. Walls "the nea tapes"
This hour-long offering from filmmakers Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf gives a pretty thorough overview of the controversies surrounding the funding of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Established in 1965, the NEA, once seen as an altruistic venture, is now seen by many as the devil’s spawn — as a direct result of the rise in power of conservative groups who saw the agency as a symptom of society’s ills. eturn with me now to the late 1980s, the years of the "culture wars." You remember, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the artists and institutions it funded were on the front line defending themselves from critics of public funding for the arts.
Several flashpoint artists are represented in the film — Andres Serrano (whose “Piss Christ” gave the anti-funding forces a two-word rebuttal to every argument), Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley — as well as art critics, lawyers and several politicians. The latter are shown demonizing the NEA on the floor of the House and the Senate, with a theatrical flair that itself seems like a debased art form. Tim Robbins and Ed Asner (or, as they’re known on the right, “the usual suspects”) also show up, to give the film a little star appeal.
Some arguments against the cutting of funds are unconvincing — one artist claims that if they ban art deemed offensive they could next ban people who use the color red. The best compelling argument is that the vast majority of NEA-funded art goes to non-controversial projects, things like local community theaters, folk singers, budding poets, Native American basket weavers and others who enhance rather than threaten the status quo.
Despite a preponderance of talking heads, Lamarre and Wolf manage to keep their film moving at a fair clip and squeeze quite a range of voices into this short film. Although it may not change your opinion about the ultimate need for government funding of the arts, it does make the case that the attacks on the NEA were both overwrought and dishonest.
Nov. 11-14. For information, visit detroitdocs.org. The Wayne State University Welcome Center is at the corner of Woodward and Warren avenues.
©2004, Metro Times, Inc.
Mary Voelz Chandler: For freedom of expression, there's always a war on
Return with me now to the late 1980s, the years of the "culture wars." You remember, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the artists and institutions it funded were on the front line defending themselves from critics of public funding for the arts.
Don't want to go back that far? Then how about 1995? That's when a wave of new Republican legislators again took on the NEA, with the apparent goal of dismantling an agency by reducing its budget to a level so low it can seem nearly insignificant.
Not happy with that one either? In the current wave of slashed art budgets, staff layoffs, programming cuts and bleak funding projections, who can blame anyone for not wanting to think about the bad times at the NEA? About the court fights, the bitter words, the end of grants to individual artists, the futile attempt by NEA officials to appease everyone.
Actually, anybody who worries about public funding for the arts should still keep an eye on occasional skirmishes in the " culture wars," even though the sides appear to have returned to their base camps and moved on with other issues. (The wait goes on for a formal nomination from the White House to place poet and former businessman Dana Gioia into play for the position of endowment chairman. That means a day in the sun before inquisitive legislators and may give deeper insight into the comfort level with arts funding.)
For a good refresher of How It Was, though, filmmakers Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf present " the nea tapes ", a project to which they've devoted seven years to tell the story of challenges to the endowment. Tapes will screen at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Boulder, a program sponsored by Boulder-based Free Speech TV as part of the group's Films for Change series.
After interviewing more than 300 people, Lamarre says this work in progress is basically complete. That is, until someone else says something he and Wolf want to include in the hourlong look at the NEA.
There's no way to include all the interviews in an hour, so the film has a sort of choppy, back-and-forth motion to it. That builds a certain momentum, a rhythm of disbelief as stars and everyday artists talk about what the endowment means. And as foes rake it over the coals.
Andres Serrano is there, the photographer who set some people aflame with his image of a plastic crucifix dipped in urine. So are visual artists Alex Katz, Kiki Smith and Chuck Close. So are actors Tim Robbins and Ed Asner, who notes, " Free speech is a wonderful thing, until you get poked in the nose with it."
Also included are former NEA Chairwoman Jane Alexander, who admits that after a while, she realized that what was going on wasn't just about the art. And Karen Finley, whose provocative performances angered those who saw no reason to use public money to fund her monologues. And so are the officials - Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, Sen. Alphonse D'Amato of New York - who decried the public funding. It all comes back.
Lamarre, a furniture maker and photographer based in New York, said by phone this week that he and Wolf had spent about $150,000 on the project, half private contributions, half their own cash. The bottom line on the NEA, he said, is its role in the full mix of arts funding. In short: "Don't give up the public voice." He and Wolf are trying to raise money to attend the screening here and talk about the issues.
While they're here, they'll probably hear about Denver's latest arts eruption. And I'm not talking about the governor's surgical removal last spring of the Colorado Council on the Arts' grants to organizations in the metro area.
Instead, the issue is a painting that hangs in the Art Students League through December, juried into a show that's a benefit for the League.
Lucong's Self-Portrait of a Martyr has been on view in other venues, where it created the same impression it does hanging at the League: an image that provokes discussion, asks questions and in a way makes a reference to all those "martyr" paintings of yore (think St. Sebastian, his chest peppered with arrows). Lucong's canvas is a field day of crosshatched brush strokes.
It's arresting, ambiguous. Is this about physical martyrdom or emotional survival? It's a case where the viewer is asked to participate, and that's good.
Nevertheless, League director Leona Lazar says, the work offended some art students who, rather than using their studies as a way to keep their minds open, asked that Martyr be taken down for fear that it glorified terrorism.
She and others at the League declined, and the painting has sold for the full amount of $10,000, according to the League.
Talk about mixed messages. I'll interpret this as a reflection of tentative, frightened times - in terms of impending war, warnings of terrorist attacks and economic malaise - that students (especially art students) can't see the continual need to defend rigorously the concept of freedom of expression.
Why not, instead, question two other paintings in the show, which borrow, er, rather, appropriate the styles of painters Close and Jackson Pollock a bit freely, if you ask me?
It's time to put the flap to rest, appreciate Martyr for what it can be and hope the artist continues to refine his style and learn his craft. And that a climate of fear in this country doesn't inhibit the need, even the right, to find answers in the arts.
" the nea tapes "
* What: A
seven-year film project interviewing artists about public support of the arts in the
United States, by Melissa Wolf and Paul Lamarre
Mary Voelz Chandler is the art and architecture critic. Chandlerm@RockyMountainNews.com or (303) 892-2677
Self-Portrait of a Martyr, a painting that provokes discussion and asks questions.]
the INDEPENDENT -
Film & Video Monthly magazine December 2001
"Eidia House is an underground situationliterally," jokes Lamarre, sitting in the Brooklyn basement studio that is now its physical embodiment. "It's a dark time for artists today. We're being ostracized, but at least it's forced us to get together in places like this and talk."
"the nea tapes", a one-hour documentary that the couple began five years ago, is the flagship of their philosophy. As explained in the Eidia House manifesto, their goal is "to promote a comprehensive expansion of the influence of art on a world wide basis....[including] television, radio, print, and the Internet."
The project started when Lamarre and Wolf became alarmed by the politically motivated witch-hunt to kill arts funding, and they set out on a cross-country road trip to save the NEA, even though the NEA was less than supportive of their efforts.
The filmmakers visited places like Del Rio, Texas, where the NEA was the only life-blood for promoting things like local theater, and interviewed people like Tim Robbins, Noam Chomsky, and former NEA head Jane Alexander. Yet the most compelling segments come from talks with unknown cowboy poets and Native American basket-weavers.
"We thought we cold finish in one year," Lamarre says. "Then it became two, then three...then Giuliani," he laughs. "It's been like doing our Ph.D." "the nea tapes" still doesn't have distribution, and so far, only Bravo and the Independent Film Channel have aired excerpts. Lamarre says, "Eventually, we want to make the film viably on the Web (www.neatapes.com), along with a database of information."
From the start, the couple has hoped to inspire other artists and filmmakers to take similar actions. They urged people to "steal" their work, and point to National Public Radio's art talk show "Studio 360" as proof of their success.
The topic of many discussions at headquarters includes privatization and arts funding and how that is affecting artistic freedom. "I think there has been a definite change," Wolf says. "Just go to Chelseathe galleries all look like law offices. Art used to be much more accessible and integrated, even back in the SoHo days." Aside from blatant corporate travesties like the American Airlines Theater on Broadway, Lamarre and Wolf point to recent closures of independent galleries, and to the extinction of small presses. Meanwhile, CEO-stocked museums boards have produced an even more elitist art world that Lamarre says is dominated by "economic censorship."
In some ways, "the nea tapes" is a departure from the couple's more "artistic" work, which includes gallery installation, as well as another film called "The Starving Artists' Cookbook". That project sent them hiking around the globe to film artists, including John Cage and William Wegman, preparing cheap meals in their own kitchens.
Still, "the nea tapes" has nurtured Wolf and Lamarre's artistic inspirations. "It's made us more socially conscious and concerned about our place in the world," Lamarre explains. "Like, we're really into recycling now, which is part of Eidia's 'deconsumption' theory, called '101 reasons to stop making art.'"
Let's hope they're
just being conceptual.
NEA TAPES, THE MOVIE"
building momentum for the movie, which consists of short interviews with major players in
the culture wars and the debate about government funding for the arts, Lamarre and Wolf
have also just launched www.neatapes.com, which will include the entire archive of the
team's transcripts and videos of more than 300 interviews conducted since 1995.
"There is a huge, vast array of viewpoints that need to be
The site currently features a selection of thirty-second QuickTime video clips featuring actor and activist Tim Robbins, and artists Chuck Close and Fred Wilson, among others. "The website allows us to continue the interviewing process and easily share what we've gathered with an international audiencewhich is an important dialogue that will help inform us in the US of other arts-funding conditions," says Lamarre.
The following is a
review of "the nea tapes" as it was shown as a WORK IN PROGRESS.
In January 1995, Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf, a married couple who operate as an artistic entity named Eidia, began compiling a documentary about the mortal danger to the NEA. With sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts and financial support from the Open Society Institute /Soros Documentary Fund (but not the NEA), they videotaped interviews with more than 100 artists, educators, administrators, legislators, and critics throughout the United States. The NEA Tapes has been broadcast as a work-in-progress on the Independent Film Channel and the Bravo Arts and Entertainment Network, and it has been screened, with discussion, at galleries from Santa Monica to Stuttgart. On October 15, Lamarre and Wolf brought it to San Antonio for an open forum at the Finesilver Gallery. Four and a half years after the project was begun, Wolf and local filmmaker Alison White are now in the final stages of editing and post-production at The Railyard Media in San Antonio.
The NEA Tapes includes stock footage of right-wing antagonists railing against the endowment's abominations and a brief interview with Martin Mawyer, whose Christian Action Network organized a "Degenerate Art Show" to publicize NEA "obscenities" (it is an ominous echo of the exhibition of "degenerate" art by Jews and other undesirables that the Nazis organized in Germany in the 1930s). Though no adversary of the avant-garde, innovative filmmaker Jonas Mekas tells the camera: "I have come to the conclusion that government should have nothing to do with art. The less government puts their fingers into art, the better." But Lamarre and Wolf conceived their work as a partisan polemic, an opportunity to give voice to those drowned out by all the clamor against the NEA. The NEA Tapes is largely a compilation of testimonials favoring federal funding for the arts.
Offered the opportunity for righteous eloquence, Congressman Jerrold Nadler responds: "The arts are the soul of our society." Marilyn Murphy, professor of art at Vanderbilt University, notes: "The American people have no idea what the NEA is doing for them. It is a wonderful thing." In response to the argument that funding should be privatized, actress Jane Alexander, who used to run the NEA, notes: "Private money always has an agenda." Noam Chomsky also dismisses those who call for privatization: "What they're saying is everything should be run by rich people."
Rich as it is in pungent remarks (by Edward Albee, Ed Asner, Robert MacNeil, Alex Katz, Victor Navasky, Sidney Yates, and less prominent figures), many of those interviewed seem fatigued, weary of having to defend what seems self-evident: that a society measures its richness not in GDP or the DOD but in the variety and vitality of its arts. Many of those seen on screen would rather be back at the easel instead of in front of a camera. Many speak in sorrow, incredulous that barbarians have seized control, that the most prosperous and powerful nation in history is afraid of its own creativity.
The city of Berlin alone spends four times as much per year on art as does the entire government of the United States. The NEA Tapes might have strengthened its case by including interviews with Europeans who take for granted that government exists to promote the general welfare, and that a society fares woefully when its imagination is not stimulated. But it is unlikely that by themselves any pronouncements, taped or not, would sway a viewer on this familiar issue. What is most compelling about The NEA Tapes is its journey beyond New York and Washington.
In Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Iowa, California, and even Texas, Lamarre and Wolf find instances of how the NEA is crucial to sustaining endangered species of human creativity. Far from trendy Manhattan salons, they visit cowboy poets, repertory actors, and basket weavers who insist that their traditions will perish if left to the vagaries of market economics. In rural Tutwiler, Mississippi, NEA support brings a poetry workshop to impoverished young blacks. Graciela Sanchez and Sterling Houston recount how the San Antonio City Council defunded the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and radically reduced allocations to other local arts organizations. San Antonio's debacle did not involve the NEA, but it dramatizes the stakes in public funding for the arts. Though Congressman Armey demonizes "the art elite of America," it is his political elite that seeks to stifle artistic expression throughout the country. Reduced and restricted, the NEA survives. We need it to thrive.
© 1999 San Antonio Current
© 2007 Eidia House