An Artist Against the NEA, Part 1: The Case of Karen Finley

Karen Finley: This is what you get when art and politics mix

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“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

-Benito Mussolini

The wailing commenced as soon as the numbers appeared. After decades of threatening noises from concerned conservatives and fiscal hawks, a Federal government budget was produced that eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

As an American artist, I think this is a wonderful development, long overdue.

Defenders of the NEA make the usual accusations, conflating being anti-government intervention in the arts with being anti-art. They justify the expense by pointing out how little the expenditures are out of a budget now reckoned in trillions. And they make the great leap to define withholding state funding of the arts as censorship. All of these assertions dodge accountability for results. How has the NEA improved the artistic life of America?

The NEA was the creation of the corrupt President Lydon Johnson in 1965. One quick measure of the program’s success is whether the visual arts are in better condition now than they were then.

On the contrary, contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance, with hardly any interest and engagement from the public. I would suggest it’s the top-down direction of arts development encouraged by the NEA and its fellow traveler, grant-giving foundations which have helped cause this great alienation. Far from encouraging a vital, thriving culture in the United States, the handout and non-profit mentality is propping up a sick and decaying model of art as an elitist virtue signalling endeavor.

Make no mistake, the cultural institutions supported by such programs hold the values and founding principles of America in contempt. It’s key for acceptance. The long march was so successful that the entry to the establishment now requires allegiance with globalism, Post Modern relativism, and Cultural Marxist deconstruction. It’s the partisans of these ideologies that get the funding and support.

The art world has been warped by the priorities of the subsidizers. If you want their checks, better get on board with their agendas. Leftists have to taint everything with their politics, their own petty little version of God, and their fantasy of the all powerful state as a benefit dispensing Utopia. There’s no way I want anyone subject to such delusions in charge of recognizing artistic achievement.

Many years ago, I had my own special encounter with a NEA star, a typical example of what elitist culture has to offer.

She’s nothing but a historical footnote now, but in the early 1990s performer Karen Finley was big news. She was one of the so-called NEA Four. These controversial artists were up for the federal agency National Endowment for the Arts grants, and came under intense political criticism. The artists had their grants vetoed, although they eventually won a court case about it, and got paid.

However, as a result of the firestorm the NEA ultimately stopped funding individual artists. At least Finley can take credit for helping end that particular abuse of tax payer resources. But at the time I encountered her all the legal maneuverings were still in flux. When she came to speak in Richmond, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s  sculpture building, Finley was still notorious as a casualty of the Culture War.

Finley is a performance artist. Her claim to fame was hooting obscenities while smearing her naked body with yams. I wish this was a joke or an exaggeration, but it isn’t. Of course it was all about gender roles and social critique and whatnot, so that made it Serious Art.

We students didn’t know what to expect. Would we be spattered with tubers? Should we wear raincoats like we were going to see a Gallagher routine? Anticipation ran high.

As it turns out Finley kept her clothes on, and no vegetables were applied anywhere unusual. I suppose a group of mere students didn’t warrant the full Karen Finley experience.

She addressed the standing crowd gathered around her from a podium. I can’t tell you anything she actually said, as nothing she said was memorable. But we weren’t there for an insightful or intelligent lecture, we were there for a Serious Art Performance. And after her remarks, still standing behind her podium, Finley let us have it.

A Serious Art Performance, to Karen Finley, apparently meant yodeling, rolling her eyes and whipping her head around for a couple of minutes.

It was an annoying and mannered display. I felt the burning sensation of folly receiving the institutional stamp of approval. If that was art, then I’ve seen plenty of schizophrenic meth addicts hanging around convenience stores dumpsters that must be undiscovered geniuses.

Coming from her, it was all so phony. Her actions didn’t seem passionate or intense at all. It was clearly a ploy, a unconvincing simulation of being in a shamanistic frenzy.

My problem with Karen Finley’s art wasn’t because it was immoral; it was because it was stupid. There wasn’t an issue with obscenity, the issue was the failure to present a genuine and creditable work of art. And this is representative of the cultural experience our Washington elites wanted to throw money at.

As a bit of compensation for the dumb histrionics, Finley did show us a few nude video clips. She apparently liked to strip down in museums and pose next to actual art. That was kind of funny. The University was obviously putting all our student fees to good use, bringing in talent of such caliber.

During her fifteen minutes of fame, Finley got to play cultural martyr. She became a symbol, the fulfillment of the art world’s conceit of itself as an oppressed band of brave rebels.

The fact that what she called her art was a contrived, pathetic display was overlooked in the rush to the barricades. Her stated political agenda trumped any concerns about quality.

Finley has drifted into obscurity now, safely cloistered away  in New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts (annual undergrad tuition over $53,000.00), still trying to spark some interest in her sagging shock art. Museums are willing to throw her an occasional opportunity. In 2014 she did AA one better, and came up with a 13 step program for artists whose “lives have become unmanageable because of art.” Here’s a helpful hint: I wouldn’t blame art for the need to seek attention through grotesque displays.

Finley serves as a nice bit of trivia and nostalgia, a walking wounded veteran of the culture wars. The establishment takes care of its own. What they haven’t been taking care of is our society’s need for real art.

The NEA has failed in its mission. They’ve squandered their credibility. We will be better served by trying to find new ways to express an authentically American culture, one than the bureaucratic ideologues of the NEA never believed in.

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“It is quite clear to anyone of an uncluttered mental disposition that what is now put forward, quite seriously, as art by the ruling elite, is proof that a seemingly rational development of a body of ideas has gone seriously awry.”

-The Remodernism Manifesto

“I was not expected to be talented.”

Karen Finley

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers! Please see other articles here for more commentary on the state of the arts.

ARTICLE: How Art Became Irrelevant

burden

Chris Burden takes a bullet-but is it art?

PARASITIC ELITISTS KILL THE HOST: Article on “How Art Became Irrelevant” by Michael J Lewis

It’s been a long standing observation of mine that contemporary art is undergoing a crisis of relevance. The self indulgence and baseless superiority complex that informs the establishment art industry has alienated the general audience, and made the art world a tiny bubble of elitist pedants pandering to other elitist pedants.

I wish there was a better commonly understood word than “elitist” to describe to presumptuous  bureaucratic  power players that are such a plague in our society. It’s not just the arts, all of our institutions are infected with entitled control freaks that feel they are too special to have any accountability for the results of their agendas. There’s nothing elite about them. They mess up every field of endeavor they get involved in, because all they are really concerned with is their own status and privileges.

The author of the article traces the decline, using the NEA 4 debacle as the contemporary tipping point:

And the American public—left with an impressionistic vision in which urine, bullwhips, and a naked but chocolate-streaked Karen Finley figured largely—drew the fatal conclusion that contemporary art had nothing to offer them. Fatal, because the moment the public disengages itself collectively from art, even to refrain from criticizing it, art becomes irrelevant.

This essay proposes that such a disengagement has already taken place, and that its consequences are dire. The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture, other than in honorific or pecuniary terms, and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day…

Such art…offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a “deathwork,” a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

Given this art’s flagrantly, deliberately transgressive nature, it is remarkable how surprised and bewildered its creators were when they felt the full measure of public disapproval, which came to a climax with the effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. After all, having been properly vetted and feted at every step by curators and journalists, academics and bureaucrats, these artists quite reasonably assumed that they were beyond reproach. That there was yet another actor out there in the mists, a public upon whose judgment their fate might depend—a public that might act to withdraw state funding of projects that were expressly intended to transgress its values—seems not to have crossed their minds.

The current caretakers of our culture have been careless. They are blinded by ideology and reactionary hatred for the great traditions of  Western culture. They want to tear it all down and rebuild civilization in their own corrupted image, where they, as the well-connected, will rule.

Humorist James Lileks made his own commentary on the Lewis article, and pokes holes in some of the central dogmas of the arts establishment:

The primary feeling, of course, would be anger (at war, at hypocrisy, at whatever faults in Western Civ consumed the artist at the moment) and sentimental longing, a forward-facing nostalgia, for the Utopia that would result from burning down the accumulated storehouse. (After it had been looted, of course, and the more interesting pieces put up on their mantles.)

How did the atom bomb make the artists think it was pointless to preserve the traditions? Because their use would do away with things, I suppose, but the end result was a culture pre-exhausted for your convenience, one that had assumed the end was nigh and spent its time making grotesque faces in the mirror. It would have been just as potent a response – more so – if they had embraced the positive history of Western Civ and exalted its possibilities, but they were a joyless lot, and the joyless feel judged in the presence of beauty.

Lewis summarizes the outcome of scorched earth march SJWs have made on the arts:

This estrangement has been a disaster for the arts, which need to draw inspiration from the society and culture that is its substrate. It is a myth that an art withdrawn from the realm of public inspection and disapproval is a freer and superior art. The impulse to evade censure can inspire raptures of ingenuity. (The passage of the prim Hays Code in 1932, which led to four decades of censorship in Hollywood, increased the sophistication and wit of American films by a magnitude.) We hear much about art enriching the human experience, which is an agreeable platitude. But it is the other way round. The human experience is needed to enrich art, and without a meaningful living connection to the society that nurtures it, art is a plucked flower.

Chris Burden could never repeat the stunt that made him famous, for the trick about breaking taboos is that you can do it only once. After that, all you can do is endlessly reenact the breaking long after the taboos have gone.

And all that remains is what is broken.

Lileks offers his own conclusions:

I think that museums thrived because going to a museum signified that you were a cultured person, an interesting person, a person open to new things, or at least a person who read the Style section in the newspaper. Having an opinion that was other than laudatory was judgmental, but could be excused if you demonstrated that you understood the artist’s intentions.

You can read what he concludes, but I keep coming back to the same things: it’s not that art is irrelevant, or that people are indifferent to Art, Period, but that High Art has removed itself from a conversation with the culture, and now lectures from barren cul-de-sacs to acolytes in sack-cloths. The art of movies can be much more impressive than a silly video installation of disembodied lips moving in poor sync to a Brazillian folk song to indicate something poverty something Catholocism; the art of contemporary music engages where the abstractions of post-Romantic pain-inducing shriekfests just makes people feel like they’ve stuck their head in a blender full of broken glass.

The students in the author’s class have strong opinions about art. Just not the stuff that’s insulated from criticism because the artist occupies the realm of the permissably pedantic.

I’m more with Lileks here. I have great hope for the future. The fact that the elitist cultural industries have degenerated into such  isolated, unappealing train wrecks would be a profound tragedy…if that was the only option we had. But the failures of the establishment art world is an opportunity for those who have not been corrupted by their short sighted and limited concerns.

The art world is as really as big as humanity itself. In my experience everyone gets excited by good art when they see it, it’s just so much of what the elitist culture presents is not really art at all.

Those who actually understand what art is, what it is for, and what it does well, are stepping into the vacuum created by establishment mismanagement. The sick system of partisan cronyism is dying, and as a new network of communication outside of their tainted hierarchies is developed, their influence will be ultimately destroyed.

Great things are coming, once we clear aside the ruinous rubble of elitist mistakes.