20 years of the decency clause: a reminder for Gen Y

In 1990 (when the author of this post was six years old) Congress passed the “decency clause” which states that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) must consider not only artistic merit but “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public.”

In June 1990, after a few years of sustained abuse and threatened shut-down from the Reagan administration, the NEA announced that it would withdraw funding from the performance artists now known as the NEA Four: Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller. In 1992, these four responded by suing in federal court for the withdrawal of their Performance Artists Fellowships. The NEA settled out of court in 1994 with the artists by awarding them the grant money, however the four artists continued litigation against the clause and the case was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. In June of 1998, the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the clause. This clause is one of the most visible battlegrounds of the ongoing “culture wars,” which are frequently cited by conservatives like Pat Buchanan, and middle-of-the-left journalists like Peter Beinart alike, providing artists with legitimized evidence of the age-old struggle for concrete socio-political engagement.

Franklin Furnace provides this timeline of the decency clause, including its use as recently as 2001, when funds for a retrospective of canonical artist William Pope L. were rescinded. (Not to worry overmuch, Pope L. has received a Guggenheim, a Rockefeller Multi-Arts Performance Grant [LOI’s due October 15!], and received an NEA Fellowship in 1995, and the NEA four have been pretty set too in terms of awards and funding…)

William Pope L.

In addition, The New School will be holding two free panel discussions, How Obscene is This! The Decency Clause Turns 20: Panel Discussion I – Public Funding of the Arts
the first one TONIGHT!, September 15, 2010 6:30 p.m. and How Obscene is This! The Decency Clause Turns 20: Panel Discussion II – From Obscenity to Decency on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 6:30 p.m. The AMAZING list of panelists for these discussions makes them a mandatory event for anyone interested in this topic.

And I do have two cents on this, as someone who hadn’t even begun Jung’s process of individuation when this particular legislation was passed. The NEA now offers only very limited grants to individuals, Literature Fellowships, NEA Jazz Masters Fellowships, NEA National Heritage Fellowships in the Folk & Traditional Arts, and National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors, which means that this problem of censorship and all these performance artists has been solved by simply obliterating funding for the medium. Also, (in addition to the censorship-via-omission much like the kind we are seeing in lack of media coverage of the wars in which we are engaged and actions against them) there is certainly an internal censorship going on in the visual arts and theater industries, a kind of “privishing” (a term stolen from the publishing industry denoting a cutting off of a book’s life-support system by reducing the initial print run so that the book ‘cannot price profitably according to any conceivable formula’ and never receives critical attention) in which theaters and galleries neglect to exhibit or produce work that may actually touch on a nerve. It seems that either work can be inflammatory in the “right” and “marketable” ways (in the same way that a work can be “political” but only in the “right” ways) or it will be ignored. And, as a member of Gen Y, I know that we young artists are certainly being given economic and laudatory incentives to be “inflammatory” in a very specific way. Just watch Bravo’s Work of Art (not just the Andres Serrano episode) to see how artists are trained and molded into products that can be marketed to please both the socially liberal elites and the conservatives with a heart. William Pope L.! Holly Hughes! Tim Miller! John Fleck! Karen Finley! Please take Abdi Farah under your wing! (I know many of you are already educators/professors/mentors, how’s the educational sphere doing?)

Young Joseph Keckler and Erin Markey in the University of Michigan collaborative show 'After A Fashion' with professor Holly Hughes (on which I ran sound in...2005 maybe?)

Further reading: Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America by James Davison Hunter …
Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative by Judith Butler


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