Death Panel for the Arts: NEA v. Finley Part I

Long before the National Endowment for the Arts was even a glimmer in the eyes of the nation, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was already establishing the great debate that would define its modern history.  In 1903, Justice Holmes stated, “It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits.” (Bezanson, p45)  The definition of these limits was to be ardently debated in legal, political, and public forums between 1989 and 1998 in regards to the case NEA v. Finley.

In 1988, the NEA funded Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.  The only problem was that the funding went to an exhibition of homoerotic photographs and a work entitled Piss Christ, completely offending the puritanical sensibilities of many members of Congress.  The most incensed of those was North Carolina Republican – and segregation proponent – Jesse Holmes, whose reactionary step was to impose an amendment upon the NEA’s appropriations.  His 1989 proposed amendment prohibited the NEA from funding “any art project judged to be indecent or obscene or to denigrate a particular group.” (Helms Amendment, p784)

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed but could not stop the siege on American Art, ending up with a compromise amendment stating the NEA had to consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.” (Bezanson, p10)  Karen Finley, a performance artist based in New York was caught in the backlash from Mapplethorpe’s and Serrano’s controversial works and subsequent legislation.  By nature, Finley’s work was controversial, with her release of Tales of Taboo and Lick it! which featured her seething incendiary monologues over a disco accompaniment.  These recordings were republished with the help of Madonna in 1988.  In 1990, Finley applied for the grant that started the whole legal debate for an exhibition entitled We Keep our Victims Ready.  This exhibition was to feature her nude body covered chocolate in response to the Tawana Brawley case.  The 16 year-old African-American girl was found nude in a Hefty bag covered in her own feces; to which the public reaction and consensus was that she had done this to herself to avoid punishment.

Finley created her exhibition to highlight the racism, sexism, and age-ism of the case, reminding the audience that had it been a white girl in the same circumstances a veritable witch-hunt would have been issued.  Instead, Finley too was subject to the misinterpretation with politicians eroticizing her political art.  She attempted time and again to set the record straight, but was encountered with deaf ears.

Because I try to tell them it’s about rape, it’s about abuse of people, but they just wanted to constantly eroticize it as me being the pervert–which I think represents a misunderstanding of what is sexuality. (CJ, Finley Interview)

The interpretation of the case Finley chose to expose – quite literally – was the real part that the politicians and public to issue with.  The decision to graphically recreate a devastating event that garnered a brutal scrutiny from the public was in itself taboo.  Finley felt “even though for the First Amendment, it doesn’t matter if it’s amateur speech or if it is credible, I don’t think it matters. That’s very important. Or it can be pornography.” (CJ, Finley Interview)  Her art was difficult to stomach, it was political, racial, sexual, and above all, artistic.  For what is art if not offensive?


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