© 2014 Valerie Dionne

NEA4 Roundtable at Colby College by Richard Lund

At the NEA Four roundtable discussion, a variety of topics regarding censorship were debated. Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, the artists that make up the NEA Four, have a view on censorship that has come from their dispute with the U.S. government in the early 1990’s over grants for their art.


The disagreement over the grants originated from a “decency clause” invoked by Congress in June of 1990 after an exhibit called “The Perfect Moment” by Robert Mapplethorpe that included homoerotic images that some members of Congress considered pornographic received a $30,000 grant and a work by Andres Serrano titled “Piss Christ” that depicted an image of the crucifix in urine received a $15,000 grant. The clause forced the NEA consider “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public” in addition to the artistic value of requests for grants. The four artists mentioned had their grants revoked for reasons regarding their explicit . Three months after having their funding revoked the NEA Four filed a lawsuit against the NEA and its chair, John Frohnmayer, arguing that their grants were withdrawn for political reasons. This argument seems to hold true, as the crusade in Congress against government support for art with graphic sexuality was led by social conservatives like Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. But, after the “decency clause” was declared unconstitutional by a district judge in Los Angeles, it was the Clinton administration that appealed the decision. Although the artists were awarded their grants by a lower court, when the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court in 1998 and was decided on June 25 the constitutionality of the “decency clause” was upheld. The Court ruled that the clause did not interfere with the right to free expression and that it only added a factor to the decision making process of awarding grants. It was interpreted as not explicitly outlawing the funding of explicit artwork, allowing the NEA discretion in the review process. Following this ruling by the Supreme Court, Congress urged the NEA to stop funding individual artists.

Before I discuss the NEA Four roundtable discussion, I would like to express my own opinion of the events that led to Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes becoming the NEA Four, as these events likely had a great impact on their view of censorship. I will start by saying that I believe art can be displayed through nearly unlimited mediums, including those that some may consider explicit or indecent. But, when an artist expects the federal government to fund their artistic endeavors, the purpose and job of a government must be considered. I believe the purpose of a proper government is to serve the people to the best of its abilities. Was Karen Finley’s performance in which she “appeared on stage partially clothed, her body smeared with melted chocolate and alfalfa sprouts to symbolize denigration of women by forcing them to wallow in excrement and sperm” art that served the American people and therefore should have been entitled to government support? I admit that I am somewhat ignorant of what qualifies as “modern art,” but I struggle to find any argument that can possibly justify why taxpayer money should have been used so Karen Finley could perform naked covered in chocolate. If she could find a private audience that was willing to pay her to put on such a performance, then fine. But the expectation of the American people as a whole to support her is appalling to me. During the roundtable in Strider, Ms. Finley said that she believes a lap dance is a form of artistic expression. Does this imply that strippers should receive government funding for their exhibitions, too?

AR197 - Karen Finely

Despite our disagreement on what should and shouldn’t receive government grant funding, the NEA Four and I seemed to have similar views on other issues of censorship. One topic that was discussed during the roundtable that I think has great application to this class was how technology has impacted censorship. All artists seemed to agree that technology has helped immensely in fighting censorship. If a government, for instance, is trying to hide something from the rest of the world, it is very difficult to keep it from them in the digital age. The example of several revolutions and civil wars that have been thrust into the international spotlight through everyday people posting pictures and video on the web was used. Without access to technology, governments have a much easier time limiting what the rest of the world knows. Another example cited by the speakers was the “Being Black at University of Michigan” (#BBUM) movement earlier this year. This was an example of a student group banding together and using the power of technology to spread their message. Without technology it becomes much less likely that the country as a whole has the opportunity to become aware of the movement and the school administration would likely be allowed to handle things in a much less transparent manner. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that access to technology is bad, unless they believe a certain level of censorship is beneficial in the separation of fact from fiction. I think there is something to this argument, but to put a person or group of people in charge of determining what is fit for publication is a greater risk than leaving society as a whole to the job.

Censorship is, and will likely always be a hot topic. This is because very few issues regarding censorship are simply black and white. A government silencing its people is censorship. A college marginalizing a group of students is censorship. The NEA Four losing their grants is not censorship. It is a government coming to its senses and ceasing to spend money on something that doesn’t serve its people.