NYC 1993, on view at the New Museum, is an odd exhibit. Rather than presenting the work of a particular group of artists, or focusing on a theme or style, it attempts to serve as a time capsule. It offers attendees a tiny sliver of the art that was being shown in New York City during the twelve months of 1993. If you start from the highest floor of the exhibition, you’re confronted with twelve television screens endlessly reminding you of the major news and pop culture events from each month of that year. It very much feels, and seems intended to feel, like twelve equally exasperated couch potatoes are flipping every few seconds from channel to channel, looking for and failing to find something to catch their interest. But because of the cacophony, for me at least, it quickly became nothing more than a glib, “Oh, right, that happened,” as my brain grew tired of trying to keep up. And unfortunately, other than the wall labels which focused primarily on the art world and the specific artists on view, those flashing television screens were the extent of wider historical context offered.
Exhibited as jumbled signposts from a bygone era, even a recent one, the works felt less like art and more art-like.
That lack of context seems to be one of the primary reasons why my experience of the show was largely devoid of any real emotional or intellectual connection to the works on display. Exhibited as jumbled signposts from a bygone era, even a recent one, the works felt less like art and more art-like. They felt clinical, removed, and strange.
And that worried me because the real reason that I stopped in to see the show was because I’m interested in the performance residency that has been programmed alongside it. It’s a set of five week-long residencies featuring each of the artists known as the NEA Four — Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Karen Finley. These artists were denied National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding in 1990, after Congress passed a “decency clause” that gave the NEA permission to deny grants based on the subject matter of the art. Near the height of the AIDS Epidemic in the US (there were over 300,000 AIDS-related deaths between 1987 and 1997, according to official statistics), and in the midst of the ongoing Sex Wars within feminism (which contributed to an atmosphere of censorship and political exclusion), not to mention the rise of neoconservatism and neoliberalism within the US Presidency, these four performance artists became political targets because their work variously touched on LGBT subjects or used live nudity to address the sexual objectification of women.
The first week of the residency featured four additional artists — Tobaron Waxman, Brigham Mosley, Salley May, and Erin Markey. Selected by the NEA Four, these four solo performance artists, who span two generations, presented their work and were asked to address the changing financial landscape that impacts emerging solo performers today.
I spoke with Travis Chamberlain, associate curator of performance and manager of public programs at the New Museum, who curates many of the performances that take place there, about his intentions in bringing these artists into the setting of the NYC 1993 exhibition. Interestingly, during our conversation he focused primarily on funding issues within performance, and was not keen on spending much time evaluating or re-evaluating history. He also emphasized his choice to give each of the NEA Four artists their own separate week of residency, allowing them to choose how to respond to the larger 1993 context. He wanted to avoid treating them as cultural symbols and to emphasize their individuality as artists, as opposed to the numerous events that have asked them to simply rehash the events surrounding the denial of their grants and the court case.
I challenged Chamberlain a bit on his desire to avoid historicizing, given the fact that the residency is named “The NEA 4 in Residence” and that it’s being done in conjunction with a historically-focused exhibition. But I was driven in that by my own experiences at a couple of recent public events where people seemed to have already forgotten their history, speaking only of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ when referring to the Culture Wars era. Many people still don’t seem to connect the dots between the Culture War’s impact on the arts, the larger cultural reactions to the trauma of hundreds of thousands of people dying from a stigmatized disease, and a growing conservatism in the US. Even the name “Culture Wars,” makes it seem as if what was happening was largely isolated to the realm of culture, with a capital ‘C’—as if it was only taking place within the upper echelons of the art world.
Yet I appreciate Chamberlain’s desire to look at Miller, Hughes, Fleck, and Finley as individuals. And having not only written about, but personally experienced the changing landscape of arts funding, I was curious to see how the first group of artists would address the issue in their residency.
On the afternoon of May 4th, I attended Waxman, Mosley, May, and Markey’s presentations in the museum’s auditorium. The group had done performances for the public the evening before, but for this event, they were asked to present their business plans.
The subject was timely, as arts organizations and funders have been spending more of their time and money in the past decade or so on providing professional development to artists. There are even major grants, such as the ones given by Creative Capital (whose Professional Development Program is actually celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year), which not only require grantees to undergo extensive financial and business development programs, but also ask applicants to speculate about their “professional growth” as it relates to the proposed project. (In the latest round of grants awarded by Creative Capital 2,703 artists applied in three categories and a total of 46 grants were awarded.)
The general idea, at least in the US, is for artists to think of themselves as the sole proprietors of small businesses. Artists are told they need to be both strategic and long-term not only in creating and marketing their work, but also in building a life that is conducive to that goal.
I’ve been through a number of professional development programs and workshops for my own creative work over the past 13 years. Some have been transformative; some have been utterly demoralizing. In the past couple of years I’ve written about a number of issues surrounding labor, access, and politics within the arts, and my skepticism about these programs has only increased with time. More and more it feels like this move to professionalize, despite good intentions, reflects a larger creep toward quieting or silencing radical and/or stigmatized voices through neoliberal arts policies, even as some of the skills that artists gain through these programs might help them navigate an increasingly competitive and over-populated field.
Given all that, it was kind of hard to watch the artists in that small auditorium publicly struggle to articulate some conception of a business plan. I know how hard it is to grapple with my relationship to money amongst a closed group of peers—let alone in front of an audience. Because ultimately, that’s what a business plan comes down to—your relationship with capital; how you and society assign a monetary value to your time, your energies, and the things you produce with your time and energy.
In our conversation, Chamberlain expressed skepticism about the ways that arts funding demands artists be incredibly savvy in how they speak about their work. They are asked to describe art they have yet to create in ways that demonstrate knowledge of the major concerns within their field, and the concerns of the funder, and also ensures that a general audience would find the work important, relevant, or investment-worthy. Artists also have to have an enormous amount of technical know-how: polished websites, slick photographic or video-based documentation, and an active social media presence are the price of entry. Needless to say, not every artist has these skills. In fact, the truth is probably that most artists don’t, or lack the resources to obtain them. Chamberlain and I share a concern that all of this prevents access to funding and presentation opportunities for a vast number of people.
Which just made it even harder to watch the artists up there struggling with how to place themselves and their work into the marketplace. They all took the challenge seriously, and of the three I saw, they offered clever, human, witty, and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated responses to the challenge. But sitting in that public presentation would definitely help disabuse just about anyone of the idea that pursuing an artistic career in 21st century America is a romantic enterprise. Maybe that was part of the point.
The night I started typing this up, Holly Hughes posted the following quote, which she had overheard that evening during a Bindlestiff Family Circus show: “Why succeed when failure can feel so good?” Maybe that sentiment is the best way of getting at all of this. Success in the arts seems to be framed within tighter and tighter boundaries these days—degrees, wealth, fame, beating impossible odds, slick packaging and marketing. But life is mostly a big mess. I think a big part of why we value artists is because they show us the mess, they remind us of it, they dig through it and the narratives we create about it, they find things there we didn’t see before, and they show us some of the ways that we can or cannot live within it. Maybe the fact that the artist’s presentations were a bit unkempt in the face of a request for them to tidy things up is ultimately reassuring—a point of resistance, intentional or not.
In the meantime, I’ve started working on the first of a series of interviews for Hyperallergic that I’m going to do with each of the NEA Four artists, starting with Holly Hughes. My hope is to get their perspective on the shifts that have taken place since they started making work, both in terms of how it is funded and how is it received by institutions and the public, as well as looking at where they are now in their careers. Look out for those in the weeks to come.
The NEA 4 (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) are in a two-part, multi-artist performance residency and research project in conjunction with the exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star at the New Museum and IDEAS CITY 2013.