The Avant-Garde Laughs--at Last
A hilarious send-up of the NEA controversy.
BY JAMES TARANTO
New York City Tribune, Tuesday, December 11, 1990
The worst thing about avant-garde artists is that they take themselves way too seriously. Take Karen Finley, whose latest show, We Keep Our Victims Ready, compares America to Nazi Germany. She seems to think those who question whether the government should pay her to cover her naked body with food are ideological soulmates of Hitler--and in the avant-garde community, this is not a particularly unusual view.
Many of her critics also take her too seriously. Her work may be a wasteful or even offensive expenditure of government funds, but it's not going to subvert American values or ruin Western civilization. It would hardly have been noticed at all were it not for the political controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts.
Having sat through several performance-art shows over the last few months--and listened to one tiresome rant after another about how our most precious freedoms are under siege by the Forces of Reaction--I came to the point where I just wanted to stand up and shout, "Hey, lighten up!"
This seems to be the message of a new performance piece called DOA at the NEA, or We Keep Our Victims Murdered. Written by playwright Michael Dale, DOA is a hilarious parody of Finley and several other figures in the NEA controversy.
The piece takes place several years in the future. Finley has been elected president. Her campaign slogan, explains one character, was "Vote for me--I'll feed the country." She kept her promise. When she took office, she retired from performing, and, we are told, "the surplus food from her act was enough to feed all of Appalachia."
Finley has appointed fellow performance artist Holly Hughes as chairman of the NEA, and Hughes has instituted a new procedure for determining who gets NEA grants: "Any artist who wishes to qualify is flown to a Midwestern town and performs before a typical family. If the parents are offended and the children become violent, the grant is awarded."
But there's trouble in avant-garde paradise. Julianne Miller (Lucy McMichael), a columnist for the magazine Straight and Narrow, has been ruining the careers of artists by revealing in her column that they are secretly heterosexual--a variation on the homosexual practice of "outing." As the play opens, she is extorting money from visual artist P.S. Dixon (Bill Anderson) by threatening to publicize photos of Dixon's boyfriend, flaming homosexual Eric Spring (Greggory McClain), in bed with Bernadette Peters and Tracy Chapman.
Meanwhile, Dixon has developed a sympathy for a group called the "Groucho Guerrillas," male artists who post bills protesting the domination of the art world by women. "Ninety-eight percent of all artwork in display in New York is by women," he says, mocking the feminist fetish for citing dubious statistics.
Dixon worries that Eric is having an affair with Katie Osborne (Meg Arader), who is collaborating with Eric on a new performance piece. Dixon warns them that if his suspicions are true, their careers could be damaged: "The NEA wouldn't think it offensive enough if they thought you were both straight--not offensive enough to give you a grant."
Katie turns out to be the former lesbian lover of columnist Miller, who became straight when she was brainwashed by the "subliminal" lyrics of 2 Live Crew. (Subliminal? "Well, of course," says Katie. "Can you understand anything they say?")
Before being brainwashed, she was Chloe, an actress who read only men's parts, but, of course, could never get cast for them. In a flashback, she explains to Katie that "someday they're going to let us play these roles, when they realize that only women know how men should behave."
Except Eric, each of these characters is based on one or more of the figures in the NEA controversy. Dixon is a combination of Andres Serrano (Piss Christ) and Dred Scott (What Is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag). His latest painting is called Pickle Pontiff--this is self-explanatory--and in order to view it properly, he says, you must stand on a particular spot on the floor--atop a photograph of Sen. Jesse Helms. He provides a notebook for viewers to write their reactions, and during the performance actually invites members of the audience to come up and do so.
Katie is based on Karen Finley. She performs a piece entitled It's Only Oliver, based on a Finley story called "It's Only Art" that opens the latter's Victims show. In her mock performance, Katie describes going to a theater to see Oliver, but finding it empty except for a minister, who explains that the show has been canceled as too controversial. (Among other complaints: "The Quaker Oats Company had objected to the negative representation of gruel.") After her story, she spreads mustard, whipped cream, and other food on her (still clothed) body.
Even the priggish Miller is a performance artist. Her act is called Wife! Mother! Homemaker! Bore! and is based on Susana Ventura's Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Ventura's show opens with the artist playing a receptionist at a Midtown brothel; Miller is a receptionist for something called "Young Republican Girls, Incorporated." "For $200," she tells a customer, "you can take one of our girls to a PTA meeting, and for an additional $75, she'll join one committee."
This can all get rather confusing, and the most serious criticism of the show is that it's probably difficult to understand if you aren't familiar with many of the specifics of the NEA controversy. But the action is held together by the narrator, the Downtown Sugarplum Fairy ("guardian angel to artists who don't qualify for government funds"), played by Ruth Stoner. This rather cutesy contrivance comes off well, because the vivacious Stoner brings tremendous energy to the part.
The show is billed as "participatory performance art," and during pauses in the show the actors--in character--mingle with audience members. At one point "Julianne Miller," seated at the table behind mine, turned to me and said she'd pay me for any evidence I had of Eric's heterosexuality. Early in the show, Katie goes through the room handing out (satirical) fliers inviting us to the performance of the "Ethnic Theatre of Contempt."
The show's climax comes when one of the characters (I won't reveal which) is murdered. Sheets of paper are then handed out and audience members invited to guess the identity of the killer and the murder weapon. Prizes are awarded for the most accurate and funniest guesses.
After the murder is solved, the cast sings a closing song, which turns out to be a version of "That's Entertainment" that goes, in part:
Watch 'em gagWhatever it may sound like, DOA is not a right-wing critique of NEA-supported artwork. If there's any doubt about that, the prize for solving the murder is a donation in the winner's name to either the ACLU, Gay Men's Health Crisis, or Save the Arts.
As you step on a flag
'Jaculate in a frame
If they hiss
Dunk a Christ in your piss
If you are a dame
Who is up for some kicks
To inspect your cervix
The censor's gonna
Give it a "nix"
But you'll defend your frolic
By calling it all symbolic
But the fact that it's written from a sympathetic point of view makes this savage parody all the more refreshing. After the show I talked with Stoner, who told me the message of DOA is one of "tolerance and acceptance." The beginning of tolerance may be the willingness to laugh at oneself, and, unlike the targets of its satire, the DOA crew clearly has that ability.
DOA is easily the best piece of performance art I have seen. It's also the only piece of performance art I've seen that received absolutely no government funding. Thus, to me, the message of DOA is that the free market works. This, too, is a message of tolerance and acceptance.
Text of the flier that was handed out at "DOA at the NEA":
The Ethnic Theatre of Contempt
(Yo Mama!, etc.)
THE TAMING OF THE SIOUX
a compelling interpretation of the Shakespeare play showing yet another example of how white males have taken advantage of all minorities and have generally fucked up the world.
TICKETS: Women and minorities -- $10.00
White males -- $50.00 (You can afford it!
Use your damn Gold Cards!)
The Ethnic Theatre of Contempt is a non-profit organization dedicated to the production of classic plays by white male authors reinterpreted to suit our purposes.
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