Anyone with a taste for irony and a strong stomach has to regard the contemporary art world as a bonanza. Successful artists and writers in this country today are better paid and enjoy greater celebrity than ever before. They also enjoy unprecedented artistic freedom: It is difficult to imagine anything that cannot be said, shown, or performed as long as it calls itself art. And yet artists everywhere complain about the lack of “funding” for art and bemoan the threat of “censorship.” The latest orgy of complaint took place recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There, on May 5, some three hundred members of what a press release called “New York’s cultural leadership” gathered to “show support” for free speech and to honor sixteen individuals who have made “unusual contributions to upholding the principle of freedom of expression.”

Among the honorees was the performance artist Karen Finley. Miss Finley, you will remember, made a name for herself a few years ago by prancing about a stage naked and smearing herself with chocolate while simulating defecation and whining about the evils of patriarchal society. Marvelous stuff, that. Her “unusual contribution” to freedom of expression was to have had an approved grant from the National Endowment for the Arts withdrawn at the last minute by the then-director, John Frohnmayer. What an injustice!

It is hardly surprising that an occasion honoring Miss Finley and other such crusaders for the First Amendment should have attracted a glittering array of foundation support. No fewer than five foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, sponsored this celebration of free speech. But there were no cash prizes, only the warm glow of self-congratulation, and this was spread around thick as London fog.

All in all, it was an extraordinary performance, more entertaining, certainly, than much “cutting edge” theater. Agnes Gund, the figurehead president of the museum, opened the festivities by declaring that “one assumes that art is freedom of expression.” Does one really? Then why should the Museum of Modern Art go to such pains to protect and exhibit its many treasures? Why not purge the galleries of all those paintings, sculptures, and other objects in order to set up soap boxes for the discontented and provide chocolate for Miss Finley? Miss Gund did not pause to consider such questions. And clearly no one felt that the identification of art with freedom of expression required any explanation or defense. Freedom of expression is a good thing; art is a good thing; therefore they must be the same thing.

There is of course a certain hilarity in the exhibition of such obtuse piety. Yet behind it all is the grim, unrelenting humorlessness of political correctness. This was evident in the remarks made by George C. Wolfe, director of Angels in America, Broadway’s latest hit play about AIDS and the supposed horrors of life under Ronald Reagan. In addition to this directing credit, Mr. Wolfe recently succeeded JoAnne Akalaitis as the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, an institution that the late Joseph Papp (a posthumous honoree that afternoon) made world-famous. As such, Mr. Wolfe has emerged as one of the most powerful figures in the New York theater world. Nevertheless, he lectured ominously about the importance of giving hitherto “marginal” voices “center stage,” warning that “the survival of the country” depended on it.

“Survival,” in fact, was his word for the day. In a seamless mixture of political cliché and guilt-dispensing self-righteousness, Mr. Wolfe demanded the formation of “coalitions of survival”—whatever they may be—in order to “negotiate survival”—whatever that may mean. One thing only was beyond doubt: that Mr. Wolfe is a sensitive fellow, more sensitive than we or thee could ever be about AIDS, artists, free speech, and many other subjects. The performance artist Laurie Anderson and the choreographer Bill T. Jones also delivered cloying, politically correct homilies to the assembled multitudes. But in many ways the pièce de résistance was given by Anthony Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

Like the newspaper he writes for, Mr. Lewis was full of fresh, independent-minded opinions. He likes what Oliver Wendell Holmes said about free speech. He doesn’t care for Senator Joseph McCarthy. On balance, he thinks it a good thing that neo-Nazis are allowed to march peacefully through Skokie, Illinois. Accordingly, he thinks that the demand for political correctness is a threat to free speech. But what really exercised Mr. Lewis was a novel form of government censorship. You might have thought that censorship involved actually suppressing something: banning books, closing exhibitions, fining or imprisioning those responsibile for the dissemination of proscribed material. But for Mr. Lewis, that’s only half the story.

He came bearing the brilliant news that the refusal of funds, too, was a form of censorship. This is good news for artists. If you, the artist, apply to the government for money and are turned down, there’s a good chance that you’ve been censored. You wanted the NEA to pay you to make a “statement” by burning the flag in public, or covering yourself with chocolate, or immersing a crucifix in urine. They said forget it. Your First Amendment rights may have been infringed!

Even now, law suits are being filed over this issue. Mary Dorman, co-counsel for Karen Finley and other “artists” turned down by the NEA, rose during the question period to issue a “call to arms” on behalf of the multitudes who are suppressed by being denied the taxpayers’ money. “We want freedom of expression and we want it without qualification,” she said. Noting that President Clinton had yet to appoint a new director for the NEA, Miss Dorman urged everyone in the audience to write to their political representatives to protest the unfair treatment of artists. One might have thought that the Museum of Modern Art would have kept aloof from such lobbying. But, in response to Miss Dorman’s plea, Agnes Gund was quick to assure the audience that the Museum had already dispatched letters to lawmakers. She also asked Miss Dorman to advise the audience on whom they should write to. The answer: President Clinton, Attoney General Janet Reno, congressmen, senators, et al.

Then came a delicious moment. A set designer named Ming Cho Lee got up and explained that he had written to The New York Times to complain about an article by the Times’s theater critic, Frank Rich. Mr. Rich’s article, he felt, unfairly criticized JoAnne Akalaitis and may have precipitated her dismissal as head of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Lee had some difficulty getting a response from the Times. But he finally got through to an editor who told him that his letter could only be printed if everything critical of Mr. Rich himself was deleted. This, Mr. Lee insisted, denied him free speech. This was censorship! Curiously, Mr. Lewis was silent. Perhaps like us he was savoring the irony that what began as an indictment of the U.S. government should have concluded with a blast against what used to be called our paper of record.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 10, on page 1
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