Back to THE HISTORY OF THE FUTUREFall 1999/ Winter 2000

Friday, December 24, 1999 (Christmas Eve), The Culture Wars, II.:
Annie Sprinkle, "Post Porn Modernist"; John Fleck, "A Snowball's Chance in Hell."

About one year into the "culture wars" by my reckoning, in May of 1990, John Frohnmayer, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, rescinded grants awarded by peer panels to Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck and Tim Miller, the artists who became known as the "NEA Four." At the same time, Franklin Furnace mounted Karen Finley's installation entitled "A Woman's Life Isn't Worth Much." This was after conservative columnists Evans and Novak had branded her the "nude,chocolate-smeared young woman." The night of the opening, someone left Diane Torr's performance and turned in Franklin Furnace to the New York City Fire Department as an "illegal social club." The staff was divided on whether this was a politically motivated act. Subsequently, we got calls from the General Accounting Office, the NEA Audit Division, the Internal Revenue Service and the New York State Comptroller, all of whom wanted to audit our program and financial records. The GAO asked specifically to see information on Karen Finley, Cheri Gaulke, Frank Moore and Johanna Went, all of whom present sexually explicit work.

A year later, Franklin Furnace's application to the NEA was rescinded as a result of sexual content in our application materials. (We were not alone; Franklin Furnace had presented a performance by Scarlet O, the Kitchen had presented "Annie's Cervix" by Annie Sprinkle, and Highways had presented "He's-Got-the-He-Be-She-Be's" by John Fleck.) But this time, the transcript of the National Council's deliberations avoided such terms as "politically suicidal" in favor of others like "without artistic merit," so we had no basis upon which to mount a lawsuit.

For almost a decade, the NEA Four case went through multiple court battles, winning all of them based on the First Amendment right of artists to freedom of expression. But the (by now) Clinton Administration appealed, probably to coopt Jesse Helms' tough on obscenity stance. The case reached the Supreme Court in the June of 1998, and the artists lost. This goes to show you that you can't trust a guy from the 60s who claims he never inhaled.


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