Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, August 6, 2009

San Francisco's Art Is Ruining it for the Rest of America, Apparently

The NEA is currently under fire from such media organizations as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal for providing what some call "indecent" art projects. All of those perverted NEA grantees are--you guessed it--right here in the Bay Area. Because this is clearly a haven of debauchery and moral degeneration, out here in the West, far from the puritanical, straight-laced East Coast.

The indecent grantees: CounterPulse, because they host a cabaret titled "Perverts Put Out!"; Frameline, the host of the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which recently screened a movie called Thundercrack, which mixes hardcore sex with a campy plot; and Jess Curtis/Gravity for producing "Symmetry Project," featuring two naked people "writhing on the floor."

To begin, "Perverts Put Out!" claims not to receive any of that NEA funding; in other words, CounterPulse uses the federal money for other, more noble and universally accepted pursuits. So why this is even a part of the debate, I'm not sure. Second, Frameline screened hundreds of movies, of which Thundercrack was but one. It is possible--likely even--that NEA money, once again, did not go toward this particular objectionable screening.

But whether or not this funding went to these sex-related artistic pursuits, a nasty whiff of censorship lingers in the air. Why are two naked bodies "writhing" (some call it--*gasp*--"dancing") not artistically valid? We accept nudity in the theatre, because it can signify something potent. A nude character is a vulnerable one, for example, or an objectified one. Like any costume, it is part of telling the story. So why should it be objectionable and distasteful in a dance piece? Why the government can't bring itself to allow nudity in the name of art is beyond me. Anything sex-related in art and gubernatorial panic ensues, because obviously being exposed to any kind of sex outside the closed doors of your own bedroom will corrupt you beyond salvation. Just look at those promiscuous French people.

Sarcasm aside, art does--and should--live by its own laws. This is about freedom of expression. In two out of these three cases, it is at least questionable whether federal funding actually went to anything objectionable. In the other, nudity in a dance piece, in my opinion, should not be cause for alarm.

And, in the case of Thundercrack, sure, it sounds like a porno. (I've never seen it, so I am not equipped to make that judgment call.) But according to the description on Frameline's website, it is "the world's only underground kinky art porno horror movie." That's historical significance, right? Worthy of federal funding?

That might be a stretch. But the government does need to relax. Freedom of expression is a good thing, particularly in art. Sex is also generally considered a good thing. The marriage of the two is only natural. Isn't all art really about sex, somewhere in there? Sex and nudity doesn't make art indecent, it makes it interesting and natural.

We all know federal funding for the arts is important. Let's not allow a silly little porn flick to get in the way of that. This needn't be Mapplethorpe 2.0. If you need to restore your faith in the nobility and decency of art, go see CounterPulse's labor history bicycle tour, or take in a different LGBT-themed film from Frameline, one with a brilliant message about acceptance and very light on the sexual innuendo. Or go see one of the other recipients of the more than $79 million of NEA money that went to uncontroversial art projects.

Leave us crazy San Franciscans to our porn, nudity and general perviness. Our counterculture isn't bothering your mainstream, so don't bother us.

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At August 7, 2009 at 4:38 PM , Blogger PianoFight said...

As much as I think the Conressmen's outrage is a total crock and a way to score some easy political points, I do love the the angle they're taking:

"Our intent is not to censor artistic freedom," wrote Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. "The fundamental question is why is the federal government supporting artists that taxpayers have refused to support in the open market place?"

At August 7, 2009 at 4:55 PM , Blogger Karen McKevitt said...

Interesting. Taken out of context, PianoFight, that may sound like Congress should be giving money to Cirque du Soleil or other huge commercially successful endeavors.

At August 7, 2009 at 11:34 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Maybe it is time to realize that we should break up the ol' US of A. I'd love to be apart from most of the rest our country. Even parts of the central valley; but they are at least close so we can deal with that!!

At August 8, 2009 at 2:12 AM , Blogger PianoFight said...

"Interesting. Taken out of context, PianoFight, that may sound like Congress should be giving money to Cirque du Soleil or other huge commercially successful endeavors."

Interesting that you say that, Karen, as it reveals the perspective you're coming from - namely, that of someone who believes in government funding of the arts.

The argument the Congressmen are making is that government need not fund an artistic product which the market has rejected. Taken out of context, especially, nothing in their argument indicates funding would go to a successful artistic venture which has no need for government charity.

All the Congressmen are saying is, "Why are we propping up a product which the market has deemed irrelevant?" And frankly, whatever you or I believe the answer to be, it's a fair question of any industry/community, not just art.

At August 10, 2009 at 11:54 AM , Blogger Rebecca Novick said...

I want to jump in here to say:

a) Hats off to Counterpulse, our member and frequent collaborator, for their ongoing service to the community and, frankly, for their commitment to the kind of edgy sexuality that stirs up the right wing.

b) I don't agree that there is "noble and decent" art and other art that is problematic but shouldn't provoke censorship. I think the kind of work that's mentioned here can stand right next to the other examples cited. It's about diversity of expression, not about trying to evaluate whether work is either decent (huh?) or somehow important enough to justify sexual content. None of these artists should have to apologize for the work, or demonstrate that it's not actually receiving federal dollars.

c) Don't forget that the NEA under Bush had a pretty lousy track record of funding Bay Area projects with LGBT content, to the point where it began to look like a discriminatory pattern. This is another round of this kind of craziness -- not a lot of heterosexual sex on this list.

At August 10, 2009 at 9:55 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Ah, Carl, I knew you'd made the argument that government shouldn't necessarily fund art somewhere -- I sort of addressed your point in response to Rebecca's post on growing versus thriving, but to say it again: it's funny to me to think about the government only supporting art that has survived in the marketplace (i.e. made money) because I think it's very rare indeed that a blockbuster hit (especially in theatre) coincides with the work that is going to be viewed in 20-30 years as the decisive canon of the period (admittedly not the only objective of either government funding or theatre making, but I'd argue it's one of them). Supporting the arts is at least in part the government's responsibility because arts and culture are vital to a balanced and happy society. And fortunately or unfortunately, the methods of figuring out "worthiness" of art are as amorphous as the making of the art itself. There's an assumption being made by the Congressmen (and, it seems, by you) that attendance is a good barometer for worth to society both in the short and long-term -- would that it were so (and that steady attendance translated into steady income on a level that could off-set expense, which honestly is almost never the case anymore). Even Shakespeare needed a patron to make it through, and I know he's one of your favorites for arguing for popularity as success.

This, of course, sets aside all the silliness about the work being immoral. That prattle from Greta Van Sestern and the like isn't even worth a response.

At August 11, 2009 at 6:51 AM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

A follow-up -- a quote from Rachel Maddow, via You've Cott Mail this morning:

"Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war. Sometimes in elected office. And those are the ways of serving our country that I think we are trained to easily call heroic. It's also a service to your country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in the schools. A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy, without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at what they do, is a country that is not actually as great as it could be. And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country. It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness." -- MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, speaking at Jacob's Pillow

At August 14, 2009 at 2:35 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

"Ah, Carl, I knew you'd made the argument that government shouldn't necessarily fund art somewhere."

I didn't make the argument Clay, the Congressmen did. Quite frankly, I believe the level of arts education in this country is deplorable. The government should absolutely dump all kinds of money into teaching kids how to play instruments and get on stage in front of people and paint and move and sing. I see that as a pretty black and white issue.

Where I think there is definitely a gray area is when the government funds specific projects or companies, the major problem being that as more and more companies produce work which begets funding, the more those companies remove themselves from being responsible to the actual ticket buyers. The grant system consolidates the power of what gets produced into the hands of a small few as companies work towards what will get funding as opposed to what will pay off at the box office.

Rachel Maddow is right - it's the duty of a great country to help its citizens strive to create great art. All I'm saying is perhaps there is too much emphasis currently being placed on funding, and not enough being placed on ticket sales.

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