The art world was rocking in protest last week in the continuing controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts' refusal to fund two university exhibits selected by NEA advisory panels.
Rock musicians came to the aid of MIT, a prominent national author refused a presidential medal for the arts, and a second panel of artistic judges quit in protest.
Aerosmith, the Boston band, donated $10,000 to MIT's List Visual Arts Center to replace the funds for the "Corporal Politics" exhibit in December, which were denied by the acting chairman of the NEA, Anne-Imelda Radice.
Band members Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton visited the List Center and held a series of media interviews in the Bakalar Sculpture Gallery. In a statement, the band said, "The point is, you can't restrict the vision of artists and you can't draw borders around freedom of expression, whether that's being communicated through words, visual images or however artists choose to express themselves. We're angered to see artistic and personal freedoms erode."
Helaine Posner, curator of the exhibit at MIT, said, "We're absolutely delighted that Aerosmith have come forward and we deeply appreciate their generosity. From this money we'll be able to create a substantial catalog documenting the exhibit so it has lasting importance, and we'll be able to set up educational programs around the exhibit, such as lectures by its artists." The exhibits at the Massachusetts and Virginia galleries include images of body parts, including genitals, to represent the fragmentation and alienation of individuals in society, according to the curators.
The Boston Herald published a cartoon of an art exhibit of portraits of "American Heroes of Free Speech" showing Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The gallery visitor's eyes bug out at the fourth portrait, Aerosmith, with a facsimile of their $10,000 check to "MIT Arts."
MIT President Charles M. Vest issued a statement at the MIT faculty meeting regarding the decision by the acting chair of the NEA to reject the decisions of two merit review panels to fund the exhibit at the university art gallery.
Dr. Vest said: "The free investigation of ideas, coupled with merit review by panels of experts, are essential for maintaining the intellectual and artistic quality and integrity of work supported by agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts.
"The letter we received from the NEA gave no explanation for the decision not to fund the proposed List Center exhibition, `Corporal Politics,'which had been fully approved by the NEA's review panels.
"This apparently arbitrary action is yet another troubling breakdown of a system of merit-based decision-making within federal funding agencies and the Congress. The system of merit-based review and decision-making has served the academic and artistic worlds well for several decades and must be restored."
In another protest, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner refused a presidential/NEA National Medal for the Arts, saying that he is "troubled by the political controls placed upon the agency." Stegner added, "The precedent of censorship is demoralizing." Two weeks earlier, before the NEA decision against the art exhibits at MIT and the Virginia Commonwealth University, composer Stephen Sondheim turned down the National Medal for the Arts, saying the NEA has become "a symbol of censorhip and repression rather than encouragement and support."
At the NEA offices in Washington, Acting Chairman Radice met with a panel judging applications for $210,000 of grants for solo performance theatrical artists. The nine members then wrote a letter, asking her to reinstate the awards to the two university galleries and requested that she confirm that their recommendations would not be rejected "without sufficient written artistic justification." The requests were denied and the panel walked out. The NEA then announced that every-other-year grants to solo performance artists would not be made this year.
Meanwhile, the first panel to protest the NEA decision released a letter to Chairman Radice. "Your action not only subverts the peer-review process, which is at the core of the Endowment's operating procedures, but also goes against the founding principles of the agency when it was authorized by Congress in 1965-namely 'to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry, but also the material conditions for facilitating the release of this creative talent.'
"The two proposals in question, 'Corporal Politics' at MIT and 'Anonymity and Identity' at Virginia Commonwealth University, focus on an important widespread topic within contemporary art and criticism: the representation of the human body. We reviewed several proposals that addressed this topic, but these two seemed most cogent in conception and of the highest quality in terms of the works represented.
"Obviously, given recent controversies, we were sensitive to the ramifications of these proposals on the Endowment; however, we followed the review criteria we were given, clearly spelled out in the NEA Programs Guidelines, which asked us to judge all proposals on the basis of their artistic quality, not their subject matter or ideology. Both proposals met this qualification in our collective opinion. We also discussed the appropriateness of the shows for their intended audiences; again, we felt that these university galleries serve mature and informed audiences in challenging ways.
"The suggestion in your press release of May 12 that you are 'joined in this judgment on both applications by a number of peer panelists' is misleading and inaccurate. While some of us expressed reservations about the scope of the exhibition and their possible overlaps, among other topics of discussion, none of us felt then or feels now that the subject matter of the shows should in itself preclude Endowment support."
The letter, signed by Andy Grundberg of San Francisco and the nine other members of the special exhibitions panel, said, "the fairness of the process is based on a faith in the collective judgment of the panel formed during its week of deliberations. You have not only abrogated this process but also created the unfortunate impression that panelists' comments and votes can be taken out of context and used to torpedo grants.
"Had you simply said what you told the Congressional subcommittee two weeks earlier, that you would veto sexually explicit art, then your actions, although regrettable, would be more understandable. However, by giving the false impression that these exhibitions did not meet our panel's standard of artistic quality, your actions can only serve to polarize public opinion and unfairly damage the credibility of the peer review process."
The panel's letter concluded, "We do not believe you or anyone else can ensure the Endowment's future by sacrificing its basic mission. That mission includes the following clear and overriding statement: 'It [the Endowment] must not, under any circumstances, impose a single aesthetic standard or attempt to direct artistic content.' We believe you have violated this essential prohibition by singling out these two exhibition proposals solely on the basis of their subject matter."
A version of this article appeared in the May 27, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 32).