SEPTEMBER 26, 2019
Banner and featured image: Agenda of a Landscape by Leah Gilliam, 2002. Image courtesy the artist.
WHETHER OR NOT Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrates its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introductory essay to the series, which reflects on Senator Jesse Helms’s campaign against the National Endowment of the Arts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its formative impact on her writing and thinking, and on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. Together, these essays reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
The long crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts, led by Senator Jesse Helms, served as a thrilling introduction to contemporary art for me as a teen. The government-subsidized, urine-submerged crucifix of Andres Serrano’s 1987 photo Piss Christ, that numinous amber emblem of the culture wars, was an awe-inspiring provocation. Robert Mapplethorpe’s austere, sexually explicit oeuvre — which came to my attention in 1989, when museum funding for his posthumous retrospective was damned by conservative groups — was conceptually opaque to me but represented a world and a language I was certain I would eventually understand; and in 1990, the year performance artist Karen Finley’s NEA grant was rescinded under the agency’s “decency clause,” Finley’s book Shock Treatment became my pre-art school, proto–riot grrrl bible. Its uninhibited feminist bile and sorrow is enmeshed with my memories of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991.
I’ll extend my personal timeline just a little further to say that in the mid-1990s, when the agency stopped funding individual artists in response to relentless congressional threats, I was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York, pursuing a BFA in painting. And when, in 1999, Creative Capital announced its arrival as a new fund, which would award grants of $5,000–$20,000 to individual artists, beginning in the new millennium, I was the curatorial assistant at the downtown, nonprofit gallery Thread Waxing Space. The advent of something new for which to apply was a big deal, or so it seemed to me, since I spent a good part of my day — while stuffing envelopes or whatever — gossiping with artists who made unrepentantly unmarketable work (experimental films, installations, internet art, and dances), or who were themselves regarded as unmarketable in a deeply fucked-up art world.
In fact, Leah Gilliam, one of Creative Capital’s first awardees, exhibited at Thread Waxing Space that year. Apeshit v3, installed in our project room, was a little forest of obsolete Macs from the 1980s, mounted on poles in fragrant potting soil (I think), grimacing at viewers with their floppy disk slots. Pixelated, solarized ape heads filled their screens — digitally manipulated footage from a 1973 trailer for Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Pivoting off the film’s status as racial allegory and the pathos of the worthless computers, Gilliam’s piece (according to her Video Data Bank catalog entry for the related single-channel work) asked, “Is there a relationship between these forgotten formats and the discontinued political ideologies that they depict?” (The answer was yes.) I remember the artist whispering to me in the gallery, maybe during an evening event, that she had received a Creative Capital grant for her next project, a website about Mars.
The press coverage of the inaugural grant cycle suggested that the changing role of the NEA and the decrease in federal arts funding is one motivation for Creative Capital’s inception, but the fund’s purpose was not to champion “indecent” art per se. Executive director Ruby Lerner told The New York Times, after the first awardees were announced in 2000, that members of the review panels were not given instructions in this regard. “We never said we would fund only controversial projects; we said we wouldn’t shy away from them.” Indeed, looking at that first round of winning artist proposals the picture of need that emerges seems not to be a symptom of the culture war’s fallout so much as the sum of older, less sensational, structural obstacles.
Filmmaker Ela Troyano, who received funding for her documentary film La Lupe Queen of Latin Soul, in her response to two of the application’s questions — “Who would be the ideal audience for your work? What are your thoughts on how you might develop such an audience?” — is confidently blunt in her rejection of the queries’ premise: “My work has an audience.” Capitalism’s logic would have money follow success, or it would have money measure success, but art often uncleaves the two. In Troyano’s not-unusual case, though, her work thus far had not only earned success (an audience), it had also earned money — for other people. Her problem in securing funding was that, she writes, “I do not fit the typical indie filmmaker profile.” While she doesn’t elaborate, I suspect she means she doesn’t fit because she’s a Latinx woman, her subject matter is frequently queer, and her artistic bent and strain of Caribbean humor is not easily categorized. Everything for which her audience undoubtedly adored her also worked against her.
At that time, however, there was a tentative optimism in the air that this need not be so. Creative Capital’s impulse to recast arts philanthropy as venture capitalism (albeit a patient and forgiving strain of it) was implicitly tied to the radical, democratizing promises of the internet — its potential for the free, DIY, networked distribution of artworks; its opportunities for gender- and color-blind interaction (lol); its infinite capacity for niche marketing — as well as the seductive techno-progressivism of startup culture. The organization was innovative in its aim to pair funding with professional support so that artists might develop financially sustainable, self-sufficient careers in the online era, and it was unique in hoping for a return on its investment (not to its donors but back to the fund). Certainly some staff, funders, awardees, and onlookers saw something of a contradiction in expecting to receive a share of proceeds from experimental, uncommercial work (and a contractual requirement never materialized), but I can see, from the perspective of post-NEA fin-de-siècle futurism, why it seemed worth a shot.
Web-based, new media works like Gilliam’s — or Maya Churi’s interactive narrative Letters from Homeroom, Alison Cornyn and Sue Johnson’s 360degrees.org, and Betty Beaumont’s cyber companion to her groundbreaking underwater, environmental sculpture Ocean Landmark — would never be supported by the existing gallery system, nor could they expect to be presented in traditional institutional settings, and so, it seemed, a new market must be on the horizon. This kind of thing was easy to believe during the dot-com bubble I guess, which burst right around the time these artists received their Creative Capital checks.
Oddly perhaps, of the projects funded in 2000, the one that speaks most to me of the so-called digital gold rush of the late 1990s, is Zoe Leonard’s Analogue series (412 square-format photographs which span 1998 to 2009). Leonard’s grids of unpeopled images — most famously of weathered Lower East Side storefronts, their gates pulled down, emblazoned with the idiosyncratic signage of small family businesses and neighborhood fixtures — index a disappearing landscape. They are the elegiac “before” shots documenting the stunning gentrification of the city that accelerated around the millennium’s start. Beyond, or beneath, the traditional biases and market caprice working against this first crop of awardees were tremendous economic forces. The “boom,” with its influx of ebullience and cash, pushed up rents on quickly remodeled railroad apartments in tenement buildings, and filled the lofts of SoHo and DUMBO with open-plan office spaces.
The New York Times, in the aforementioned article, states that of the 75 artists selected for grants in 2000 (40 of whom were based in New York), “several deal with homosexuality or race, but only a few seem to have much potential to stir controversy.” The slightly disappointed writer, scanning the winning proposals for a new Piss Christ and finding nothing to match its iconoclastic concision, seems oblivious to a fundamental characteristic of right-wing cultural warfare — that is, that the decontextualization and demonization of artworks, deployed to shore up division and resentment, is cynically arbitrary. Evangelical Republicanism finds sacrilege, pornography, and un-American sentiment when and where it needs to. The work of groundbreaking lesbian experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who also won a grant that year, or of African-American dancer-choreographer Ralph Lemon, who was funded for his germinal collaborative and cross-cultural Geography Trilogy, could also have stoked the moral outrage of Jesse Helms.
Now, Trump’s continual threats to eradicate the NEA are throwback gestures, nostalgic salutes to his white-supremacist forebears, less effective and immediate than his signature strategies to inflame and distract his supporters — through xenophobic policies and blatantly racist tweets, for example. His propagandistic use of Twitter — and its context, the anti-democratic, data mining, conflict-profiteering business model of social media monopolies — is a nightmare made more torturous by the dream, embraced at one point by a lot of us, to varying degrees. In 2000, it was plausible to envision the internet as a new commons, with easy access points and friendly platforms, tended to by citizens as well as the pioneers of tech. While I don’t think my anticapitalist milieu would have ever earnestly embraced venture capital as a form of support unbeholden to the state, Creative Capital’s relationship to that heady culture has long functioned less as a model for funding than a metaphor for active partnership. Perhaps applicants saw the organization’s use of investment terminology as an attempt to counter the historical infantilizing of artists, an experiment in fostering creative resilience and community under a new technological regime.
While my teenage, romantic vision of artists — as glamorous soldiers on the frontlines against the racist, sexist, sexually harassing, homophobic, AIDS-hysteric agenda of the religious right — was shaped, in large part, for better or worse, by disingenuous Republican stagecraft; and my understanding of the NEA, of arts funding, of how artists made money, was distorted by news-media narratives that took the Helmsian bait, making “controversial” work the sole focus of such culturally consequential questions; I can’t say adulthood has brought complete clarity. New factors — such as the fresh dilemmas posed by toxic philanthropy in the context of political cataclysm — have thrust artists once again onto the battleground of a culture war, whether they like it or not. The impressive roster of Creative Capital awardees in the fund’s 20th year reflects a long commitment to not abandoning them there.