The Culture Wars in America began on May 18, 1989, according to a new show entitled “THE AЯTS” that launches the new season at La MaMa, when Senator Al D’Amato of New York ripped up an art gallery catalogue on the floor of the Senate, and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina called artists jerks.
They were attacking individuals such as performance artists Karen Finley and David Wojnarowicz, and photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, because the National Endowment for the Arts had funded their provocative work.
“Something happened to us after that,” says Kevin Doyle. “We’ve forgotten the bold, beautiful arguments that created the NEA and the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] in the first place.”
Doyle is the playwright and director of “THE AЯTS,” a theatrical documentary collage that makes the case for public funding for the arts by looking at its history and the lasting effects of the attacks. The “R” in the title is backwards, Doyle says, “because we’re talking about the precarious position artists are in, and how we got here.”
The Brooklyn-born playwright and director came up with the idea for “THE AЯTS” nine years ago when he couldn’t get funding to mount in New York a previous work of his, “W.M.D. (just the low points)” — but got enthusiastic backing in Europe for it, with public funding from a number of countries. On the last leg of a tour through the Netherlands and Belgium, “I was expressing my admiration and gratitude, when Marianne Van Kerkhoven, a well-known Belgian dramaturg told me ‘I’m very worried about the future. I don’t think the younger generation knows how much we had to fight for the funding.’ This rocked my world. If they can fight for this, why can’t we?”
Doyle has spent the last seven years doing research. He read through a stack four feet high of hearing transcripts (“with really tiny print”) that he retrieved from the Congressional Archives – “I read the stuff out loud to try to find nuggets” – and interviewed artists and everyday citizens and former NEA chairman John Frohnmayer. “Visiting him was one of the saddest experiences. He saw it coming in 1992. He saw the attack on artists as the first salvo from the Republicans to unravel our social contact – to attack and destroy organized labor, funding of education, health care.” Doyle worked with a cast of five from Sponsored By Nobody, the cheekily-named theater company that Doyle founded in 2004.
Using a combination of performed transcripts, live and historical video, filmed interviews, movement, music and improv, “THE AЯTS” is divided into three parts.
Part One is set on October 28, 1963, and condenses transcripts from the two years of Congressional hearings that resulted in the legislation to create the federal arts agencies. One senator testified to the “burgeoning” public interest in the arts: “It springs from increased leisure, better education, and a more secure, rewarding old age.” Both Charlton Heston and Lillian Gish testified, introduced by a gushing Senator from Montana (“I have many times passed up a hamburger or a bowl of chili or an Irish stew to spend my last quarter to see Ms. Gish perform, and I have never regretted the expenditure.”) Committee chairman Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI), made a Constitutional argument: “We believe the funding of the arts falls under the General Welfare clause of the Constitution.”
In all the testimony over the two years, “I can’t remember anything about economic impact,” Doyle says. Now arts advocates rely heavily on the economic argument, which makes the playwright shudder: “Would you use an economic argument in defense of voting rights or marriage rights?”
Part Two of “THE AЯTS” is set on May 18, 1989, the day of the D’Amato/Helms attack, and condenses the debate over public funding for the arts over the following five years.
“When Republicans took over Congress in 1994,” Doyle says, “the first thing they do is cut the NEA budget in half; they eliminated direct funding to artists. We’ve never recovered from that. That’s never been restored,” Doyle says. Though the cast uses some of the historical comments verbatim, the staging is looser and more improvisational.
“The work we do as a company is very lyrical; it’s rhythm-based,” says Mike Carlsen, the co-director of “THE AЯTS” and an original member of Sponsored By Nobody, who is now best known as the construction worker character Mikey on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “We create a tone and a momentum through a repetition of the language in the piece.”
Part Three presents the current-day stresses and struggles for artists and art-lovers alike, including artists involved in the show. Doyle knows this first-hand: Many of the original members of Sponsored By Nobody have quit acting. “They cannot afford it— which is what actors testified in 1963.” Doyle himself pays his rent mostly by doing theater in Europe, and by applying for grants
With this show, Doyle and company say they are trying to “re-inject in the public discourse the original ideas about public funding – and the vocabulary that was used, because we really need them now. The government does have a role to play in creating conditions that nurture great artists, and great art. Some art cannot compete with the mass market. If it’s not funded, it will disappear.”
But instead of trying to launch a counterattack, Doyle says, arts advocates today focus on “‘exploring new models.’ Kickstarter is no replacement for public funding. There are no guarantees a campaign will be successful, except for the for-profit companies Kickstarter and Amazon.
“I look at arts funding as a table with four legs – funding by the federal government, by the state and city, corporate funds, and private donations. In the cultural wars, the Republicans were kicking out one leg of that table – the federal funding. Once they kicked out that leg, you saw corporations pull back, and states cut back. A table cannot stand on one leg. We need to fight back.”