It all happened 22 years ago, but people are still buzzing about the notorious case of the “NEA 4.”
To be more precise: Due to pressure in 1990 from Jesse Helms, Dana Rohrabacher and the religious right, grants already given to Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) were revoked. The alleged reason was “indecent content.”
The media blitz went viral. What followed the contentious verdict had the opposite effect of what was intended. Freedom of artistic expression has been on the rise ever since, and the NEA 4 have become celebrities.
Which brings us to “The B-Word Project” (“B-Word” meaning “Banned, Blacklisted and Boycotted”). Two years in the making, this CSULB campus-wide initiative on “Censorship and the Response to It” was coordinated by the Carpenter Center under the sure hand of director Michele Roberge.
Last weekend, the project outdid itself. For the first time since the 1990 brouhaha, the NEA 4 performed on the same stage within 48 hours. We didn’t see Hughes and Miller on Thursday, but judging from the audience response to John Fleck and Karen Finley on Friday, they, too, must have been dynamite.
Fleck presented a new routine called “Mad Women.” Based on his interpretations of Judy Garland, performing while “under the influence” of anything you can think of; and his own sweet mother, Josephine, who slowly disappeared from reality due to Alzheimer’s disease, “Mad Women” was a high-speed, roller-coaster ride backed by real video scenes of his family throughout his lifetime.
Fleck entered the spotlight twirling like a whirling dervish, gave a lovely toast to the Carpenter Center; then started his riff on Judy Garland who spent her life in search of happiness “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”Then the tale of his own sad story begins — complete with an abusive, alcoholic father who hated him for being a “fag” and a mother who was hospitalized and slowly diminished. Fleck not only survived, but became secure enough (thanks to his acting career), to give the powerful performance that he gave last Friday.
Karen Finley’s piece, “Catch 23: Broken Negative,” is a work in progress that revisits her earlier work — the one that caused all the hoopla when she smeared her nude body with chocolate.
Everything begins with Paul Nebenzahl at the piano playing a jazzed-up version of “My Funny Valentine.” Fleck rushed in (an impromptu appearance?) to sing the lyrics as a tribute to Karen before she began her performance.
Finley, who is currently a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, started by connecting the dots between the sanity/insanity of war/peace, life/death and what’s going on in the world. By using Heller’s novel, “Catch 22,” as an example, she compares life today with the insanity that surrounded the world during World War II. Then smearing her nude body with chocolate (which represents excrement), and covering it with artificial candy hearts and colorful sprinkles, Finley told us about the St. Valentine Day Massacre in Chicago, which was another Catch 22. Footage of the massacre filled the stage as Nebenzahl played a haunting version of “My Funny Valentine.”
Then Finley moved on to Chicago race riots in 1919, Al Capone in Las Vegas, the atomic bomb in Japan and dead American soldiers in Afghanistan. “Catch 22” is now “Catch 23.”
We’re still trapped in an insane world that holds us captive.