Notes & Comments September 1994
When, in our May issue, we called attention in this space to the now much-discussed Ron Athey performance in Minneapolis last March, this unlovely episode in American cultural life had not yet erupted into the national scandal it has since become. Now that it has become a public issue—and properly so, in our opinion—it is important that we understand the nature of the response that this bizarre event has met with. For in some respects, the way certain figures in public life have responded to this scandal—we particularly have in mind Jane Alexander, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington; Kathy Halbreich, the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; and Frank Rich, the Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times —is almost as appalling as Ron Athey’s ideas about art.
For latecomers to the story, suffice it to say that on March 5 the Los Angeles performance artist Ron Athey, well-known in performance-art circles for his interest in what he calls “blood sports,” was brought to Minneapolis by the Walker Art Center to stage one of his bloody rituals in a local cabaret. This involved Athey, who is H.I.V.-positive, cutting an abstract design into the flesh of another man, then having the man’s blood blotted onto paper towels; the blood-stained towels—now magically transformed into “art prints,” according to the folks at the Walker Art Center—were then attached to a clothesline and suspended over the heads of the audience in a very confined space. (Attendance was limited to one hundred persons.) The H.I.V. status of the man whose blood was shed was unknown to the audience—and, at the time of the event, was indeed unknown to the Walker curator who brought Athey to Minneapolis. (Mercifully, it turned out to be negative.) As a finale, two female assistants then pierced Athey’s arm with some thirty hypodermic needles and applied acupuncture needles to his shaved scalp, which produced more blood. Two members of the audience fainted, ten others departed while the performance was still in progress, and others were reported to be in a state of panic.
On March 24, Mary Abbe—the art critic and art-news reporter at The Minneapolis Star Tribune and herself a former press officer at the Walker Art Center—wrote an account of the event based on interviews with people who were there and with officials at the Walker. Her front-page story promptly caused an immense uproar, for it turned out that the performance had been funded, in part, by money granted to the Walker by the NEA. As a result, questions were once again raised in Congress about the NEA itself, and cuts in the agency’s budget were proposed as a means of disciplining its activities.
It was then that the top brass at the NEA and the Walker Art Center and their friends in the press went into action. What their principal response consisted of, however, was not a defense of Ron Athey’s performance, which they refused to discuss in detail lest further gruesome details be brought to light. Instead they mounted an attack on Mary Abbe.
Jane Alexander explained to members of Congress that the article in the Star Tribune had misrepresented the Athey performance —a charge she had neglected to make to the editorial board of the paper when she met with them soon after Abbe’s article was published. Kathy Halbreich and the Walker’s public-relations director, Margaret Patridge, made similar charges, but—as David Schimke wrote in a very good article in The Twin Cities Reader, a local “alternative” paper —“when asked to point to factual errors in the [Abbe] piece, neither Halbreich nor Patridge can get specific.”
In other words, both Alexander and Halbreich were quite prepared to savage Abbe’s professional reputation in an effort to save their respective institutions from the political fallout of their own follies, while neither proved willing to go into detail about the Athey performance itself. As Schimke wrote in his Twin Cities Reader article in July: “You can talk for hours with Halbreich and still not come away with an honest artistic appraisal of his work.”
Meanwhile, Frank Rich joined in this contemptible attempt to malign the reputation of a liberal journalist who, as it happens, had a record of defending the NEA in the past. He wrote two separate pieces for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times attacking the accuracy of Abbe’s work and adding charges of “homophobia” to the indictment.
This, of course, is the way the NEA, its beneficiaries, and its friends in the press have long responded to outrages committed in the name of public funding of the arts—by a combination of denial and counter-attack and a complete refusal to be accountable to the public which provides the agency with its funds. In the case of the Ron Athey uproar, moreover, this refusal of accountability involved a public-health issue. While Alexander and Halbreich and Rich refused to acknowledge that the Athey performance had ever posed a public-health problem, David Schimke went to the trouble of checking with the Minnesota Department of Health, whose public-information officer told him “the department never would have sanctioned the event” if it had been informed about it in advance, which it wasn’t.
While the sheer loathsomeness of the Ron Athey performance is reason enough for the NEA to refuse its support of such things, the manner in which the current chairman of the NEA chose to deal with the matter is in some respects even more despicable than the performance itself. And that both a reputable museum director and a senior journalist for The New York Times would join in this attempt to suppress the truth about this loathsome event is a measure of the level to which the whole discussion of public funding of the arts has now descended.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 1, on page 1
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