Mixing Art and Life: The Conundrum of the Avant-Garde's Autonomous Status in the Performance Art World

of Los Angeles Author(s): Jacqualine Pagani Source: The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 175-203 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the Midwest Sociological Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4120746 . Accessed: 17/05/2011 14:54
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MIXING ARTAND LIFE: TheConundrum the Avant-Garde's AutonomousStatus of in the Performance Worldof LosAngeles Art
Jacqualine Pagani

of University SouthernIndiana
art Performance the quintessential art, avant-garde form, flourishedand gained cennationalrenownin Los Angelesduring last threedecadesof the twentieth the art withinthe performance world tury.In 1989,however, pivotalchangesoccurred Endowandin the national in attitude toward as seen in upheavals the National art, ment for the Arts,that drastically alterednot only the formand contentof perforavantmanceart but also its meansof production its statusas an autonomous and art of artworld. historical An of the transformation thisperformance garde analysis
world from the mid-1970sto its manifestation in the 1990s is presented by analyzing ethnographicand archivaldata and by noting the circumstancesaffecting the auton-

socialandcultural to omyof thisartworldandits relationship external spheres.
Minerva'sowl only begins its flight as dusk emerges. G. W. E Hegel, Philosophy of Law

G. W. E Hegel's comment about Minerva'sowl refers to a requisite condition for the historical analysis of a period:that it must be drawingto a close. Karl Marx,too, claimed that the perception or validity of any category and its social function is developed through historical analysis, particularly at times of radical separation from preceding epochs (Schulte-Sasse [1984] 1996). As the decade of the 1990s came to an end, so too did a once-vital art scene and community of performanceartists in Los Angeles that had gained national renown and been the focus of incredible public fervor for a few years.In the last decade of the twentieth century,performance art abandoned its status as the quintessential avant-gardeart medium in yet another attempt by an art world to efface the categorical boundaries separating"art"from the praxis of everyday life. In the process, however, performance art became stagnant and institutionalized and dissolved its autonomous status as an art world-a status determined by the social relations, activities, and intentions within a community of artists,by how they are regarded by external social worlds,and by the relationship between the two social spheres. In this article two distinct periods of performanceart in Los Angeles are analyzed by showing shifts in the conception and practice of autonomy by the artists as they
Direct all correspondenceto JacqualinePagani,Dept. of Sociology,Univ.of SouthernIndiana.8600 University Blvd, Evansville, IN 47712-3596;e-mail:jpagani@usi.edu The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 42, Number 2, pages 175-203. Copyright ? 2001 by The Midwest Sociological Society. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223. ISSN: 0038-0253



responded to macrolevel forces, particularly to the cultural, political, and economic forces associated with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). I use Peter Btirger's ([1984] 1996) concept of autonomy for avant-garde art worlds as a point of departure. As he applies it to the avant-gardethrough the mid-twentieth century,the concept has two basic components: how the avant-gardeis linked to art institutions that have been separated from the praxis of, or are autonomous in, bourgeois society and how this status mediates and affects the public's response to avant-gardework. Btirger pessimistically assumes that the avant-garde'sintent to reintegrate art into life praxis is impossible unless it overcomes its autonomous status (Schulte-Sasse [1984] 1996).The recent eras of Los Angeles performance art illustrate that his view was justified in one period and that, in the other, the artists believed they had overcome the challenge of autonomy faced by their predecessors. In both cases, the processes of art mediation changed in ways unforeseen by Btirger. Because the focus on this art world's autonomous status is primarilyrelated to a governmentagency,or publicfundingagency,these cases also illustratesome of the difficulties and unexpected outcomes associated with state cultural policy making. Furthermore, they show an ongoing variation in approaches to the enduring issues of cultural policy making,such as defining what art is or deciding whose culture gets recognition and support, who is in a position to decide such matters,and whose interests are being served (e.g., Williams 1977; Mulcahy 1985; Dubin 1986; Clifford 1988; Calhoun 1989; Cummings 1991;Buchwalter 1992;Crane 1992;DiMaggio 1992;Gilmore 1993;Levine 1993; McGuigan 1996), or evaluating how cultural policy-makingis influenced or constrained by political and economic forces (e.g., Balfe and Wyszomirski 1985; Benedict 1991; DiMaggio 1991;Cunningham1992;Balfe 1993;McGuigan 1996). In general, both periods demonstrate that a top-down, cause-and-effect scenario of a government agency's actions dictating or predicting an outcome in an art world can be complicated by the decisions and actions of the artists.Also, from the perspective of the artists,during the first period discussed (1970s-1980s), the conditions permitted under the NEA were favorable for fringe art production and for the artists,who advocated diversity in aesthetics, and democracy and culturalpluralismin their social relations.In the 1990s,when the agency came under conservative scrutiny,the emphasis in art making shifted from the artists themselves to a focus on social service and audience expectations based on ethnic, racial,lifestyle, or gender affiliations. Finally, related to the conundrum faced by avant-garde and other fringe artists of making their work socially relevant while retaining conditions conducive to art production and legitimacy as an art world are questions posed by Carol Becker (1994, p. xv), who asks:"What is the responsibility of the artist to society? What is the responsibility of the society to the artist? ... What is the role of artists within democratic societies?" In general, in the 1990s the first and last question permeated funding issues, and agencies then expected specific,community-service-orientedresponses.The type of performance art that came to dominate at that time was geared toward meeting the service mandates. Hence, if artists met their civic obligations, they could expect support. In the earlier period, artists were more likely to respond to the first and third questions with less practical and more idealistic answers focused on esoteric issues of society's need to be challenged through art and, as one performance artist states, "to create art that does not serve democracy or government or to advance any social/political causes embraced by its members other than the artist him/herself and thereby demonstrate the true freedom

favoring autobiographicalcontent with solipsistic themes. however.the art media they favor.a minority have been active only since 1989-1990. and how actively they sought resources for creating and disseminating their works.whereas the earlier generation often worked in a network of alternative theaters and in an active home-based scene including lofts. In the course of two intensive periods of data collection-the latter half of 1993 and from January1996 to May 1997-a definable split within the art world became obvious. performance artists struggled with issues of autonomy. Following the methods section. aesthetics. and perceptions and practices regardingsocial relations. showing how external forces and internal decisions affect autonomy and.and magazines. warehouses. The artists whose careers began prior to 1989 vary greatly in their art background and training.The artists' age range varies widely in both groups. Data for this project also come from thirty-five semistructuredinterviews and ongoing informal conversations with performance art world participants.MixingArtand Life 177 the artist enjoys in the democratic society. METHOD My investigation into the performance art world began with a general inquiry into what elements influence artists'aesthetic or artistic decisions and.The two factions are chronologically distinguished between artists who actively participated in performance art in Los Angeles sometime during the two decades prior to 1990. and artists whose works have been deemed valid since then. their thematic material. For the post-1989 generation of artists whose work conforms to the 1990s agenda. which included making viable art meeting either their or someone else's expectations. and nontheatrical settings. In both periods. and mostly solo performances. consequently.so they might freely challenge societal perspectives. what qualities determine "good" or "bad"performance art. agencies and artists assumed that artists deserved support without social or political strings attached. by macrolevel forces. their degree of collaboration. I present a discussion of the basic issues of autonomy and then a history of the two periods of performance art.1 from numerous published interviews in journals. hence.and from participantobservation through volunteer work for performances.Among the participants who have been involved in both periods are those whose careers faired well during the earlier decades and who then had to change artistic careers given the praxis of performance art in the 1990s. even as the very praxis of autonomy was reconfigured.in part. then. their aesthetic choices are more uniform:usually text-laden. The more recent generation has also been highly dependent on a touring circuit of colleges and universitiesfor furtheringtheir careers. Two venues dominate and embody the praxis of the performance art world for each period-Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) for the 1970s and 1980s and Highways at the 18th Street Art Complex in Santa Monica for the 1990sand are key focal points for evaluating the transformationof this art world.Both venues were forthcoming in giving me access to their archives and the opportunity to interact with their staff. The majorityof the participantsincluded in this study have experience that spans the two periods." In this case. support systems. Among those who still had access to resources in the latter period are those who were displeased with the system of validation among critics in the press media and in art policies covering grants. but most of them got involved in performance art while in . even if the system worked to their benefit. theatrical in style.newspapers.

Carlson 1996).it goes far toward explaining the practices of the first decades of this study and in illustratingthe aesthetic and functional variations in performanceart in the 1990s. AUTONOMY:THECONUNDRUM OF THEAVANT-GARDE My intent in this section is to recall a few salient points that will acquaint the noninitiate to this art category. According to Diane Crane (1987. sculpture. music. which exists primarily on the fringes of mainstream art worlds or major performing venues and large institutions of art and is currently enjoying little popular attention.especially in opposition to logical and discursive thought and speech. 14). p. especially after 1990.gender. in this sample. 2/2001 their late teens through early thirties and. SOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY 42/No. poetry) might add a performative element-dance. The major foundations for the performance work in New York and California in the 1970s. The term "performance art" came into popular use in the 1970s.Stern and Henderson 1993. and lifestyles of the participants vary widely in both groups.. 15). For example. and in seeking the celebration of form and process over content and product . fifties. artists of static art (painting. parades. and stand-up comedy (Carlson 1996).its history has been expanded to include a Euroamericanfocus on the visual and aural impact of many types of performance-for example. and sixties. music.Goldberg 1988). The history of the avant-gardeis one of revolt and experimentation primarilyin the various theater art traditions. but out of new approaches to visual arts (such as environments. an avant-garde art movement is classified as such by art world participantsif it redefines at least one aspect or makes changes in (1) the aesthetic content of art. To accommodate aesthetic choices characteristicof performance art of the 1990s. cabaret. dada. pp. and to dance. although participants report that peer support of artists from marginalizedgroups was germane to the spirit of performance art from its early days in Los Angeles. I do not intend to present a detailed history of the avant-garde and performance art.the aleatory works of musicianJohn Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham. and Happenings. human or animal bodies-to . or (3) the means of production and distribution of art.100-101) performance art of this decade resembled its futurist and dadaist predecessors through its interest in "developing the expressive qualities of the body.however. surrealism.2 Prior to the 1990s.among others (Crane 1987. (2) the social content of art. Although a history of performance art traced through its avant-garde connections may not fully explain all performance art.According to Marvin Carlson (1996. The ethnicity.juggling. tumbling.Futurists and their generations of followers wrote manifestos describingtheir objections to various practices and ideas found in mainstreamart institutions and pushed the aesthetic limits of the established order (Crane 1987.Goldberg 1988.178 THE Vol. mime. She further states that art movements that redefine aesthetic content are more likely to be labeled avant-garde than movements dealing primarilywith social content and means of production (p. many have remained artistically active into their forties."Performance art evolved as artists challenged traditional categories of art media by combining media or dissolving media boundaries in novel ways. performance art traced its history through the avant-gardeart movement that began in 1909 with a group of artists called the futurists in Europe and that later included the experimental theater of the Russian Revolution. Such social classification emphases were stressed and recorded to a greater degree in the later period.live and conceptual art). happenings. came primarilynot out of experimental theatre work..

an institution functioning autonomously from economic and political characterof the bourgeoisie. Not only do leaders of mainstreampolitical or cultural institutions occasionally question art's autonomy. art was released from its rational and purposeful functions as employed by churches and the aristocracy. 24): the Autonomous only establishes art itself as bourgeois societydevelops.This critical character of avant-garde art is often regarded by art world participantsand by those peripherally involved as its most crucial feature because its use value is a means for critiquingthe status quo. they They to of throughthe imagination. under bourgeois patronage.pp. With the emergence of the industrialage and the rise of bourgeois society. art as an institution has been tacitly released from demands that it be socially useful..couldbe changed-both artandeducation on theseprerest ferent. Using a distinction devised by Simon Frith and Jon Savage (1993. the autonomous status of art also freed it from obligations to be self-sustaining and functionally justified in a free market economy (McGuigan 1996.For the most part. 24-25). until the 1970s. but the art usually focuses on cultural or political attitudes and practices either within the institution of art or in larger culturaland political arenas. art has been bestowed the status of separateness from the praxis of everyday life (Btirger [1984] 1996. economic and politicalsystemsbecomedetachedfromthe cultural one. too. art has been construed as a subsystem. doubtourcommon sense.which they describe in the following: Fromthe dissatisfaction has always to be thatlife couldbe difpositionthe argument couldbe better. to aremeantto makeus see thingsdifferently. 25). pp. p. Not unlike avant-garde artists in each of the movements of the twentieth century.p. To this I add that.p. performance artists function in a social network that is marginal to mainstream art worlds-at least at the onset of a movementbefore it is co-opted by largerart institutionsand their works almost always contains an element of criticism reflecting the current movement's antiestablishmentor antitraditionalattitudes. Performance art became a convenient term for classifying the unclassifiable melange or for unusual works executed as a performance. but artists. The autonomous status of art is not stable nor is its development linear. Biurger([1984] 1996) uses Marxist concepts to explain the discontent that motivates the avant-garde. avant-garde art has a role in the culture of dissatisfaction.The object of criticismvaries during different eras.the limitations our perspectives.g. aredesigned showus mises. struggle with . He further suggests that there is an inherent tension between the content or meaning of individual works and the bourgeoisbestowed autonomous status of art.This concept is succinctly stated by JtirgenHabermas (quoted in Btirger [1984] 1996. rather than simply as an exhibit. 51-73). fascists regimes) and when they deem artists as threats to the moral or legal fabric of society. In other words. and the traditionalist worldpictures whichhavebeen undermined the basisideologyof fair exchange by releasethe artsfromtheirritualuse. Btirger explains that when leaders of society co-opt art for political purposes (e. Performance art eventually came into its own as a quintessential avant-gardeart form.MixingArtand Life 179 enhance the work. 115).art loses it autonomy (Btirger [1984] 1996. throughreason.

joy.180 Vol. One example is the work of Marcel Duchamp.such as a urinal. So the avantgarde challenged the institution of art as an established subsystem of bourgeois society and as an instrumentof the society's disillusions of civilized perfection. for example. 50) refers to Herbert Marcuse'sidea that values such as humanity. 2/2001 being relegated to a sphere of production that is regarded as useless or lacking in cultural value beyond art world dialectics. 57) states.the institution of art had so fully accepted its autonomous status in bourgeois society that the art movement of aestheticism dominated. Btirger claims that the avant-gardewas immediately successful in raising general consciousness of art as an institution and of the inefficacy of individuals' works in that situation. THESOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY 42/No. because the significance of the meaning is minimized. p. Art. 49). art as an institutioncontinues to survive as something separate from the praxis of life. who challenged the status of artistic"works"by exhibiting ready made objects. set the stage for rebellion by the avant-gardistsof the twentieth century. the desire of the avant-gardewas not about achieving a freedom to make works with socially relevant content but to alter the status of the institution that did much in establishing the relevancy or irrelevancy of art. which also questions where value is placed:Is the value in the immanent quality of the object or in the artist'ssignature?Is it valued as art because it is exhibited in a museum or are all urinals inherently art? The earliest avant-garde failed in its fundamental intention to change the autonomous status of art. then. p. From the onset of the avant-garde's efforts in challenging art's autonomous status. the artists were facing a couple of dilemmas of which they may not have been fully cog- . as an institution.As Btirger ([1984] 1996. and solidarity have been extracted from bourgeois society and preserved in art. among others. and then signing "R.3 The initial efforts of the avant-gardewere not so much to dissolve their autonomous status by integrating the institution of art into bourgeois society. Art is then used by bourgeois society to project a better image of the order of things than actually exists. This condition. an artist or a group of artists does work with a political or social critique in an environment external to the praxis of everyday life. their work may be ineffectual. Mutt" to the object.The avant-garde probed the given assumptions of the institution of art and created provocative works to illuminate and question the praxes.That is.4To illustrate this intention. Btirger ([1984] 1996. and art has not been integrated into the praxisof life. truth. and the institution of art and the meaning in individuals' works merged to support its separateness and ineffectualness in other arenas of society (Btirger [1984] 1996.but to establish the institution of art as its own praxis and to integrate the praxis of art into everyday life and to challenge the praxis of bourgeois society (Biirger [1984] 1996.Consequently. even if the values are absent from quotidian life. the focus of the art was on the medium itself.p. By the end of the nineteenth century. which they viewed as having "bad"praxis. thereby giving more relevancy to artists' works than that afforded by the bourgeois institution of art. 27)."However. In other words. p.because that sphere is removed from the bourgeois concept of quotidian praxis. "Now that the attack of the historical avant-garde movements on art as an institution has failed. art was made for art's sake. is used to bolster a characterizationof the bourgeoisie as having lofty values because such values are illustratedin their art.This awareness also catalyzed a plethora of innovation and instigated continued efforts in following generations of the avant-gardeto find ways of dissolving its separatist status to some degree.if.The institution of art resisted the attack of the avant-gardepartly by absorbingthe intellectual critique and its products and rendering them autonomous.

"the retreat to the problems of the isolated subject" (p.a high degree of innovation. An art movement with a social consciousness emerged that came into its own from about the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.as part of the institution of art.Mulkay and Chaplin 1982. the products of artists' efforts only cluttered their studios (Wolfe 1975. as Buirgerexplains. I argue that in Los Angeles.This avant- . 53). AN IDEAL WINDS OF CHANGE:APPROACHING The social dynamism of the 1960s swept through the avant-garde art world.MixingArtand Life 181 nizant and the problems of which were realized in the 1990s. yet not completely dissolve their collective activity as an art world? Changes within this art world."Furthermore. performance artists were finding solutions to the dilemmas of autonomy:How were artists to deal with the autonomous status epitomized by large art institutions and to efface some of the barriers between themselves and larger social worlds. Without the art critics to devise new aesthetic theories for artists' innovations. along with its distance. the early avant-garde played with this notion. if the distinction between producer and recipient is completely effaced. were generally perceived as being autonomous in bourgeois society. But. If avant-gardists were to eliminate the boundaries separating art and the praxis of life. Although Biurger does not elaborate on the problem created through solipsism. although avant-gardists. they were nonetheless dependent on the validation and distribution processes of the mainstream art world. Biirger raises another conundrum (p. small groups of elite patrons to decide which artists to promote. p.To a great extent. the same time that performance art burgeoned in Los Angeles and gained an international reputation. too. the autonomous model and the avant-garde's relation to it hardly wavered. and museum and performance space curators to present the works. also renders it ineffectual as a mode of collective activity or as a means of giving the activity of art making any kind of consensual significance. free as it may be from its autonomous status. Throughout the 1950s. In following the logic of the avant-garde's struggle to its conclusion. the autonomous status of the performance art world increased even as it was cut off from major art institutions. 53). the purpose or function of art becomes even more difficult to determine as its status as a distinct sphere of activity dissolves.moreover art loses its critical distance. 50).whether art loses it autonomous status and becomes more practical or the praxis of life subsumes the bourgeois values of art and the praxis of life becomes more aesthetic. and the art form becomes solely an instrument for living one's life. Indeed.and changes in its relationship with larger art institutions5and in local and national arts policies prompted an era of vitality and growth in popularity.As Btirger states ([1984] 1996. thus effacing the artist to an extent and turning the audience into producers. the result is solipsism. So. the relationship was one of dependency on the institution of art. Crane 1987). Even as avant-gardists tried to distinguish their behavior from the lives of their patrons and their work from accepted aesthetic practices. as when a dadaist wrote a recipe for creating a poem for the audience to practice. it seems that such a function for art. such as in the participants' perspectives on artistic and social diversity. then they. "An art no longer distinct from the praxis of life but wholly absorbed in it will lose the capacity to criticize it.6and an increased development of social consciousness. would dissolve the boundaries separating the producer and recipients.

"filled with abandoned warehouses."The energy "moves you along.. we'd just go and do a show without permission.182 THESOCIOLOGICAL Vol."Because she and her performancegroup did not have studio space available for rehearsing. a fifteenhundred-squarefoot loft for ten cents per square foot) and the laissez-faire attitude of . or if there was some kind of event going on.g. Moreover. In 1986 a local writer suggested that the Alameda industrial district. as seen in the rise of works by feminists and minorities.What follows is a description and explanation of forces affecting the function and motivation of the avant-garde. anyplace where anybody would give us a little bit of money to do something.000 artists living and working in the area. performing.even through abstruse means."which was her way of creating through improvisationaland chance processes.. the environment encouraged artists to explore and express personal visions and social consciousness. producing art. Johanna Went."The low rents (e. The developing scene coalesced by becoming geographicallycentered in an industrial area of Los Angeles where artists began to transform warehouses into lofts for living. Choices Madefromthe Street Performance artists of the 1970s and 1980s distinguishedthemselves and their work and perpetuated the notion that their activity made them tangentially useful for nonart worlds by presumingthey had unfettered freedom to express themselves and to produce work using whatever means were available.they "practiced"their workshops in the street. p.One of the vanguard performance artists in Los Angeles.There was a "scene"in the 1970s that she describes "as energy produced by a lot people that feeds itself. With their increased dissociation from mainstream art systems and increased support from state agencies. [with] as many as 2.7In his opinion. 2/2001 garde art world became further defined as an independent social world functioning with few ties to other social spheres. may be the most innovative. In other words. particularly of Los Angeles performanceart.but the artists' social relations reflected their goals of overcoming social barriers outside their art world and of supporting a diversity of aesthetics. without imposed ties to particular social or political agendas. "six major blocks from 1st Street to 7th Street..she performed at widely popular city festivals or in the street: "[Wewould do shows] just anywhere we could. says that the decade of the 1970s was a time when it was easy just "to follow your nose. and exhibiting. the expansive scope of artistic and social diversity and the favorable conditions that permitted self-determination seemed to have solved the dilemmas of autonomy posed by Biirger-the gap between artistic praxis and the life world narrowed while performance art retained its status as a recognizable sphere of collective activity.usually in collaboration with friends. QUARTERLY 42/No. old railroad-freight buildings and produce and fish markets" had been transformed into a Soho West (Ruben 1986. Initially. Not only did the form and content of the work reflect growing social awareness. They used taped music and did "theater games."creating a sense of excitement. Los Angeles performance and other fringe artists chose to model their social relations on democratic ideals.Yet many of the artists of this time made choices that they believed made their work socially viable to other communities and larger social concerns. creative slice of all downtown. Over the past decade the Alameda district has evolved into one of the city's most vibrant art centers .. in the 1970s and 1980s. and be a bohemian." live by gut instinct. 12).

p. organizational structure designed to serve artists' needs. experienced and inexperienced. Establishing an internal organizational structure controlled by artists was one of the major challenges of the early years as stated by Marc Pally. local and out-of-town. with variations across ethnic and gender boundaries.who became LACE's first gallery managerin 1978: "The most impressive part of the original group was this democratic process. making it a lively place for arts attendance. which in the opinion of artists working at LACE.We were receptive to other people's input and willingness to be open and tried to present new. Commercial galleries and restaurants opened in the area. defining itself as a model for innovation and democracy. as a loosely knit group of artists banded together for a particular purpose. In this case. because of LACE's goal to meet a broad spectrum of artistic needs. LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). Although many galleries and spaces existed only temporarily to provide an immediate need for a particular group of artists. ten artists primarily from the Chicano community were awarded a CETA grant for teaching mural painting to high school students. a term used locally to distinguish the art activity of this section of town from the large institutions around the civic center (also known as Bunker Hill) and on the west side of downtown.p. LACE became a fairly stable exhibition venue devoted to presenting a diversity of artists (e. As noted in LACE: 10 Years Documented: The thirteen artists then took turns curatingmonthly exhibitions. LACE: Self-Determination Embodying LACE was an alternative. one of LACE's directors: It always seemed possible to me that LACE could move forward on two trackscontrol by artists coupled with sound management and fund-raising. gave stability to the "fringe" art scene.but we did agree on democracy-it really did work and helped us survive. 6-7) Thus. LACE's purpose and function embodied the characteristics of this art world. From the early days of its inception."(Moss 1988. and differing aesthetic viewpoints (Moss 1988). 7) Moreover.This was really the challenge of my years at LACE. . LACE was committed to artist self-determination.g. In less than two years.Mixing Art and Life 183 fire marshals and building code inspectors afforded artists a centralized area for interaction and creativity. as many venues did in the mid1970s. It was an organicprocess that made a messy business-none of us were gallery-oriented-but we somehow managed to get through. artist-run space that began.We did not have a great deal in common artistically.. was a way of providing a community service. and its organization was structured so as to ensure that LACE existed primarily as a venue supporting artists' needs. also. various media. besides its artistic success in the 1970s and 1980s.According to Sarah Parker. a hallmark feature of LACE until 1998. helping to develop and implement structures of artist control and participationwhile simultaneously presenting that very fact to potential funders as LACE's greatest strength. the early founders set a precedent for democratic processes for guiding the internal structure of the organization.rotated the responsibility of watching the gallery and made decisions by voting on absolutely everything. fresh. egalitarianwork.We tried not to wear blinders or limit ourselves to just fine art.(Moss 1988. one space. had been its democratic.

1996) So LACE provided a foundation for the fringe art scene of Los Angeles and maintained its grassroots. In this case. One performance coordinator reports: When I was working there.We said. after she became famous she could be presented at UCLA (University of California.A. We had to swing it and it was always conscious. machine performance from San Francisco. thrived on their autonomy from the bourgeois art institutions and concurrently enjoyed their special status as an avant-garde art world. they granted space. clubs. populist character among artists. And we had to shake trees to get work by women. we'd get a lot of proposals and it was like this joke. thus fostering innovations and attracting large audiences and media attention to the downtown happenings. 70 percent of the proposals we got were from New York and they were by white men and then there were about 5 percent women and 3 percent ethnic minorities because the white men really knew how to get it out-the video tape and the press and whatever [to promote themselves]. like. performance art included. with three thousand people in a lot downtown with an exploding guillotine.whatever. 42/No. But the Lingerie and all the other clubs were terrifiedof her. giving a break to untried artists. maybe it should be done in theaters. and say. let it be done elsewhere.(Interview. The fringe art scene. "These people need to be represented."Please send us a videotape. Also. autonomy was empowering. this is their opportunity. We were the only ones who would present Karen Finley8 when she was that level. and the fringe art world participants perceived themselves as quite connected to everyday life-albeit antiestablishment-in that their embodied idealized freedoms of collective. and video) were composed largely of artists from the area who selected works to present and to produce (i. we were the only people crazy enough to present Survival Research Laboratory. by Latinas." (Interview.We had to go out into the communityin L. . local and out-oftown artists. and supporting work that was judged unsuitable for other venues. of course.punk rock. The administrators at LACE incorporated a number of other procedures that helped achieve their ideological goals of serving artists.184 THESOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY Vol.if we had based our programmingon what we received. heterogeneous social interaction practice and activity.e. money. Committee members served for a few years during which time they were ineligible to present their work at LACE.it was a demolition derby.. and technical support to artists' projects)."Otherwise. and theaters. and those with various levels of experience. So we really had to make an effort and we did. performance. it would have been all white men. "If it can be done somewhere else. We said. that this was the only place that would present it.Los Angeles) or MOCA (Museum of ContemporaryArt). and. One committee member states: We wanted to be the place where you couldn't find [another] home for [the work].They were such high-risk. We wanted to do the stuff nobody else had the courage or the insanity to do. such as commercial or university galleries. 2/2001 Curating committees for each of LACE's programs (exhibitions.1996) Primary among their curating procedures was a conscientious effort to diversify programming and to feature artists of different ethnicities and gender. like a very theatricalperformancepiece.

but just what happens in the actual performance is improvised. whichshe squeezedas whiteliquidgushedfrom her made mouth. As it ended. and sensations.. Not all fringe artists. During a performance. She puts a great deal of effort into producing the performance objects with which she and the audience interact.Such art reflected the broader culture of dissatisfactionthat had gained a prominent voice and visibility beginning in the 1960s.two womenin bluewigs... such concentration on media was always imbued with a meaning that may not have been easily identifiable.MixingArtand Life 185 Content. In performance art. Consider the case of JohannaWent.and Context Under these conditions. performance art and other fringe art media added theatrical elements to social and political demonstrations (Lippard 1984). so She says that her work is not about anything. She creates fantastic costumes that are frequently changed during a show (e.live music and the audience. dog heads.. at least.coveredwithfakebloodandshit. the artists perceived that their work had a greater effect on the nonart world than it might have had a couple of decades earlier when it had to rely on the filteringsystem of mainstream art institutions. and the result is spontaneous. they also attempted to convey messages that they believed had significancefor others. If an artist of this scene wished to present a socially relevant theme or take their art and activism to the streets. and Day of the Dead skeleton faces).however..big dildoshanging was witha largesatanic suits. Thebiggestcrowd-pleaser.there was less tension between the content of individual works and the environment in which works were produced. pounding sound from a live accompanying band. Not all elements in Went's performances are left to on-the-spot improvisation. Some continued to explore the development of form and to experiment with art media as the primary conveyor of meaning.that it is produced in "dreamtime. a body-sized head with three unrelated-looking eyes. Went inundates audience members with an outrageous orgy of images. vaginas. fromtheirjumpBehindher. she works with a detached interest in what happens when a few elements chaotically collide.. chicken overa plucked objects.the threeperformers into collapsed thegiantmessthey'd of the stage. but she was part of an era in which outrageousness of expres- . The same reviewer described some elements of Went's show as follows: Thistimeshe emerged as a two-headed witha longgreensnakeattached to first nun her crotch.g.They'd or drunk "blood" let it rainon and themfromthe eyesof one of the greenghouls. and Went's occasional incoherent babblings and shrieks with a voice described as "a million Chatty Cathy dolls on acid" (Carr 1987). chose to focus on popular social or political issues." she makes no effort to coordinate the performance and rock music. They'd fought Certainly Went's work may not have had broad appeal and may have been outright repulsive to some people. she attaches no intellectual theme nor aims for a specific outcome. In other words. Went'sgiantcunt headdress. having many of the props thrown at them from the stage.As artists challenged perceptions through the manipulation of form. bunny. whose work represents some of the most visually and aurally outlandish types of performance art.. The audience also deals with piercing. Her emphasis was not on a tangible product or specific experience but on the process of creation. the elements simply exist in the same time and space.cavorted though. Indeed. Form. sounds. the carried bigtampon turd They'd likeritual witha babydoll'shead. particularlythe effect of chance interactions among her small group of performers.

318) states.Balfe 1993).At that time. and the multiple dimensions of humanity had a strong place in the cultural landscape (Habermas 1989). Went and the other performance artist respondents performed their works in a variety of settings and venues. the NEA. and aesthetic decisions were to be made primarilyby those proficient in the various artistic disciplines (Mulcahy 1985). its involvement was to be limited and indirect.S. During this period. state support of art was a matter of "national prestige" (McGuigan 1996). So for a time. p. That such an organization autonomous subculturalscene not only existed but thrived embodying a self-determining. p. which. 2/2001 sion against the status quo. in turn.186 THESOCIOLOGICAL Vol. the question of what made LACE economically viable.enough politicians were convinced by art advocates that by exporting America's finest art works and art troupes abroad they could fight the communists'accusations that Americans were an uncultured. then. arts funding beginning in the 1960s with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and in the assumptions about the place of art in society as reflected in public policies on art. politicians have over the centuries usually expressed great reticence in government patronage of the arts. but presenting their work at LACE-and all the artists interviewed had performed at LACE-added another dimension because of the funding. as reflected in U. 63)."Another cold war factor affecting the government's avoidance of direct political involvement in NEA decisions arose from the gov- . art became a tool of the cold war in a fight of symbolic representation. and technical support often unavailable elsewhere. When Lyndon Johnson signed the NEA into law. a few rhetorical arguments gained enough salience in the 1950s and 1960s to make possible the establishment of the NEA and its cultural policies (Larson 1985).S. experimentation in and exploration of unconventionality. The NEA's general attitude toward its role in supporting the arts was similar to government agencies supportingscience-that is.for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which binds us as a nation" (Arian 1992. the United States viewed the arts as a possible representationof the superiority of their economic and political systems-a perspective not unlike the attitude of the bourgeoisie in their advocacy of art support at the level of private funding. As Gary Larson (quoted in Mulcahy 1985. the federal government intended to maintain an "arms-lengthsupport system" and to avoid policies that might appear as "state-imposedculture that had little to do with America's laissez-faire tradition. Although the cold war and global interests propelled the formation of an official arts agency. he stated: "Those nations which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history'scatalogue. the ideological role and the infrastructureof the agency were determined with sensitivity to domestic popular approval and to past problems with. art and culturalpolicies of the 1950s and 1960s. greatly affected nontraditional art worlds. facility.The answer lies partly in a begs fundamental shift in the structure of U. Art is a nation's most precious heritage. and ongoing criticisms of government involvement in art and cultural funding (Larson 1985).S. a Forging CulturalPolicyfor the Government Although U.These argumentsreflect certain underlyingvalues about art as either a public good (serving the social interest of the polity) or a merit good (having intrinsic value worth supporting) (Buchwalter 1992. QUARTERLY 42/No.The more viable argumentsfor creating political support promote the idea that art is a public good.barbaricpeople (Larson 1985).

Roger Stevens. to sustain and encourage individual performers and creative artists. 330). to a large degree. the new arts agency was committed to culturaldemocracy. As mentioned earlier. the agency successfully implemented its ideological stance of maintaining an arms-lengthinvolvement in setting aesthetic directions and of supporting a wide range of diverse art and cultural expression. 63). So for a time. corporation.NEA funds accountedfor only a portion of the financialneed of arts organization(only 15 percent of the nation's arts organizations'operatingcosts were provided by all sources of public fundingin the 1980s) but the financialsignificanceof this money for small organizationswas more crucial than for large arts institutionsthat have enjoyed an almost constant support of private patronage (Mulcahy 1985).As Mulcahy states. accordingto Mulcahy (1985.9 In addition. As Kevin Mulcahy (1985.building arts advocacy through the establishment of state art agencies.to increase the participation of the people in local artistic programs.The first NEA chair. NEA policies have been no exception. especially when it concerns political stakes and realms of culture. p. told Congress that the purpose of the agency was "to increase opportunities for an appreciation and enjoyment of the arts through wider distribution.the early success of the agency in drawingbipartisansupport was due to decisions such as avoiding "overly specific formulations of policy goals" (p. there was little. Furthermore. are almost constantly challenged and foster unexpected results (Cunningham1992).Arian (1992) who discusses the dissatisfactionof some community arts groups that believed the NEA distributions were inequitable. 336).the NEA provided only a portion of LACE's funding.representing42 percent to 80 percent of LACE's annualfunding from grant sources.rangingfrom one to nine funded categories in 1979-1990. but all the categories taken together that received NEA funding was considerableover the years. the funds permit arts organizationsto take their offerings to places and audiences not usually in attendance at standardvenues and galleries. during the heyday of the Los Angeles downtown fringe art scene.and to provide the people with new opportunities in all aspects of the arts" (Arian 1992. Indeed.10 Yet. In keeping with its policy of not underwritingall the operational costs of any arts organization. 317) explains. The symbolic force and actual outcome of any policy. and private donations.generating greater involvement from private benefactors.the NEA used a "broaddefinition of the arts to include as many diverse cultures and art forms as possible and as wide a distributionof public funds as possible.the agency has diligentlypromoted a policy of social access .and encouraging political activity in arts communities. p. however." The agency's sensitivity to numerous constituencies is reflected in a number of administrative and policy decisions and is the primary reason it flourished for many years. p. (Table 1). the importanceof the NEA to organizationssuch as LACE is noted in three qualitativecontributionsthat are also reflectedin the operation of LACE: NEA support of small and new organizationsoffers a mark of official approval that encourages foundation.MixingArtand Life 187 ernment's wish to avoid the practices of its communist counterparts who controlled almost all aspects of culturalproduction and dissemination (Ross 1989). contradiction in the NEA's funding of a marginal arts organization featuring works that defied easy categorization or that lacked appeal to mainstreamart audiences. supporting a wide range of artistic activities. as noted by EdwardW. NEA funding was crucial to the operation of LACE. if any. for at least the advocates of government support of the arts.

to of and multiculturalism.970 20. through outreach to artists and audiences from socioeconomic and ethnic segments of society not usuallyfound in traditionalart-consuming segments. presenting]. then.c 6 % Nonstaticd 45 1988-89 1987-88 1986-87 1985-86 1984-85 1983-84 1982-83 1981-82 1980-81 53 56 49 56 61 80 71 68 57 114. hasbeencommitted freedom expression. form.600 88.women. . 1991). thepresentation of workwithout limitations the marketplace beforeit wasin vogueto do the of long so. are answered in part by examining the relationship between the NEA and LACE.450 99.foundation and corporatesources and excludingearned income from ticket sales. particularly marginalized andthosemaking the contentandformof whichis not readily LACE art accessible). Thus.gays and lesbians.750 39. The policies of the NEA and its support of LACE and other small or avant-garde organizations reflect an attitude of tolerance and of some acceptance of dissenting voices and outlandish experimentation in art. As an officially recognized autonomous art world.188 TABLE 1. interarts [programinitiative.350 9 6 8 7 7 6 3 3 2 27 32 35 34 22 23 ND ND ND 1979-80 a 57 1.As a director of LACE states: I believethatLACEis a vitalandirreplaceable of the LosAngelesartscommupart for of dedicated the principles self-determination to nity.000 # Categ. 2/2001 NEA FUNDING TO LACE Fiscal Year 1989-90 % Totala 42 NEA$b 103.for this period.050 117.etc. and organizational boundaries of their art world and contributing to the expanding social consciousness of the time.Such a cultural environment allowed the avantgarde to flourishas an autonomous culturalsphere. so.free from the dictates of mainstream art institutions and able to identify and integrate with social democratic movements.900 162.875 1 ND Percentage of NEA fundingout of all grantrevenues includinggovernment.200 88.). individualcontributions. Carol Becker's (1994) questions about the social significanceof art as posed in the introduction." In general. performance artists and LACE chose to function accordingto principles of cultural democracyand diversity.g. the culturalpolicy promoted by the NEA had no small effect in providing needed financialand ideological support for LACE and in recognizing the autonomy of artists and arts organizations. dPercentage of NEA funding to LACE designated for performingart media. Thus. THESOCIOLOGICAL Vol. too..and fund raising.It is an artists' organization artists(peopleof color. (Interview. QUARTERLY 42/No. artists.these artists perceived their collective responsibility as pushing the content. cNumber of NEA categories for which LACE received funding (e.While esoteric works of a seemingly personal nature were supported and encouraged. bAmount of NEA money for all funded categories. were those imbued with a broader social consciousness. visual artists organization.000 22.

or metropolitan level and within these art worlds eventually hastened their demise. forces opposed to state support of the arts gained dominance and greatly affected the policies and structure of the NEA. or at least so eliminated their autonomous status that little collective activity as an art world now exists.the NEA continues offertax dollars to rather the Finally.of multiculturalism. but decisions made at the local. and aesthetic boundaries defining performance art. investments in art have been shown to have a multipliereffect and support of arts development has been a primarymeans for revitalizingurban areas (Whitt and Share 1988). 1) p. the annual per capita contribution to the NEA was approximatelysixty-eight cents in the late 1980s compared to per capita annual spending of twenty-seven dollars in Germany and thirty-twodollars in France on their institutions of culture (DiMaggio 1991. more specifically... Concurrently. The conservative viewpoint is concisely presented in the following passage from The Backgrounder. The legal grounds on which the reauthorization and subsidizing battles have been fought did not. upper-middle thanpromoting best in art. such arbitration is required (Mulcahy 1992).. In fact.the class. prominent performance artists of the 1990s suggested renaming the form because it so little resembled its former incarnation.MixingArtand Life CONTENTCENSORSHIPFROMTHE RIGHTAND LEFT 189 By the late 1980s.a publication of a conservative think tank. and the federalseal of approval subsidize to "art" is offensiveto mostAmerithat cans.For example. Further consequences have been a severe reduction in the cross-fertilizationof ideas.work in favor of the political and religious conserva- .Performance art of the 1990s retained a semblance of avant-gardethrough its positioning as part of the general culture dissatisfactionand its motivation to challenge certain social concepts and values. and economic climate posed serious challenges for performanceart and other avant-gardeart worlds was quite evident. the Heritage Foundation: TheNEA is an unwarranted into extension the federalgovernment the voluntary of sector. in the final rulings. Also.McGuigan 1996).That the larger social.from the Left a cultural critique of the concept of a national culture developed along with an advocacy of regional and community cultural development and. but its methods and process of production and an increasinglyhostile external environment eventually dissolved the performanceart scene in Los Angeles. Conservatives have invoked legal argumentsfor either dissolving the agency or for giving congressional lawmakers (preferably of conservative ilk) power to determine what constitutes "good" or "bad"art by imposing content restrictions. agencyofferslittle more than a directsubsidyto the cultured. Conservatives stated that because the agency is funded through taxes. artists' collaboration. political.(Jarvik 1997. Although since the late 1970s the United States has been embroiled in an increasingly pervasive cultural idea where market reasoning and managerialistrhetoric prevail (McGuigan 1996). Actually. only the most superficial arguments from the economic perspective have persisted in conservatives' efforts to abolish the NEA. DespiteEndowment claimsthatits effortsbringart to the innercity. I will briefly review the events of the critical turning point of divisiveness over the NEA and then focus on the responses of the Los Angeles performanceart world.specifically in dealing with putative obscene or pornographicwork.especially on the ways in which this particularart world inadvertently hastened the censoring efforts of the Right and abandoned the social democratic ideals and practices of artist self-determination. their economic reasons have been rather spurious.

p. obscene or indecent materials. age. they were responding to the hortatory demands of highly visible critics of the agency.July 26. Karen Finley. quoted in Buchwalter 1992.or (3). the political Right co-opted the agenda of the religious Right and assumed a stance that. or reviles a person. although the overt cen- . p.Even though the Helms Amendment was deemed unconstitutional. justified special restrictions on art they labeled objectionable.homoeroticism. sex. the average person. The council also stated that their decision must be made in a "political world" amid "political considerations. 42/No. The modified version contained language that was more vague and hortatory:"(1). group or class of citizens on the basis of race.700 (0. Although the restrictionsadvocated by the Right on NEA-funded art violated fundamental constitutional guarantees. applying community standards.1 percent) panel recommendations had been reversed (Honan 1991." Although the council members did not deny the artistic merit of the artists'work as granted by the panel. creed. in 1990 four previously awarded performance artists. depicts or describes sexual conduct in ways which are patently offensive. Hence. p." as it became known. material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particularreligion or non-religion. the council still opted to follow the criteria set out in that amendment in deciding to reverse the panel's decision. Although the National Council on the Arts.190 THE SOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY Vol. however. Then. 1989. The campaign of condemnation and terrorizingof artists and arts organizations launched by Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) with the supportof Christianrightorganizations'2 induced an atmosphere of fear and self-censorshipwithin the NEA and for most organizations that previously supported fringe art work. (2). handicap. the presidential advisory board to the NEA chair." prohibiting the use of federal funds by the NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the production and dissemination of "(1). known as the "Helms Amendment.Helms proposed an amendment to the 1990 Interior Appropriations Bills. from 1982-1989. has occasionally reversed a peer panel decision. the grants were denied because the artists were like "hand grenades"given the conservative religious and political pressures. C13). and (3). Holly Hughes. gave them a putatively high moral ground and.political or scientific merit" (quoted in Buchwalter 1992. were awarded grants by the peer review panel. therefore.the NEA was placed in a precariousposition of possibly denying the peer panel's approval for awards for reasons other than artistic criteria. For example. that the Right failed to bring about ends that suited their agenda. In response to these initiatives.including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism. 5). in essence.would find appeals to prurient interest. C13). or national origin" (Congressional Record.13 Artists who were approved for funding after the passage of the obscenity clause were required to sign an "antiobscenity oath. Specifically.literary. 3). the exploitation of children.According to transcripts of the council's decision (Honan 1994. material which denigrates. This did not mean. only 35 of 33. p. 2/2001 tive Right's efforts to instigate restrictions on particular subject matter or viewpoints expressed in NEA funded art (Sullivan 1991). but the panel's decision was overturned by the National Council on the Arts. John Fleck. it is infrequent. This amendment proposal was later modified to bring art content conformity in line with existing obscenity laws. or individuals engaged in sex acts. and Tim Miller (Fleck and Miller have been based in Los Angeles). lacks serious artistic. or (2).debases. and the NEA and NEH were made responsible for decisions about which works may be considered obscene.

The oppressive cultural and political climate imposed by the Right developed out of the Right's fear of the public transferringblame to them for difficulties arising in economic and social spheres. conservatives constructed a perspective in which fringe artists were not just symptomaticof subversivenessin society but were causal agents.. the Right ignored the intended messages and focused solely on a few elements or issues that could be manipulated into producing an emotional response. the performance artist John Fleck was invited to appear on the OprahWinfreyShow. Dubin (1992). Particularworks that do not conform to "traditional"or "decent" standards of American values and that deal with sexuality. as construed by the Right. homosexuality and homoeroticism.. religion and patriotism are used to produce emotive responses among a conservative constituency. . the Right employed a specific tactic of searching for "hot button" issues in art works and then widely disseminating the offending element.the position of performance art and other avant-gardeart worlds as autonomously functioning entities was a given.where he thought he would have an opportunity to speak in behalf of NEA support for all art worlds (Burnham 1991)."Fleck said that Winfrey took the most freakish elements from his work and sensationalized them. images.. an exaggerated sense of significanceand symbolism was placed on many of the works produced. a status it enjoyed in the previous period. 194) By the early 1990s.it continued to carrycensorial power as the agency imposed the restrictionson itself.Fleck was able to make only a few soundbite remarks (e. because it's part of the fabric"and "I am a morallyconcerned artist")but would have appreciatedhaving an opportunityto explain: and I not onlydealwithhomosexuality.. indeed. He makes love to himself dressed as woman. especially in instances where the NEA contributed in even a marginal way to its production. specific themes. and symbols become volatile.000homeless aboutme peeing to aren'twe trying finda pot for themto pee in insteadof worrying in this pot onstagewherepeople have the choice to pay or not? (Burnham 1991. live in a citywithover70.Why dysfunctional relationships.MixingArtand Life 191 sorship of the Helms Amendment had been struck down under the Constitution.. a significantpart among many.To combat such a putative destructive force. p. Instead..a TV talk show. No longer was the avant-garde considered an autonomous social world that was.Its earlier standingas an accepted challenger of social complacencywas altered such that it came to symbolize all that was wrong with the nation. "don't cut off the fringe. as previously mentioned.one or a few elements from art works are emphasized without considering the context in which the artist used them or what the intended meaning may have been. Surely the avant-garderepresented some of the most deviant segments of society.with the rise of a strong cultural and political faction determined to preserve its perspective of morality and cultural standards.Again. in sensitive political climates."Winfrey introduced him as an "artist who deals with homosexual issues and in his latest show urinates onstage and then mimes vomiting.. Frequently. he was treated like a "freak. Now it was not only autonomous but it was being pushed further to the marginswith a reputationfor deviance.g. Concurrent with the demonization of fringe art. As Dubin (1992) explains. For example. According to Jtirgen Habermas (1989) and Steven C. leading the audience to call Fleck a "pervert"and scream "I won't pay my tax dollars for your garbage"and other more perverse comments.dealwithotherissuessuchas homelessness I I people. he states.

The use value of the arts was being tied directly to how it served specific groups of people. With the increasing vilification of fringe art.Although the focus here is primarilyon the influence of the national cultural perspective and the choices made by artists. especially experimental venues. mention that multiculturalismbecame the prominent criterion for funding for small. THESOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY 42/No.it remained in the industrialarea until 1993.political. artists across the nation made a few valiant stands against the attacks.One is the dissolution of the downtown art scene because of a marked rise in the homeless population in that area and. The impact of this trend from the top-down perspective of local policy making to grassroots efforts needs to be treated separately (Pagani 1998). 2/2001 The vehemence of the Right's attacks on fringe art eventually affected the internal structureof the NEA and its policies (e.which was housed in the same complex as Highways. Although this was not strictly a local phenomenon. Los Angeles city leaders voraciously embraced the movement as its symbol for its anticipated leadership role in Pacific Rim economics (Davis 1992. but they were a weak political force overall. The second factor was the rise of multiculturalism. however. Tim Miller.Rents rose from ten cents to ten dollars per square foot and forced artists to seek cheaper lodging and studio space elsewhere. grants to individual artists were eliminated). set the agenda for performance art not only locally but nationally . a of the disgruntledperformance artists announced their plans to start a new percouple formance art space called Highways in Santa Monica. but the vitality of the area dissipated (Kendt 1993). What was a fringe art world to do? HEGEMONYFROMWITHIN The demonizing of performance art and other avant-gardearts and the transformation of the NEA by the Right were not the only cultural. The content of works and the gender or ethnic category of artists and audience had to reflect some aspect of a minority group. and economic factors creating a context for change in fringe art worlds.I will briefly mention two other factors that had a strong impact on the performanceart world in Los Angeles and that also came to fore in the late 1980s. where LACE took the lead in staging demonstrations and working to support artists who were targeted by Helms and the General Accounting Office.g. One of the artists. LACE was simultaneously being undermined by a few disgruntled members of the local performance art community. So at a time when small venues were closing at an astonishing rate.A campaign of slander against LACE was launched with the help of the local press in which unsubstantiated accusations were made that eventually affected LACE's funding. had also been the editor of the nation's foremost trade magazine on performance art. High Performance. and threats of censorship. Linda Burnham.because of simultaneous gentrification.The significanceof the opening of Highways in 1990 is that Burnhamand her partner. I will. Because LACE owned its building. a cut of $167 million from the previous year. the 1995 congressional budget proposed authorizing only $99. In Los Angeles. ironically. long after most other galleries and performingspaces folded. cuts in funding. Financial hardship and the threat of closure loomed large for small.14 During this time. community arts organizations in Los Angeles.5 million.192 Vol.Morris 1992). Funding cuts followed. a beach city adjoining Los Angeles.. these two artists received the support of a private benefactor to open a new venue.

it's the smartestthing you can do to nurture your work" (Breslauer 1994).Zimmer 1989). however. given the commandingposition Highways was able to assume. presenting seventy-five artists in benefit performances. opposed it beingpartof whatyou'redoing. but the idea's become more focused on interculturalchallenge . Indeed.Frankly. "A year and a half ago it seemed just like we needed another space. this era marked the end of performanceart's classificationas avantgarde. Initially. (Durland In developing Highways's curating standard..for an artist. Contraryto the expectations of the general community of artists. and all such decisions fell within their increasinglytight boundaries.Especially It's youngartists. 176) confrontation. "I'm very unusual in that I founded the two main performance centers in this country. . were to "benefit the furtherdevelopment of HIGHWAYSas a performancecommunitycenter. the area's performanceartists assumed that the space would fill a void created by the closure of numerous other venues over the previous few years. Based on the opening announcements for Highways.Manus 1989.and social issues" (Breslauer1989a). the samereasonthathadme callingRobertWilsonandMerceCunningham fagsin lazy the SohoNews'causetheywouldn't definethemselves Peoplehaveto find politically. and by adapting to the local multiculturalfervor.they started the space for personal career reasons. in work that is formally challenging. according to Carlson's (1996) history of performanceart. they expected the new space also to rely on the arts community's input. p. We're especially interested in new performance forms. especially in terms of form and content.there was nothingnovel aboutthe kindsof worksBurnhamand Miller wanted to present at Highways.First. Miller and Burnham had a specific agenda to fulfill through Highways. indeed. The second problem many performance artists perceived with Highways was its restrictive curating criteria based on Miller's art and activism in support of gay issues. press release. A rift developed quickly in the performance art community. .15 Within a few years Burnham and Miller had established the role of Highways and defined the direction of performance art.Miller states. the two directors had the final word on curating decisions. In Highways's case. I'm about theirboundaries.accordingto an April 5. Miller's interest in identity politics was extended to any group that laid claim to experiences of injustice by mainstreamforces. 1989.many of the area's artists were disappointed that Highways did not assume the democratic organizational structureof LACE. So. The proceeds." The media coverage of the opening was extensive.cultural communication. O'Dair 1989. suretherewillnowbe a wholeschoolof workthatis purely as to 1991. the performance arts community enthusiasticallyresponded to a call for help by Highways's directors by participating in a four-day marathon.As Miller said.That Highways'scuratingstandardswere limited to specific political agendas and Miller's aesthetic taste was a source of disappointment for many of the area'sperformanceartists. He believed that all artists needed to declare their personal life situation as a political statement in their work: I thinkit'sreally vitalforpeopleto reactto theirtime. Fringe artists understood that some venues came into being to meet the artisticneeds of one or a few individualsbut.Actually.MixingArtand Life 193 because of their relative stability.and Burnhamand Miller were lauded for starting a space at a time when many venues were closing (Breslauer 1989b. control and support of the press. but work that is also related to community.

.. especially those committed to serving those defined underserved. particularlythe victimization experienced by members of that group or by artistswho had to identify themselves with one or a combination of the designated categories and make a reference to themselves in that social position. however unintentionally. As artistswere selected to perform at Highways if they represented a particularcommunity or issue. the homeless. Miller's position as one of the "NEA Four"'16 fostered local sympathy and support. as this art world in the 1990s came to define itself primarilyby its affiliationwith social categories of race. the "ideal performer would be a Chinese-born Jewish lesbian ventriloquist with cancer" (Ohland 1993.Asian-U.e.the identities of interest were those of minority people such as "gays and lesbians. Mexican folklore. and. i. The effacement of this art world's autonomous status was further promoted in two ways:by narrowlydefining acceptable content and form and by reducing the art form to a solipsistic level of function as a tool for amateur drama-therapy.. fringe art organizationswere exemplars of social democracy and self-determination for the producersof art while concomitantlyworking to expand the boundaries of inclusiveness across aesthetic intents as well as gender and ethnic lines.Compared to the expansiveness of the boundaries for the performance art world in the previous era. especially of minority standing. Highways gained the support of local funding agencies and private foundations committed to community affairs. unemployed blue-collar workers. it gradually effaced itself as a viable autonomous sphere of collective activity. blacks.d. In the 1990s. and less focused on. homosexuality. mentioned earlier. Asians. prifrom the press and from gay and lesbian organizations. and so on.a small group of performance artists restructuredthe lines of inclusion to be narrowly defined primarilyaccordingto politically based identity categories. the disabled . nationalism.homelessness. QUARTERLY 42/No. most of the works Burnham and Miller chose to present at Highways were either thematically focused on politics of identity.Also. In the previous era. the poor. if the content of their work related to their victimization as a member of a minority group.to make the message of the works easily accessible to target audiences (i. church/state.Highways'spersonnel were also in a unique position to pursue their in-house radicalizingagainst the Right because they were too new as an organization to be subject to investigation for misuse of public funds. more to the point.S. those whose issues were purportedlybeing expressed)."'says Burnham. 'and with a new way of interacting with the so-called disenfranchised"'(O'Dair 1989. the shifting boundaries of the 1990s actually became highly restrictivefor artistsand more disparate for.. Highways's agenda went unopposed for more than half a decade. the content had to be easily identifiable and classifiable as seen in a 1990 programming list in which twenty-five out of twenty-eight performance art works were labeled with one of the following content descriptions:"gay i. 'We're trying to step into the "90s.its dissolution. Chicanos. Hence. By focusing their curating criteria on identity politics and performers' and audience's socially ascribed characteristics.women..d. racism. As one artist sardonically stated about the curating policy.For the most part. black i. aging. the accept- ." Furthermore. 26). In other words. that art world.d. feminist.Highways's politically correct stance. 2/2001 In particular..d.194 THESOCIOLOGICAL Vol. Latino i. marily The issue of autonomy was being framed in a different context as the performance art world of the 1990s faced.p. p. body awareness. also imbued a fear among excluded artists of being called racist if they were to criticize Highways'sagenda (an admissionmade by several respondents). however. 18).

all 'me.Just as conservatives combed especially fringe art works for hot button elements (e. It's and I havea deepbeliefin autobiography in creating and identity representation. Performanceart became known nationally to a new generation by Highways's model. a reference to homosexuality.Transmittinga specific message to their respective groups was the pri- . So whichto me is the betterway of puttingit than autobiographical. recognition or support from the NEA became increasingly less possible because of conservative antiart sentiments.or flag desecration) to elicit an emotional response and to prove further that artists are the root of societal problems.reduced performance art to a tit-for-tatgame with political and religious conservatives. Other notable changes in form were its lack of collaboration. Numerous performance artists from Los Angeles who did not conform to Highways's criteria found that for many years.the form was becoming solidified as the definitive way to do performanceart.so. group pieces. These changes reflect Miller's aesthetic preferences. too.For example. message.. The restrictiveworldview promoted by Highways raised other issues as it insisted on content-based art and specific subject matter.I argue. don'tthinkI was good at large text-heavy.. how relevant or representative was Highways's praxis relative to quotidian praxis.. I'll puke." and "If I see one more twenty-one-year-old-gayman stand naked in front of an audience and talk about his dick. All performance.. (Durland1991.g. and that the use of multi-media became bare bones. that Highways's policies and actions increased the antagonism of art world detractors and. [Miller's and possession-the formhasbecomemorecomic."Neither conservatives nor the new wave in performance art looked for or encouraged depth. getting bookings elsewhere was difficult because the other venue programmerswanted what Highways was presenting. because of its restrictive aesthetics. . pp. skill. "it lacks artistic integrity. bad theater. meaning the works were often solo. it's pathetic.. intent. .something scatological.. the mainjob of performance.With little support for other aesthetic interests. I'mjustmoreinterested textsnowbecausethey're more specific. did performance art use a similar tactic and often emphasize the same elements or themes to produce specific emotive responses from their audiences. became the The clouded. One Los Angeles performanceartist and art critic complained of the currentpractices in performance art saying... energyandmomentum demonic I transformational.. these [Also. Theyweremyworstpieces..MixingArtand Life 195 able form became theatricaland text-based.He states that artistsneed in to speaklouderandclearer. and internal restructuring..But also during this time. autobiographical. And it seems we're in a specifictime when wordsmattera lot.which had always been an issue for the avant-garde and those involved in the culture of dissatisfaction?As mentioned earlier. I am] part of a movementtowardsa theatricalized For the most part-allowingfor recentworks]are scripted performances. but that these narrow criteriawere the only ones allowed a voice. or universal meaning in works. me.' whining monologue. me..which also nullified it as avant-garde.175. however. funding cuts..176) For many of the area's artists the problem with Highways supporting its particular causes and aesthetic forms was not in the subject matter or the form. manypeoplearedoingworkthatis identity-based. much of the fringe art world of the 1990s was perceived as a cancer to society from the perspective of a vocal conservative constituency-not that the opinion in itself mattered to performance artists..

Highways's model of using performanceart as a tool for traumatherapy (although no professional psychological guidance was evident) or for identity conciliation certainly connects it to an aspect of life praxis. 2/2001 mary end game..One area into which they dissolved themselves with their intention of serving minority or disenfranchisedgroups For example.That's 1997) (Moyers comforting. an art commentator. Last. In a discussion group of almost all women following a performance of the Sacred Naked Nature Girls that depicted rape. In other words. the other way in which performance art effaced its autonomous status under the direction of Highways was that it found a survival strategy in associating itself closely with institutions of higher education where there has been a rise in ethnic. gender. is to go on a touring circuit to colleges and universities.did a piece in which she sat or stood for ninety minutes and talked about her mostly tragic experiences as a lesbian..Another striking example of the amateur drama-therapythrust of Highways's agenda has been its postperformancediscussion sessions in which the audience is invited to speak with the performer(s). and identity studies. their intents and actions led them into the conundrum of effacing their autonomy as an art world and being almost completely absorbed into other social spheres and institutions. homophobia.. both conservatives and Highways had an interest in "comforting"art..Many of the prominent performance artists closely associated with Highways say that their first commitment is to the cause of a particulargroup fighting racism. knowsexactlywhattheythinkaboutit. and so on. the discussion group that followed consisted primarilyof other lesbians or gays talking about tragedy in their lives.The artists of the Highways generation said that the only way they can make a living doing performance art.incest. and literary criticism." Of course. . hasn'thadto thinkaboutit. and they believed that by focusing almost exclusively on issues of disenfranchised groups that they were effective social agents.196 Vol. and lesbian lovemaking.Highways's model of performance art also finds great favor among academics of postmodernism.sexism. so niceto knowI'mright. In the words of Sister Wendy Beckett. artthatis veryeasyto reactto.one audience thanked the SNNG for their depictions because. However. if they do not have a grant. the content from Highways's performances had an appeal to portions of disparategroups. scheduled numerous workshops in which people of particulardisenfranyear Highways chised groups were invited to express and learn about their identity through performance and writing exercises and then work these processes into a performance for the public.that is. [An observer a workand]he [has]an He immediate reaction thinkshe'sright...but the narrowness of intent and rejection of other aspects of performance art eroded its autonomous status.semiotics. THESOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY 42/No.When Holly Hughes. another of the NEA Four. It'sobvious and "It's to him. To create performance pieces. they merge their group's workshop experiences with their own personal experiences. the curators at Highways had no interest in appeasing any group on the Right. Everyone sees in they'renot challenged the slightest.Their means for accomplishingthis entailed eliminating aspects of performance art that might challenge its audiences' perspectives or prevent easy access to the message and favoring techniques designed to produce immediate emotive responses. throughout the was through what I describe as amateur drama-therapy. "What else do women talk about when they get together if not their rape and incest experience?" So.

Pockets of activity emerge occasionally. which has launched art movements in the past. for example. about their intentions to exploit tensions between content and form and to leave some ambiguity in the meaning of the work so that audiences had to think about. interpret. in which artists.and support as an integral part of a society.particularlyartists whose main intention was to challenge the status quo. has been absorbed into academia as another means for dealing with topics of social identity. In other words. Although such esoteric motives may not have been expressed in these terms.Furthermore.but the poor attendance. based on information from the above mentioned conference.the public's acceptance of fringe art worlds. To flourish. even by colleagues. with other fringe artists of multimedia) model of previous decades. the general public was not necessarily expected to understand or follow the activity of communities of scientists.but there was an implicit trust that scientists knew their fields and that their work potentially benefited humans. this art world has greatly dissipated as well in New York. recognizable social sphere existing for a particularpurpose that contributedin immeasurableways to the cultural well-being of the nation-and it enjoyed a brief public trust that permitted experimentation and even outlandishness and abstruseness as part of a process for perhaps finding lasting discoveries for making art that touches or moves some nonutilitarianaspect of human being. and cut off from its formerly collaborative (that is. the form has been concretized.That is. and encouraged to make art according to their aesthetic conscience. and experience the art perhaps in new ways. the alliance of the Highways model of performance art with academia was a survival strategy. During this period. as expressed through NEA support. a performanceart community or art world no longer exists in Los Angeles and.but what survives in this case is one form: a minimalist theatricalized form of performance art. institutionalized. a remarkable situation occurred in the earlier period of performance art.MixingArtand Life 197 who work with the same themes and theoretical bases as Highways. for the most part. formerly another major center for performance art.but fringe art was accepted as a needed balance to popular culture. were accepted. is disheartening. CONCLUSION What of the conundrum posed by Btirger in the case of these two periods of performance art and the related questions asked by Carol Becker in the introduction?Based on the evidence in this study.performance art seems to need a situation favorable to collective activity and a token of recognition. performance art may be dead. As an autonomously functioning body. artists did talk. On the other hand. Performance art. performance and other fringe arts had a standing with the public similar to science.This was strongly evident at the first conference on performanceart in 1996. This art world still had an autonomous status-it was an accepted.even in more . Indeed. It may arise out of academia.Upcoming generations have nowhere to go to become immersed in a scene. acceptance. supported. Certainly such art was not accessible in the way popular cultural media are intended to be (easily understood by mass consumers). it may one day enjoy a revival and assume a new role.17 As I mentioned. demonstrated a democratic attitude by supporting a form of expression that was often inherently challenging to interpret while concurrently confronting the perspectives of many social spheres.

A.Americans would pay to see them. Rather than focusing on the development of art itself. In pursing these goals.especially those breaking new ground. . Arts organizations shouldn't be expected to overcome social problems that no one else can.In turn.providing opportunities to artists from a broad spectrum of gender and ethnicity.So the responsibility of artists to society at this time was. an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. "SometimesI spend so much time with the homeless and with securityproblems that I wonder if we're an arts organization or a homeless shelter. Art's authentic power . As a staff member of LACE commented."Can the arts heal L.A. as one artist said. Even in its survey report.American Canvas.?" Knight countered with the question.This perspective toward science afforded scientists the material and moral support needed to pursue their work.One obvious effect has been a shift in energy from supporting and making art to doing social work. numerous artists in Los Angeles became involved in an experiment to democratize the production of fringe art within their art world with a goal to aid artists. The notion of art healing civic sickness is finally rather like the idea of Miss America bringing world peace . . and performance art and other fringe art worlds produced a situation highly conducive to the needs of artists and to creating an atmosphere of acceptance of even their eccentric activities. Realizing that the arts have never been economically selfsufficient. ." For funders to advocate that artists and arts organizations be culturally aware and sensitive to various ethnicities and that all groups have fair access to arts supportand productions is hardly a debatable goal. but making this the primaryend game has had some deleterious effects on art production. THESOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY 42/No. especially to groups traditionally underserved. . by providing the means to produce and disseminate their work. "Can L. LACE actively solicited works from the area's artists. 2/2001 theoretical and esoteric areas of study. as viewed through the NEA.the NEA (1997) capitulates to this trend in art support: "The closing years of the 20th century present an opportunity for the reexamination of the structuralunderpinningsof the nonprofit arts and speculation on the development of a new support system:one based less on traditionalcharitablepractices and more on the exchangeof goods and services. help heal the arts?"He then discussed how the arts have been turned into a "species of social therapy.The proof for the latter accusation lay in their logic that if Americans wanted the arts. .A major step taken by funding agencies was to redefine the use value of art in terms of it providing a social service. So the rapportbetween the public.a few left-thinking artists and any funding agency that did not want a reputation for contributing to elitism and moral decay scrambled for a way to appease the Right or to counter its accusations and still justify a need for arts funding.in the wake of the Los Angeles riots when politicians and art administratorswere asking."A related critique of coercive philanthropyis offered by ChristopherKnight (1994). and the arts would then survive in a market system and not need government assistance (Jarvik 1997). the funding emphasis shifted and then rewarded arts organizations based on the development of audience and education outreach programs (see Brustein 1999 for many specific examples of how major funders changed their requirements and how arts organizations redirected their energies to meet the requirements). "to make art that's challenging and to keep making it!" Then in the 1990s the arts and particularlyfringe arts came under public attack led by the religious and political Right who held artists responsible for cultural and moral decay and accused them of being undemocraticprecisely because art works were elitist and intellectual and not relevant to the American public.198 Vol.

terms"fringe" century art and "mainstream" are used according the distinctions made by artistsof this time and to in whatwas featured the Los AngelesFringeFestival 1988. one performance artist responded sardonically. these were edicts imposed on art worlds by mostly nonartists." In the 1990s."the art that results typically seems powerless and wan.79-99) fora description history performance of various The movements the the twentieth in avant-garde (pp.MixingArtand Life 199 comes from the pleasure and excitement created in the beholder. Institutions can't cause that. The notion that the institution art affectsthe public'sreceptionof art coincideswith of Howard Becker's of createsa workanddecides an (1982)conception an artworld.100-164). Yet therapeutic culture usurps the role of assigning art's power by claiming it for institutions. 2. of making the arts relevant in the lives of members of various communities. 3. Here again. political 4. Yet Highways embracedthe art-as-serviceand art-as-therapy movements with enthusiasmand designed and presented their programmingas an exemplar of the new social exigencies placed on art. only talented artists can. NOTES 1. as I explain later.Irvine. Btirger's movement of the strictlyaestheticassessment conditions prompting avant-garde obscures socialconditions alsocontributed artists' As that to discontent.too. See Carlson and of (1996)foran expanded (pp. I assert that neither I nor performance artists from the earlier decades have the opinion that the work presented at Highways did not have some value or a place in performance art. rejected all but their own prescribed aesthetics.Francesca Cancian for her comments on this manuscript. Crane(1987. "No wonder. arts administrators. 13) p.different ideas prevailed in the two periods about what the artists'role is and what constitutes democracy.The disat place-as in categorizing tinction. the role of the artist and arts organizations in society was spelled out quite clearly by politicians.and the performance artists of Los Angeles for their forthcomingness.and the debate continues. artThe whoshared artists systemof artpatronage whichthe elite classsupported ists who lacked the support of the elite developed an ideology opposing dominant aesthetic values andpromoting aesthetic innovation liberal and views. however. Although artist on the content as an individual." wrote Knight. the audience makes demands on art. is sharperin Los Angeles than in New York. some part of arts money and energy had to be dedicated to providingprescribedsocial services.and funders. University of California. larger explains.With all the rhetoric of populism. When recently asked what the role of an artist is in a democratic society. the industrializationof the nineteenth century and fragmenting of society affected the in theirvalues. Respondents five to estimatethatduring mid-1980s therewereapproximately hundred the six hundred and a to participants onlytwohundred threehundred decadelater. but Highways. Obviously.The drawbackfor most performance artists was that not only did they encounter barriersfrom nonartists to doing their art.I especially thank Samuel Gilmore for his enduring guidance in this work."We live in a democratic society?" ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This research was supported in part by a University of CaliforniaRegents' Dissertation Fellowship and by the School of Social Sciences. the work's distribution and the social and cultural framework ."In its therapeutic role. art no longer makes demands on the audience.

14.theaters. the Moral Majority.based on performance and income records for LACE and Highways and the nature of the two scenes-one being highly interactive outside of LACE and the other becoming primarilydependent on Highways. he discusses both Soviet and U. investors. established organizations such as symphony orchestras. have a long-standingreputation for ignoring home-grown artists and opting to present famous. This detachment from mainstream art institutions was more characteristic of the avantgarde scene in Los Angeles than in New York. Although Ross does not make this direct link to the establishmentof the NEA. In 1988 Mayor Tom Bradley formed a committee to foster multiculturalismduring the city's push to attract overseas. and museums. 10. intellectuals had a dubious response to the rise in studies and artisticportrayalsof the nation's nonelites and disenfranchisedin the 1930s and 1940s. The dominant art venues and museums of Los Angeles. 7. Rev.James Dobson's Focus on the Family.all cultural organizations had to meet the multiculturalcriteria to receive funding. especially Pacific Rim. Thus. whose main art institutions viewed avant-garde innovation as essential contributions(Crane 1987). and Ohland (1993). There is no dispute that the NEA apportioned the largest share of funds to what Arian (1992) calls "performance culture": traditional. 11. Finley is one of four performanceartists who gained nationwide notoriety for being denied NEA grants after funding had been approved by the peer committee in 1990. Louis Sheldon's Coalition for Traditional Values. involved and from private communiqu6s. ballet and dance companies. Consequently. 5.but then questions the validity of such a measure. See Sullivan (1991) for the legal arguments that counter the modified version of content restrictions. finds the agency falls short by this standard. 15. some of the criticism it received might be diverted (DiMaggio 1991). Sometimes the NEA dispersed funds to a community group that made decisions about programmingand projects in its area.U. Furthermore. that the NEA made strides in the policy of social access unimaginablethrough private funding sources. 2/2001 THE SOCIOLOGICAL QUARTERLY in which it is presented determine its reception and influence the aesthetic experience of the audience. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.However. however. that such attention to the general populace would resemble a communist focus on the "masses. Dubin also discusses the tactics used by the Right to build a coalition. 12.There is no doubt." The solution for the time was for intellectuals to recognize numerous categories of American groups and their cultural production-whether high.The study measures equity of distribution based on demographic distribution. concerns about "culturalcontainment":the Soviets wished to insulate themselves from capitalist cultural intrusions.the amount of activity in and support for performance art are fairly measurable and show a steady. See Gilmore (1993) for a detailed assessment of NEA distributionsto minoritygroups. . rapid decline with the advancing of the 1990s. chamber ensembles.S. emphaticallyclaimed that conditions were more conducive to making art in the earlier period. Most of the accusations stated that LACE was serving neither the needs of artists or the The sordid story is based on numerous interviews with those new mandates of multiculturalism. considering the numerous channels for distribution created by the NEA. Respondents who have experience in both eras. opera. 8. Skelley (1991).S.or mid-culture-thus demonstrating practices of culturaldemocracy and pluralism. on the other hand. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Foundation. 42/No.out-of-town artists (Davis 1992). These organizationsincluded Donald Wildmon'sAmerican FamilyAssociation. and Oliver North's Freedom Alliance (Dubin 1992).200 Vol. Lummis (1986). "Soho"refers to a vital neighborhood of art activity in New York City. 13. 6. there was a gradual devolution of funds and authority to state arts agencies that were responsible for allocations to community groups.A few other articles noting the burgeoningscene are Cox (1986). 9.

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