Senator Helms, the NEA, and the "Combine Plot"

Copyright 1990 by Frank Moore

The following is a section from an essay I wrote six years ago when Sen. Jesse Helms targeted me and four other performance artists as doing "obscene art". In view of the gagging of the Internet...and the white washing of the story in the seems like it is time to dust off this essay again. After all, the real thing that was going on six years ago was NOT the far right attacking the N.E.A. for funding sex art. Instead, it was a test balloon to see if Big Brother would was preparing us for mass censorship. The Telecom Bill is just the latest, and the biggest, step in that process. The process of Big Brother has to be us!

Feel free to pass this on by whatever means/media.

For months I have been thinking about writing a piece about what I call the plot of fragmentation. It would be about the aspect of the plot that focuses on making us think that to do anything meaningful, to be an effective force for change, you have to reach a large number of people, commonly known as THE MASSES or THE MASS MARKET. I was going to talk about how this aspect of the plot has limited art by making artists and galleries think that to reach this market, or at least a fraction of it, artists have to reach levels of educational, technical, and marketing skills which are set by, and acceptable to, the real world of mass communications.

Moreover, the subject matter was set to certain "in fashion" areas such as AIDS, feminism, the homeless, the environment, etc...what are "in fashion" subjects keep changing every six months or a year (obviously, the homeless people did not get homes nor did people stop dying of AIDS...rather, the glamour attention-span wears off and the focus quickly switches before things crack through the surface into the uncomfortable depth of universals where issues explode, leaving us trying to live together).

This aspect of the plot leads artists on a chase of college degrees, of skills to operate high-tech art-making machines, of money or positions that will give them the opportunity to do art, even when the style, the subject matter, and maybe the content of the art is dictated by this chase, by the combine plot.

This was what I was planning to write about. I was going to call it THE PLOT OF BIGNESS. But the plot has overtaken me during my thinking about the article. I see in the press that Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher have nominated me, along with Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley, Johanna Went, Cheri Gaulke, as well as other unnamed artists, to be the next target in their war on art. By doing so, Dana and Jesse have given us artists a platform from which to fight the plot. Because doing battle with the combine plot is one of the main functions of an artist, I am flattered to be nominated as one of the top ten on the new McCarthy hit list. I was feeling left out. All my heroes in the past were banned, jailed, harassed for their work. Artists such as Finley who I respect have been fighting the censors for years. My ego was crushed when I saw Rohrabacher on CNN label Annie Sprinkle a threat to the established moral order. After all, my work is as threatening as hers. But days later, someone sent me the NEW YORK CITY TRIBUNE (Feb. 5) special report that named names, and my name was there. What a relief! I only wish Dana and Jesse had invited me to testify. Jesse, I am available.

I know the last paragraph sounds like light humor...not taking the war seriously. It is a serious war with the high stakes of freedom and liberty for everyone. But you must understand the nature of the combine plot. It does not understand humor or the personal level. It can crush you if you operate by the mass rules and try to fight it on its terms. But once you drop out of the mass headset, the plot becomes very fragile, very threatened. This is why the plot's Helms is after me and you. Because of this, my article is forced to take on a larger scope and a certain nonlinear quality. Please bear with it.

To understand what is really going on under this "sex" witch-hunt, it is important to understand the nature of the general plot of fragmentation, the combine plot. I took the word "combine" from the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. In the book, the combine is a fear machine network which secretly installed pacemakers of fear, doubt, and mistrust in almost everyone in childhood. This made people much easier to control. It isolates people into cells padded with fear and doubt, making the people part of the combine. There are some misfits whom the combine missed with its fear pacemakers. In others, the fear pacemakers blow their fuses. These people without the fear pacemakers are very dangerous to the combine because if they are not checked, destroyed, discredited, isolated, or enfolded into the combine, they can show others how to blow out their own fear pacemakers, can show others how to be free humans linked to other free humans. The combine rarely has to directly destroy the misfits itself. Just direct eliminations would reveal the existence of the combine. So such direct eliminations are kept to the minimum. The real tool of the combine is a vague sense of uncomfortableness, of inferiority, and of mistrust within the victims of the combine. The setting of the novel is a mental ward in which most of the patients are self-committed. They believe themselves weak, unable to cope with the outside world. They believe the fear comes from themselves, not from the pacemakers. They just have to start believing in themselves, and they could pull out the pacemakers and walk out of the hospital. But every time they reach this threshold of freedom, the combine, by clever remote manipulation, turns up the vague uncomfortableness and mistrust. The victims themselves do the destroying of the misfit either in themselves or that con man pied piper who laughs at their fears and limits, who shows them the way to freedom. It is the victims who do most of the censoring.

One of the main functions of art is to be that misfit who reveals and fights against the combine, to show the way back to freedom and self-trust. This misfit function of art is the real target of this attack of the combine in the form of Jesse and Dana.

The sexual layer of the attack is a misleading ploy. As Lisa Duggan says in her excellent article in the October 1989 ARTFORUM on the history of this attack of art, "sex panics, witchhunts, and Red scares are staples of American History....they have been enthusiastically taken up by powerful groups in an effort to impose a rigid orthodoxy on the majority." Understand, each of the layers of the attack are important and must be met directly and with full-force. The use of sex censorship to disguise political censorship is recent in our history, starting in the 19th century. It is based on our puritan national background. It depends on the belief that sex is somehow innately bad, or at least suspect. So if you want to shut someone up, it is easier if you can paint the issue in sexual terms...better yet, in terms of sexual deviance. Then the people who should stand up and full force beat back this threat, are strangely silent, strangely half-hearted. My liberal Senator Alan Cranston replied to my letter about the Mapplethorpe/N.E.A. issue by saying he (Cranston) is totally against Helms' attempts at censorship, but that the N.E.A. did make mistakes which needed to be looked into, making sure it does not happen again. With friends like this, who needs Helms!

THE VILLAGE VOICE defended my work from Helms just on the grounds that I am physically disabled. I have not figured out the logic of that even now. Duggan says, if you are banned as sexually deviant, "No one will defend your action, only your right to due process and a good lawyer."

There is a martial arts' principle that when you are attacked, that is the point that you have most force potential. This is because you can combine the opposing force with your own, and reshape this new, more powerful force into your advantage. Helms has given us an opening to create a greater freedom. I refuse to defend my work from charges of obscenity. There is no such thing as sexual obscenity. It is an undefinable concept invented to limit freedom and to promote the established moral order. If I protest that my work is not obscene, I would be admitting the valid existence of sexual obscenity. There is nothing wrong with using sex, nudity, and all the bodily functions as art. It is time to do away with the legal concept of sexual obscenity once and for all...and for good. Dana and Jesse are just giving us artists an opening to accomplish this.

But sex is just the top layer of this attack. Sex is what Communism was in the McCarthy Era. In the 50's, people thought those who were blacklisted for being Communists or fellow travelers somehow deserved to be blacklisted, were asking to be blacklisted by going too far. People thought it was O.K. to sign the loyalty oath, O.K. to not hire the blacklisted, O.K. to play along with the corrupt system...O.K. because they were not and never had been Reds.

But what they did not understand was that the real focus was not Communism, but controlling power. The same is true today. Let us peel away the layers.

I have not heard anyone talk about the visual beauty of "Piss Christ"...only about Serrano's right to do "obscene" and "blasphemous" art. In our society in which the church and state are supposed to be separate, any attempt by the governmental agency to label images and subjects as "blasphemous" and "sacrilegious"...or, for that matter, "sacred" and "holy"...and act upon these labels, is intolerable. Religious material has been traditionally a rich vein of artistic inspiration, whether the art itself is religious, anti-religious, or using symbols from religion in a non-religious context. This is a basic artistic and religious freedom which must not be taken away.

Why Serrano is on the hit list is because his images are seen by some to be anti-Christ or anti-Christian. I think this religious layer of the attack on artistic freedom is as deep, if not deeper, than the sexual layer. In the "Name Names" special report on "Funds Descending into Cesspool of 'Art' Filth," the right wing N.Y.C TRIBUNE listed five objectionable performance artists (Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley, Johanna Went, Cheri Gaulke and myself). An interesting pattern appeared. All five use trance process in our art; all five can be considered to be shamanistic. By reading this article, it became clear that this layer is not a coincidence. There are many artists who use sex and nudity in their art. What set these five apart is their use of trance, of ritual, of the body, of taboo to create a magical social change. This is also true for the "Modern Primitives" exhibition. What this reveals is that "sexual obscenity" is just a cover for the religious, artistic, and political battles. We are on the list not because we are sexually obscene...but because our intention is not to just sexually arouse. And that is what is threatening to the combine.

Under this religious layer, there is the political layer. As V. Vale and Andrea Juno, whose RE/SEARCH PUBLICATIONS is under the Jesse/Dana investigation, said in their open letter in the S.F. CHRONICLE (March 23, 1990): "Art is not always comfortable to society. One of the major powers of art is to stimulate dialogue on psychological and other issues society it just a coincidence that the victims on Helms' 'investigation' are all members of oppressed communities? Mapplethorpe was gay, Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley (Cheri Gaulke), and Johanna Went are women dealing frankly with sexuality. With such groups now finding their voices in society, it must strike fear in the hearts of Helms and his ilk." It is important to see the attack as a tactic in the movement to "Repress anything controversial: to get rid of the 'fringes' and purge the country of eccentricity, cultural diversity and minority identity," to again use the words of Vale and Juno.

Truth is the N.E.A controversy is just a move in a game for political power. It is not really about defunding the N.E.A.. Even though the N.E.A. does a lot of good, it is one of the best ways that the combine powers have to control the arts. The issue of defunding the N.E.A. is a ploy to direct the attention of both artists and the general public away from what is really going on. Dana and Jesse, and the forces behind them, have no intention of cutting or killing the N.E.A. It would make no political sense. It would be like a drug pusher threatening to cut off the junkie's supply. The pusher will not permanently cut off drugs to the junkie...unless it is as a warning to other junkies. The drugs are the pusher's control over the junkie. The N.E.A. money is the medium of the combine's control over artists and their art.

The threat of killing the N.E.A., the cutting funds, creates a manageable flap to focus people's attention upon, to drain artists' protesting energy into, and to set up a dummy issue. Then when the peak of outrageousness in this media event has passed, a "compromise" is offered. The N.E.A. will not be done away with. There will be money for the arts. Artists will be painted as winners. Of course, there is a price for this "victory". The "compromise" will be new rules, both spelled out and hidden, willingly accepted by artists. These rules, these fears, these limits will make artists agents for the established order. This is the real goal of the combine.

This real goal and the basic dishonesty of the plot that Jesse and Dana represent becomes increasingly clearer the closer we look under the surface. In the CNN piece on his attack on Annie Sprinkle, Dana said he does not want to censor this "obscene" art...he just wants artists to do this kind of art on their time and money, not on the government's. This would be outrageous in itself. But it is a lie. The real goal of this attack is to make all art, not just N.E.A. funded art, the agent for established order, to deball all art, to tame down all art.

Annie, Vale and Juno, and some other artists on the hit list have not received a penny from N.E.A. money. The Kitchen, which does get N.E.A. funding, did not use any of that money for the Sprinkle show. Dana's logic for wanting to cut the Kitchen's government funding is: since the N.E.A. sponsors some of the Kitchen's programs, it enables the Kitchen to produce on its own other shows, some of which may be objectionable to the N.E.A./Combine. Since the N.E.A. indirectly supports these independent productions, it can express its displeasure of these independent productions by cutting the funds to the offending gallery or artist.

We have seen this line of mislogic before. What comes to mind is the forbidding of federally funded family planning centers from talking with their clients about the abortion option. After all, historically in America, abortion and birth-control have been tied with obscenity.

The message is clear: eliminate controversial, experimental, and avant-garde art. This purely artistic level of the attack by those who do not care about art is revealed in the TRIBUNE article. The elimination of the politically and artistically controversial work is to make the N.E.A. into a vague system of rewards and punishments based on "correctness" ... be it political, religious, artistic, or sexual/moral. The example of this reward/punishment system is the threat by the N.E.A. to withdraw a $10,000 grant to ARTISTS' SPACE for a show about AIDS because of an essay in the catalog criticizing Jesse and other public officials. The N.E.A. chair John Frohnmeyer tried to justify this by saying, "Political discourse ought to be in the political arena and not in a show sponsored by the endowment." This outrageous attempt to limit the scope of art makes it clear that John is no friend of art. It is also clear that obscenity and N.E.A. defunding are smoke screens.

Let me put it bluntly. What we have here is another McCarthy era. Jesse is losing his favorite enemy, the Communists, which he has used as an excuse for trying to limit personal freedoms. Dana needs an issue to make his reputation on. And John just wants to keep his job. When the outside enemy began to crumble with the Berlin Wall, they looked inside for new enemies to sink their teeth into. First, they focused on the war on drugs. Although that was a good start for invasion of privacy with drug testing and "Just say no" ... after all, drug pushers make great bad guys, it was too limited. Same was true with abortion. But suppression of expression under the guise of a war against obscenity opens a wide range of possibilities.

Understand, I am using Helms, Rohrabacher, and Frohnmayer as symbols; as they are using me and the other artists on the hit list as symbols. And frankly they are easy targets. They are dishonest men who do not really care about art or morality. They are not the real culprits. The real culprits are us artists, us liberals. It was us who opened the door to the Helms' attack by surrendering the artist's control of art over to what is called "politically correct." When feminists tried to ban artists such as Karen Finley from art shows because of using objectionable words and images, when blacks, gays, and the disabled tried to change the stereotypes by trying to censor them out of existence, it gave Helms the opening he needed. The only real way to get rid of evil, bad, stupid stereotypes and ideas is to give them freedom of expression in an open marketplace of ideas where all ideas have equal access to people. This requires the trust and the faith that the truth will be ultimately chosen.