“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 6, 2000, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Our guest today is a talented actress, whose work has been honored time and again. Jane Alexander received a Tony Award for her role in “The Great White Hope.” She received an Emmy Award for her performance in “Playing For Time.” And along the way, she’s picked up four Academy Award nominations and a Television Critics’ Circle Award. And then, in 1993, in what can only be described as a courageous career move, Jane Alexander signed on for the toughest role of all: chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s here today to talk about her new book detailing her experiences with the NEA. It’s called Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics. Thanks very much for being here. I’ve enjoyed your book very much. It’s a terrific read both for people who care about the theater and those who have a commitment to free expression. I was struck, though, by a lot of the content of the book where this appeared to be a dream job in some ways for you. But in other ways, it clearly — there were mornings that you had to wake up and go, “What was I thinking?” How was the job different from what you expected?
Jane Alexander: I truly believed, when I came to the NEA, that I might be able to turn around the negative opinion that Congress had of the NEA, in particular, because of a couple of controversial grants. And what happened instead was, within the year, the 104th Congress, the first Republican Congress in 40 years, took control with (Georgia Rep.) Newt Gingrich as speaker and with a whole new kind of Republican coming in. It wasn’t the Rockefeller Republican who had funded the arts and the humanities so much in the past. It was a new breed that was out to create a moral nation, pare down government and so on. And the NEA was on top of their hit list. So I was in the trenches for the rest of the time there.
Paulson: In the book, you tell a fascinating story about your relationship with artists, some of whom have been supportive, some of whom have not been. And you express your disappointment as you came in that — people like (Tennessee Sen.) Fred Thompson, who had a career as an actor; (California Rep.) Sonny Bono, who was at one point a symbol of the counterculture long ago — neither one expressed much support for NEA. Did that surprise you?
Alexander: It did, because I think artists, even if they’re very successful in the commercial sector, should understand that we all need to be nurtured. And most artists begin in the nonprofit sector or in arts education in their school systems or after-school programs. And I thought surely Sonny Bono would understand that, but he didn’t. And he said a pretty, um, obtuse remark, actually, about the NEA; he said, “I never knew anybody who received an NEA grant,” ergo it wasn’t important. That was just silly. He didn’t get around much.
Paulson: Well, in other cases, you had people who were champions that I think most Americans wouldn’t think of immediately when they’re thinking about, sort of, heroes of free expression. Possibly the least-offensive musician in America, Kenny G, steps up and takes a stand for the NEA. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Alexander: Oh, I loved it when some of the musicians came to the Hill to advocate for the National Endowment for the Arts. And Kenny G went to a congressman who said, “Well, you know, I do believe in the arts, but I’m just not going to vote for the NEA.” And Kenny looked right at him and said, “Well, that’s not very courageous, is it?”
Paulson: It’s terrific. I have to believe that taking the job on at the National Endowment for the Arts required a couple of strong personality traits. One would be confidence; another would be courage. As I looked through the book, I looked for examples of those traits popping up early in your career. And the one event that you really only devote about a paragraph to — but I was sort of stunned by your courage — was, you’re at the White House, and you look across the room, and you see someone you decide you want to dance with. And you approached —
Alexander: Fred Astaire! I asked Fred Astaire to dance.
Paulson: It’s incredible courage. And what happened then?
Alexander: I don’t think it takes a lot of courage. It just takes chutzpah. I — he turned me down. But the good thing was that shortly thereafter, the president, who was Lyndon Baines Johnson at the time, did ask me to dance.
Paulson: And what kind of a dancer was LBJ?
Alexander: He was a terrific dancer.
Paulson: You mentioned in your book that you had to fight down the temptation to share your views on the Vietnam War with him.
Alexander: You bet. I was marching against the war and playing in a wonderful play called, Oh, What a Lovely War — very anti-war sentiment — at Arena Stage at the time. LBJ was a pariah to those of us who were against the war, and there I was dancing with him. And I thought, “Now’s my chance to tell him.” And then I thought, “It’s not the time.” This poor man needs a little relaxation. Besides, he fox-trots very well.
Paulson: If he’d been a poor dancer, you would have let him know your view?
Alexander: You bet.
Paulson: On the other topic of courage, another early example in your career came in a scene from “The Great White Hope,” where — by today’s standards would not be shocking or offend most people, I think — but a scene in which you and James Earl Jones are in a bed together — interracial couple, fully clothed. And this caused kind of an angry backlash in some quarters.
Alexander: Yeah, well, it was the height of the Black Power movement, 1968, ’69. Stokely Carmichael was (saying) “black is beautiful.” Black Power, civil rights movement still there. And there were a lot of white bigots who were extremely reactive. So I was the one in the company that received the death threats, the hate mail, and so on. And, you know, it was jarring, but I — given the time that we were living in, it was understandable.
Paulson: And what happens when you get death threats, when you’re an actress and you’re playing a role and the mail arrives and somebody’s threatening your life? How does — does it change what you do?
Alexander: It doesn’t change what you do. But, you know, every once in a while, I’d have a nightmare about being shot onstage or something. I think that that comes with the territory, any public figure.
Paulson: Did that experience come into play at all later when you were running the NEA, understanding that there’s a really different mind-set out there sometimes?
Alexander: Yeah, well, I’ve known there’s a different mind-set for a very long time. But I mean — I think I was a born Democrat. My family were all Republicans, and all my mother and father’s friends were Republicans. And I didn’t love them any less, but we sure differed on a lot of things. So I grew up understanding that the greatness of our democracy is the difference of opinion and the ability to voice it freely. So I came to the NEA understanding that. It didn’t make things any easier, but I did understand that there were differences.
Paulson: And, of course, your job at the NEA is to promote art, promote public art, promote art education. You don’t go in every morning and say, you know, “We ought to find some more shocking projects that we can support.” And you mentioned you got some advice very early on from Nancy Kassebaum, the junior senator from Kansas, who said, “Don’t try to explain controversial art to Congress.” That turn out to be good advice?
Alexander: It actually was excellent advice, because I think I thought, “Well, if I could just educate people about what art is and what controversial art is and why it’s always going to be there throughout all times and places, I could change people’s minds.” And what Nancy Kassebaum said to me is, “Don’t try to defend controversial art. You can’t do it. There are going to be some people who are just never going to accept it, and there are going to be some who will understand it.” And (Utah Sen.) Orrin Hatch said a similar thing to me. Orrin Hatch was always extremely supportive of the NEA and he said to me, “Don’t waste your time coming to visit people like me, who are going to be supportive all the time, and don’t waste your time going to see people like (Texas Rep.) Dick Armey, who are always going to be against federal funding for the arts. Go for the fence-sitters. Go for the ones who really don’t know what you’re doing with the NEA and what art — in — for our society is all about.”
Paulson: And yet you did not shy away from at least engaging some people who clearly were on the other side. You paid visits to (North Carolina Sen.) Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich. Was that time well invested?
Alexander: I do believe it was in the long run. Jesse Helms and I — we must never forget that he’s a courtly Southern gentleman, and he’s not an uncivil person at all in person. He’s quite charming, in fact. He and I obviously were going differ on many, many things, but he was an important person and an important person to get to know, to pay attention to. I tried to understand what amendments he was going to bring up. Of course, he would never tell me. He’s a secretive man too. But I didn’t want to alienate this person any more than he already felt alienated. He was disappointed in me, because I didn’t do a lot of things that he wanted me to do. But at least we had a civil relationship.
Paulson: At one point, you get a list of concerns from Jesse Helms’ office detailing a number of grants that are attributed to the NEA and in some cases, the NEA is not involved at all. But in a number of cases, it’s extremely controversial art where there may have been some funds used in connection with the NEA. And there has to be a temptation in that job to sort of wish that fringe art would go away. Are there days you would just say, “Can’t we just tone this down?” Is there not that temptation?
Alexander: It wasn’t that I wanted necessarily to tone down the art. I did want it to go away because what I was afraid of was that the whole agency would go under. And that meant all the arts education that we were supporting in the country, all the stuff that nobody has a problem with — and by the way, there should be one statistic that everybody understands, and that is that in 35 years of the existence of the endowment, the agency’s given about 125,000 grants, and about 45 of them have caused some problems. So we’re talking about a very tiny, little slice of what the NEA gives. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t other controversial art. But these particular 45 did cause some problems for some people and were singled out, and then the whole agency was threatened with going under because of them. So, yes, of course I would wish, sometimes, that we just didn’t have these problems, because I was afraid we were going to lose everything else. But I never vitiated my own belief in the First Amendment.
Paulson: Speaking of the First Amendment, there is a quote in the book where you say, “I knew that jumping up and down about the First Amendment and freedom of expression only made things worse, like waving a red flag at a bull.” What is it about the First Amendment that would antagonize Congress?
Alexander: Well, my first meeting was (with South Carolina Sen.) Strom Thurmond. When he said, “You’re going to fund pornography?” and I said, “The endowment is — does not fund obscenity as defined in a court of law, because it’s not protected speech.” And then I went on to say, “But other forms of freedom of expression are an artist’s right, just as they are any citizen’s.” And I talked about the First Amendment. And Strom Thurmond became apoplectic, and he said — literally, I thought he was shaking. He said, “Ah! The First Amendment is an excuse for people to do things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Alexander: I was very, very concerned that I was just going to antagonize other people who were so far right as Strom Thurmond if I started to talk again about First Amendment or freedom of expression, so I couched it in other terms.
Paulson: And do you think that’s because they don’t believe in the First Amendment or believe that you’re just using the First Amendment as a cover for dastardly speech and art?
Alexander: I don’t know the answer to that. I think only Strom Thurmond and the other conservatives who thought that way know the answer to that. I do believe that in my four years that Congress was trying to take more power away from the Constitution and the judicial branch and the executive branch of government. But those checks and balances that we have in our system and the fight of the legislative branch to constantly try to wrest more power from the other two is — has been ongoing in our history. And so, you know, who can blame them for trying? The Supreme Court, as you probably know, came down with a very strong decision about not penalizing institutions for the content of their art in June of ’98.
Paulson: Which brings to mind a more recent controversy in New York: the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the “Sensations” exhibit, where the depiction of the Virgin Mary particularly angered the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, and he threatened to cut off funding. You had to watch that with interest. What was your take on that controversy?
Alexander: Well, it was very clear that the mayor was in violation. He can say whatever he wants to say; that’s fine. But he cannot withhold money from the people’s museum. And, you know, that’s in violation of what the Supreme Court’s decision was. He can say whatever he wants. What bothers me a little bit is, I think people need more education — and the mayor certainly did — about where the artist came from: Nigeria; what his parents thought about the Virgin Mary and how she was deified in that country before he started to make a decision about it being sacrilegious or something.
Paulson: You tell a number of very interesting stories in the book about specific battles over specific art. And one is about a film called “Watermelon Woman” and that your description is that it has a lovemaking scene — but fairly modest by today’s standards — and it involved some lesbians — African-American lesbian women. And yet, this ignited, initially, a firestorm of criticism, and it ended up in a positive way. Can you talk about that, please?
Alexander: Oh, yes, Cheryl Dunye is a fine young filmmaker — African-American woman. And she made this film with some NEA money, some help. And it was a modest film. It was a very loving film about some young African-American lesbians looking for this fictional movie star named Watermelon Woman, a black actress in the ’30s. The scene was very tasteful. I mean, by Hollywood standards, you wouldn’t even bat an eye. And it was blown way out of proportion. Some House of Representatives — Oversight and Investigation Committee — wanted, again, to hammer the NEA and take all the amount of money we had given away from this filmmaker. To make a long story short, when it got to the House floor, the debate on it, Sheila Jackson-Lee, a fine African-American congresswoman from Texas, took the floor and said — talked about diversity in our nation and the strength of diversity in our nation. And that was the end of the discussion. It was one thing to hammer away at the often-disenfranchised group of African-American lesbians in the United States. It was quite another to take on a formidable African-American congresswoman.
Paulson: It does seem like some of those battles did turn on one individual’s courage, one individual’s vote, or somebody standing up at the right time. I think there’s a misunderstanding about the funding by the NEA, and you make that point well in your discussion of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. Where, in effect, the NEA gave a grant for an entire year of performances. And then within that year of performances, there was one event that caused significant backlash. And in the end, you had only a modest amount, really, of NEA money dedicated to it. And yet the perception was that the NEA had supported a year’s worth of shocking content.
Alexander: Yes, this was the kind of distortion that happened continuously and I was trying to mitigate by talking to the press myself and by really just going for the truth with people and hoping they’d understand. The (performance artist) Ron Athey incident was a very highly inflammatory incident. Ron Athey was an HIV-positive man who was carving with a scalpel little teeny nicks in the back of a man who was not HIV-positive. He would blot them with paper towels, and then he’d put the paper towels — and the patterns were made with the blood of the man — it was pretty far-out stuff — hung on paper clips and strung out on a … line that went out a few feet over the apron of the stage. I didn’t see the performance. This is what I was told. The Walker Arts Center had been given a grant of over $100,000 for 100 performing arts events that the museum put on in that year in that season. So the amount of money the NEA had given to this performance, if you parceled it out, was about $150. But we were really excoriated for that one. Now, Ron Athey himself had never applied to the NEA directly. The panel had never had to consider him. So this was blown way out of proportion. The poor Walker Arts Center said, “Listen, this is in the bill of fare. It’s very, very far out on the left. You’re right in terms of performance art, but it is just a few performances that our community is happy to support, a few people in the community. So in the overall scheme of things, it’s what our community wants, and we feel …” — so it was a real problem for us. And I kept saying — and the interesting thing was, at the same time I was touring the United States of America. And I had witnessed — I had been part of a circle dance in the Dakotas of American Indians. And one of the circle dance songs had to do with ritual scarification and bloodletting. And we were supporting that through our Folk and Traditional Arts Program. So, at the same time I was dealing with this modern man, gay man, who was doing some modest bloodletting but bloodletting nonetheless, I was also dealing with American Indians who had had this as part of their culture for thousands of years.
Paulson: And then there was a legislative attempt to prohibit art that involved any kind of depiction of bloodletting?
Alexander: Yes, Jesse Helms brought an amendment to the (Senate) floor saying the NEA should have no more grants given to bloodletting, whereupon Christopher Dodd of Connecticut said, “Now wait a minute.” He’s a Catholic. He said, “That means no more crucifixion, no more St. Sebastian with arrows through him, no more head of John the Baptist, not to mention military battles.” So that was the end of that amendment.
Paulson: It’s a significant segment of our history gone just like that.
Alexander: Not to mention our art in all our museums across the land.
Paulson: If you were to provide some advice to a museum director today who wanted to do something somewhat provocative, thought-provoking that generated multiple viewpoints, what would you say in advance to try to have that exhibit occur with a minimum of negative impact, negative publicity, and negative reaction? What can you do in advance?
Alexander: It’s pretty easy. You have discussions. You have — you have an educational program, an informational program, and you have interactive — the possibility of interactive response. What people want when they become outraged about something is an ability to speak freely, if I may speak freely. That’s what they want. They want to be able to say, “I hate this. This is disgusting; this is unpatriotic; this is sacrilegious; this is …” — They should be allowed to do that without disrupting the show for others. And that’s the whole point of it. So museums are very savvy these days. If there is anything that’s going to be a little bit controversial — or difficult new art for an audience to take, they usually put up warning signs saying, “This may not be suitable for kids under …” — blah, blah. They also say, “This may horrify you. We want to warn you that this is going to happen.” And often, they will have interactive — a book that you can respond to or a computer or whatever. And that’s very important for the public, to be able to get up. Now, I’m not saying I wasn’t hurt sometimes when the artist, in particular, would get up in a place and say that I wasn’t doing enough or standing up enough for the First Amendment. It hurt my feelings, because I felt I was working as hard as I could for them. But, you know, they had to speak their mind.
Paulson: And you would hear from both artists and members of the public and —
Alexander: Oh, yeah.
Paulson: And no one was really satisfied. It had to be a very difficult balancing act for you.
Alexander: Well, actually, the good news was, most people were satisfied. Most people in most communities loved the NEA, loved what made — what the NEA was able to do for their community, whether it was the restoration of old murals that they had in their buildings or whether it was funding artists in residence programs in the school or their local opera company or so on. They were thrilled that the art was there, because art makes people’s lives fuller and more enriching.
Paulson: In the final moments we have here, the richness that the NEA provides has been in danger, and there’s been speculation that the agency may not be here much longer. Ten years from now, will we have an NEA?
Alexander: Oh, yes, we’ll have an NEA, and the budget will be about $350 million.
Paulson: And you feel positively about the NEA’s future because —
Alexander: I feel positive about its future. It’s under good leadership now with my successor, Bill Ivey, and it’s on the right course. It’s — it bills itself now as an investment in communities, and that’s the right way to think of the endowment. Because it’s really for the public. Art is for the public. The artists create it, but they don’t create it in a vacuum. They need an audience of — or a reader or a listener.
Paulson: And you think there’s a growing recognition that art is for the public, that people are investing in that?
Alexander: I know it is, because if you go to art on a local level, the arts budgets are increasing. The mayors think the arts are fabulous for their communities. The state arts budgets are going up. The only people who are lagging behind, I’m sad to say, are our federal officials.
Paulson: Are you finding that kind of highly volatile reactions are being stemmed now?
Alexander: Yeah. They’re definitely —
Paulson: But not self-censorship going on? There’s still provocative art?
Alexander: Oh, the artists, you mean?
Paulson: Right, yes.
Alexander: There is self-censorship in terms of what they apply to the endowment for.
Paulson: I see.
Alexander: Because I wanted to make the agency bulletproof. I got rid of the seasonal support, because Congress kept saying, “I don’t want to buy a pig in a poke.” And the panels didn’t know, either, what they were funding. So it’s now possible not to fund a whole season but one specific project. So an organization applies for one project, and, of course, they’re going to apply for one that is going to be essentially risk-free, because they want to get the money. And in the rest of their season with their own money and other kinds of money, they can do whatever they want.
Paulson: And then the art — public art is served and the budget is maintained; and hopefully, everyone wins.
Alexander: I hope so.
Paulson: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. The book is wonderful. It’s inspiring, it’s entertaining, and it’s thought-provoking. We’ve been visiting with actress Jane Alexander. Her new book is called Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics. I’m Ken Paulson. Back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture.
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