Jane Alexander still fighting for controversy in the arts

Wednesday, June 7, 2000

Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander

NEW YORK — Jane Alexander is no stranger to the spotlight. As an actress, she won a Tony award for her role in “The Great White Hope” and an Emmy award for “Playing with Time.”

But it was her role as head of the National Endowment for the Arts that put her into the hottest spotlight. From 1993 to 1997, she defended a variety of controversial art before a Republican Congress while at the same time withstanding attacks from other artists.

“When the artists, 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 that I was working as hard as I could for them,” Alexander said yesterday at Newseum/NY.

The actress, in town to promote her new book, Command Performance: An Actress in the Theater of Politics, was a guest on “Speaking Freely,” a new television program scheduled to air on New York’s Metro Arts 13. Sponsored by the First Amendment Center, the program will offer a weekly conversation on the First Amendment, the arts and American culture with host Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center.

Alexander said she recognized that people need to express their feelings, particularly when criticizing controversial art. The easiest way to buffer public criticism of controversial art, she added, is to hold discussions, informational programs and interactive responses with the public.

“What people want when they become outraged about something is an ability to speak freely,” she said. “They want to be able to say, ‘I hate this. This is disgusting. This is unpatriotic. This is sacrilegious.’ They should be able to do that without disrupting the show for others.”

After all, she said, art is for the public.

“Artists create art, but they don’t create it in a vacuum,” she said. “They need an audience or a reader or listener.”

Alexander pointed out that in the NEA’s 35-year history, only 45 of 125,000 grants ever threatened its well-being.

“Most people in most communities loved the NEA, loved what the NEA was able to do for their communities,” she said. “Art makes people’s lives fuller and more enriching.”

But during her term as chairman, she said, the battle with Congress made her feel like she was a constant soldier for the arts.

“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,” she said. “And what happened instead was within the year, the 104th Congress — the first Republican congress in 40 years — took control with Newt Gingrich as speaker.”

“It wasn’t the Rockefeller Republicans who had funded the arts and the humanities so much in the past,” she told Paulson. “It was a new breed that was out to create a moral nation, pare down government and so on. And the NEA was on the top of their hit list. I was in the trenches for the rest of the time there.”

Alexander recalled her various run-ins with individual congressmen, particularly Sen. Strom Thurmond who told her the First Amendment was “an excuse for people to do what they shouldn’t be doing.”

As one Democrat battling an overwhelming Republican majority, however, Alexander found herself in a situation close to home. She was the sole Democrat in her family, she recalled, but her family’s clashes of opinion made her value free speech even more.

“I grew up understanding that the greatness of our democracy is the difference of opinion and the ability to voice it freely,” she said. “I came to the NEA understanding that. It didn’t make it any easier.”

There were also times that she couldn’t always voice her opinions freely. Sometimes she had to use discretion. Once when she was at the White House, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked her to dance. Although she was marching against the Vietnam War and appearing in the anti-war play, “Oh, What a Lovely War,” she just couldn’t bring herself to talk about the war while dancing with the president.

“LBJ was pariah to those of us who were against the war, and there I was dancing with him,” she recalled. “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,” she added, “he foxtrots very well.’”