Review: "THE AЯTS" at La MaMa

(Theo Cote)

(Theo Cote)

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic

  • Connecticut Critics Circle/ACTA

“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” –George Washington

"Politicians don't bring people together. Artists do." – Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago

"Art is an accurate statement of the time in which it is made." – Robert Mapplethorpe

As if we need any additional partisan hot buttons to mull over these days, ask anyone about what they consider art, you might get an answer much like when you ask someone what they consider pornography: “You know it when you see it.” But have you wondered how we as a country fund our arts and humanities programs? How much do you know about the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities? We hear them as sound bites after many PBS programs and read them in text on art museum labels, but do you know how they started?  Kevin Doyle attempts to tell that story with his production, THE AЯTS, at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. As an art history major just after the congressional attacks on the NEA, I especially was piqued by the subject matter.  Unfortunately, this piece only partially satisfied my intellectual curiosity and instead frustrated and disappointed me.

For those who are curious (like me) about the NEA/NEH origin, I will provide a synopsis. In the early 1960s, then First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, lamented the lack of a United States arts and humanities organization to her friend and Rhode Island Senator, Claiborne Pell: France has a Minister of Culture, why can’t the United States, she asks? This question results in a series of hearings in Congress that would lead to the establishment of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. So, we have a federal law that requires the government to spend taxpayer money on the arts and humanities.

All mostly was well and good until 1989.  The NEA provided funds to artist Andres Serrano, whose work, “Immersions (Piss Christ),”  incensed a pastor in Virginia where the work was on display. This outrage set off the controversial Senate sessions where Senators Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato passionately discredited Andres Serrano and fellow artist, Robert Mapplethorpe, calling them jerks and their artwork obscene.  

Their outrage over these artists rendered the passage of a “general standard of decency” act as part of the NEA/ NEH legislation passed back in 1965. And in 1998, the Supreme Court found that the decency portion imposed upon the NEA was constitutional. It did not restrict the artistic point of view, the Supreme Court argued since it is only one of the many considerations given to the artist or artists who apply for funding. Granted, individual visual or dramatic artists can no longer receive NEA funding; only creative writers and translators may apply for individual grants.

So, learning about that background, I thought that this show would then tell that story in a documentary fashion, since it was advertised as a “docu-drama.” This was an inaccurate description of the show. While the central crux of the performance – the reenactment of the 1962 Senate hearing about the passing of the federal law, headed by Rhode Island Senator Pell – does fit that description, the other portions do not.

The pre-show consisted of a scrolling list of events in American arts funding far back as George Washington’s presidency up to the early 1960s. As the show began, five performers dressed in neutral suit-like attire played various senators, representatives, and other key characters (like Mrs. Kennedy), as screenshots of the hearing report title pages were displayed behind them. Sometimes, the dialogue was linear and logical; other times lines would not be, often said it repetition. Additional costume pieces would appear and sometimes make sense (Jackie’s sunglasses and scarf) and other times, not so much (an astronaut’s suit and helmet; various colonial uniforms).

The former part of the performance did not frustrate me as much as the latter part of the performance: the reenactment of the 1989 Senate hearings with Senators D’Amato and Helms. The actors playing Helms and D’Amato were running around screaming and tearing up photos of artwork. A giant image of Serrano’s work was on the screen behind them, and smaller images would pop up of Mapplethorpe’s works. Videos showing Helms, D’Amato, and Newt Gingrich would appear to help give context to the insanity happening on stage. Another actor was reading something that I wish I could hear, but I couldn’t hear anything over the yelling actors. This went on for far too long, and perhaps that was the point; I felt uncomfortable and irritated, wanting the cacophony to end. And when it finally did, we launch into the present day with the Trump administration and its war on the arts: a depressing – but necessary – reminder that this fight isn’t over. The show’s last moments consisted of pleas to the audience to remember that arts funding is not safe and still vulnerable, despite the federal mandate.

Now maybe Doyle intends to evoke emotion rather than inform, which is fine, but then the piece should be described another way: “docu-performance art,” perhaps? It felt more like abstraction than documentary, and I expected something else, based on advertising. There is so much content, so many points of view that could have been depicted and presented in a way that shows this struggle and demonstrates the five years of research that Doyle had done.

We could have had an interesting portrayal of these congressional hearings, as there is no doubt that these performers (Dracyn Blount, Alexander Chilton, Shayna Conde, Nick Daly and Georgia Lee King) would have all excelled at telling that story; they were excellent. Instead, we get part history and mostly art, and frankly, this wasn’t as advertised and not what I signed up for.