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the nea tapes 2001


Distributed by Distributed by Eidia House, PO Box 11,New York, NY 10012-0001; 212-529-0487
Produced by Produced by Eidia House
Directed by Directed by Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf
VHS, color, 88 min.

College - Adult
Japan, Popular Culture, Music Trade, Singers

Date Entered: 11/09/2018

ALA Notable:
Reviewed by: Reviewed by Susan DeMasi, Ammerman Campus Library, Suffolk County Community College, Selden, NY

In the series of deliberate jump cuts that open the nea tapes, filmmaker Paul Lamarre appears on camera to make clear the documentary’s purpose: to address issues of free expression, particularly as it involves government funding – and defunding -- of the arts.

In the 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts came under fire from political conservatives (among others, Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dick Armey). They called for the dissolution of the agency for supporting projects they deemed sexually or religiously offensive. These attacks lead Lamarre and fellow documentarian Melissa Wolf to set out on a cross-country tour to interview artists, critics, historians, scholars and legislators – all the major players in what the filmmakers call “the culture wars.” The two hoped to chronicle the struggle of artists nationwide, as well as address issues of artists’ survival in the face of censorship and the corporate marketplace. Their strong advocacy in favor of arts funding is made clear.

What began as a “works in progress” (with segments aired on Bravo and the Independent Film Channel), evolved, after over 300 interviews, into a 60-minute documentary.

With much of the action taking place during the 1990’s, it would seem at first glance to be a project that’s come five years too late. But the issues surrounding free expression, whether supported by government funding or not, don’t seem to go away. (Note the recent push to de-fund public radio.)

The filmmakers have also kept it current by creating an ongoing Internet archive, with plans to make all 300 interviews available as streaming video and transcriptions. (They invite artists to submit comments to their website,, in order to continue the dialogue on arts funding.)

Among the “big names” interviewed is actor/activist Tim Robbins, who champions the accomplishments of the NEA and its influence on arts programs since its inception. (The fact that he’s not identified until later – in an excellent “bookend” segment near the end of the program -- may have been a faulty production decision.) Continuing as part road trip, part talking heads, the documentary gathers opinions from other big names as well -- either supporting the NEA, decrying its politicalization of funding, advocating the agency’s dissolution, or condemning public funding of specific art projects. Weighing in via interviews or media coverage, i.e. C-SPAN footage, are Noam Chomsky, Edward Albee, Dick Armey, Rudolph Giuliani, former NEA head Jane Alexander and others. (Anti-NEA voices are mostly shown through news footage.)

The documentary shows that public funding of the arts isn’t just about someone like Andres Serrano, and other headline-making “controversial” artists. (Serrano made news with his image of a crucifix dipped in urine. It was part of a show funded by the NEA.) Other funding disputes explored include the famous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit and the Brooklyn Museum show which provoked New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to try to cut city funding of the museum.

Interviews with lesser-known artists from across the country provide a nice counterpoint to these more famous players and the big-city cultural centers. Cowboy poets of the west, Native American folk artists fighting for survival in California, a theatre company in Iowa – this is art in the heartland, and it is the legacy of the NEA. These segments include interviews with artists who have previously been funded by government agencies, only to later have their grants threatened or denied (in one case because an exhibit featured lesbian themes.) Although Dick Armey may have targeted artists like Andres Serrano, the filmmakers point out that cuts to the NEA can certainly devastate these communities as well.

The anti-NEA views of the Christian Action Network are also shown, with an interview of its director and coverage of the protest exhibit (“Degenerate Art Show”) mounted by the organization in Washington.

The subject of this documentary is compelling and important, but the production values may be jarring to some viewers. As mentioned, there are the deliberate jump cuts. Other stylized devices, such as the on and off travelogue-like commentary from Lamarre, and a disjointed approach to the narrative, can get in the way of the content. These methods, however, make sense when understanding that this was a six-year “work in progress” piece.

This tape is recommended for college students and adults, but would best be used as a supplement if audiences are not already versed in the arts funding controversies explored here. By itself, it does not give the necessary background for students to fully understand the content, particularly if they are unaware of some of the news events that are covered. (Note: arrangements can be made for the filmmakers to present the film.) The tape would have limited application in a high school classroom because it is not the kind of material likely to be covered in the curriculum; also, some images may be ill-advised for use in a high school setting. Don’t expect a balanced look with well-grounded arguments from both sides. It does tackle important issues, but remains an advocacy piece. “We hope that the nea tapes in the end will create a different dialogue about funding of the arts in America,” says Lamarre in the last scene.

This tape would be a good tool to fuel discussions on government/public funding for the arts and free expression. It would be useful in communications, first amendment law, political science, popular culture, sociology, and, of course, art.