Mama! Standing up to the Anti-Arts Bullies
It has now been twelve years since the arts funding controversy achieved national public awareness. Led by Senator Jesse Helms (R-SC), the right wing, launched its opening salvo in the so-called "culture wars" in the summer of 1989, provoked to such high-level indignation by the works of certain artists who had won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Reacting to the outcry, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. canceled "The Perfect Moment," a posthumous, touring retrospective of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. When I wrote to my senator, asking him to support arts funding, he assured me of his personal commitment -- mentioning dead European classical composers -- but then echoed the mentality that funding for controversial art work had to be sacrificed in order to preserve any funding at all for the rest. The first round of this fight ended with deep, across-the-board cuts in arts funding and the highly publicized denial of grants to certain individual performers.
As we move into the new century, the two recent attacks on the Brooklyn Museum of Art demonstrate just how far conservatives have advanced their battle lines: Where once they fought for restrictions on how certain grants could be spent, they now seek to make any public support for the very existence of an arts organization into a tool to restrict the content that organization presents. Thus, we see that the appeasement strategy adopted by mainstream arts organizations and their supporters in the wake of the Mapplethorpe controversy has clearly failed. I offer here a dozen points that I would like to see the arts community consider and implement in response to these and to future bully tactics.
(1) This fight regarding funding may be self-interested, but it is not self-serving. By fighting to preserve arts funding free of content restrictions, artists are naturally seeking to enhance the conditions under which many of us work. However, government support for the arts is only one facet of the broadly accepted view that democratic institutions should have a role in providing for the common weal in ways that market forces do not. It is no accident that the artists singled out for excoriation are generally members of a racial or sexual minority who are using the relative openness of the contemporary avant-garde to secure a place for themselves and counter the social or economic dynamics that have and would otherwise continue to marginalize them. These are the same minorities whose oppression plays out in conflicts over economic security, education, health, privacy, the social impacts of technology, and a host of other important struggles. We need not persuade detractors that the work we do is wholly independent of economic or political influences before we dare to assert a human value beyond corporate profitability.
(2) Question the sincerity of critics who claim they are only guarding the public fisc. Those who oppose arts funding often argue that their tax money should not go to support art that offends them. Billions of taxpayer dollars were used to bail out savings and loan institutions, and no one who perpetrated the fraud which created the S&L crisis was even held accountable. Salvadoran army units killed (rather than merely criticized) Catholic priests and civilians, yet El Salvador enjoyed a great deal of U.S. aid, despite those killings. Both of these programs used compulsory tax money from people who felt strongly that such support was morally wrong. People who criticize arts funding on the grounds that such use of public money is immoral but who have done nothing to protest or criticize these other abuses may be quite sincere, but they need to reconsider their priorities.
(3) It is extremely dangerous for the arts community to leave aesthetic judgments solely in the hands of "experts." A public that feels alienated from the artistic process and incompetent to determine artistic merit for itself is not going to support arts funding. Moreover, a culture dominated by aesthetic experts shelters the arts community from stark reminders evident elsewhere that it is a privilege to produce art -- and a privilege to consume it. On a moral level, it is unfair of us to complain about the censorship practiced by public funding sources while ignoring the censorship that our society practices upon those who have little chance of any significant participation in our nation's cultural life. On a practical level, we will have an uphill battle protecting funding for the privilege -- too little acknowledged -- of being a professional artist.
(4) We should question whether and why we accept ready offense-taking as the mark of the true believer. While Renée Cox's composite photograph "Yo Mama's Last Supper" could stimulate discussion on several issues, it owes its place in the news entirely to its implied critique of the Catholic church. Overlooked in the furor is the fact that many devout Catholics criticize the restraints that the church places on women's participation and leadership within the church and that many do not share the puritanical impulse that sees sexuality in every naked (usually female) body. The willingness to cry foul at any perceived offense is not the sole mark of group identification or of religious commitment.
(5) People frequently claim that artists produce work that is intentionally offensive so the notoriety will boost their careers, but the politicians that whip up these maelstroms get let off the hook. The double standard is apparent between New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's solicitude towards the feelings of the religious communities that support him and his stonewalling against complaints from racial or ethnic minorities that the police force which their tax dollars pay for treats them with disrespect, even brutality. Less apparent and therefore more interesting is the fact that exhibits at the Whitney Museum, whose board has Giuliani connections, drew no fire at all until they criticized Giuliani directly. While the Mayor was litigating to cut off city funding to the Brooklyn Museum over the 'Sensation' exhibit in 1999, the Whitney was showing work that had also already stirred up controversy, yet was spared scolding from City Hall.
(6) In a democracy, religion should not be ceded the role of defining public morality. Even the most tolerant and liberal among religious people must acknowledge that, even as religion provides a haven for individual conscience, it also serves as a force of social control. That control function is exemplified in our society by the undisputed parental right to impose one's religious beliefs on one's children. However, religious conservatives overstep the line when they claim a right, even a duty, to criticize the alternative beliefs and practices of others, and then demand that society restrict cultural expression at large so as to shield their children from what they deem to be corrupting influences. In so doing, they are conscripting all of society to help promulgate their particular religion. In a democracy, the rest of us have no obligation to participate.
(7) The rule about separation of Church and State is not intended to guide decisions on public funding, but rather to spare citizens from being coerced into religious expression that does not reflect their personal beliefs. Contrary to the conventional wisdom promoted by religious conservatives, religious and even Christian-themed art is presented regularly, whether it takes the form of visual art like Rodin's Gates of Hell or of gospel music performed in publicly supported venues. Support for religious cultural expression has never been threatened, and the prohibition against evangelizing with public resources should not be distorted to justify a ban on cultural expression which criticizes religious beliefs and practices.
(8) Venues or forums or programs that promote art and ideas and viewpoints benefit the common weal, even if resources from that program are distributed to people whose views are not commonly shared. It is understandable to feel aggrieved when tax dollars are spent on art that the taxpayer finds offensive, but it is something else altogether for one to claim that a publicly supported forum is in itself injurious just because the work it presents is sometimes disagreeable. Individuals and institutions supported by public funds generate economic activity and provide venues, employment and instruction to developing artists who represent many different viewpoints. There are libertarians who believe that all such public forums are immoral -- though they all seem to believe that the government should enforce private contracts. (It is unclear why aiding the public cultural life is not a proper focus of government when aiding private business dealings is.) Those who agree that a living, developing cultural community is a social benefit find it makes perfect sense for the government to step in and support that community. Otherwise, every individual person or corporation would have an incentive to hang back and let someone else foot the bill. Under these conditions, having one's tolerance tested is simply a "cost of doing business."
(9) There is a crucial difference between criticizing someone's beliefs and excluding that person from the debate entirely. A familiar, shoe-on-the-other-foot tactic of the funding critics is to hypothesize an artwork that attacks homosexuals or racial minorities and then invite comment on its acceptability. Their point is that the arts world would never accept discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, yet condones discrimination against religious people. Leaving aside the question of whether the art world is really so friendly to racial and sexual minorities, the inversion skirts the issue: Racist and homophobic behavior is specifically designed to brand certain people as community outsiders who have no right to participate or have a voice in its affairs. When artworks criticize religious doctrine and practice, even through perceived blasphemy or sacrilege, religious people can counter that exercise of free speech with more speech -- and if the arts controversies have taught us nothing else, they should have taught us that religious people will exercise their First Amendment rights with vigor! But a gay person who is the victim of violence or a black person who is denied educational opportunities has those very rights diminished. The attempt at analogy here is based on false logic.
(10) The stories about outrageous art funded by the federal government have entered the realm of urban legend. In my experience, discussions about controversial artwork with people who do not make a point of following the arts usually involve some wild examples of past artwork that have supposedly received federal funding. Stories about urine and feces have morphed to the point where visual art objects are often spoken of as if they were performance events. It is almost as if I went around saying, based on some fabricated or embellished ten-year-old quote from Dan Quayle, that any dim-wit could be a Republican vice-president. Evidently another drawback to the appeasement tactic is that by trying to tone down the discussion of controversial work, we stimulate people's imaginations all the more.
(11) Professional journalists and critics should not comment on work that they have never seen. If laypeople are content to make pronouncements and draw conclusions about artwork which they have not experienced firsthand, they are merely following the example of many published journalists. In one celebrated instance, Arlene Croce, the respected dance critic for The New Yorker, took Bill T. Jones to task over a dance of his that she had not even seen. In the process, she published several factual errors that Jones's publicist had to correct in a subsequent letter. Not to be outdone, Camille Paglia sent The New Yorker a letter in which she too speculated sight unseen on its qualities and motivations. Paglia was also quick to whip up the supposed Jewish-Catholic conflict surrounding the 'Sensation' exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, again without seeing the work.
(12) If we let the arts debate turn on finances, we invite a dilemma we can't win. If we charge enough to cover costs, then we are decried as elitists who cater only to the rich. If we offer ticket prices affordable to all, we get beaten up for needing a public subsidy. When we try to appease the forces that attack us on the basis of our funding, they simply use the ground we have yielded to launch further attacks. Moreover, however much they say the issue is public money, the issue is still content. The pickets and boycotts of The Last Temptation of Christ should make us distrust the idea that the self-appointed guardians of morality will be satisfied if the public funding for our work is cut off. It is time to take our case aggressively forward and involve the broader populations we are not reaching so that they will at least respect us for standing up to bullies.
(Neal Jahren has studied dance
in various cities throughout the U.S., including at the studios of Martha
Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Movement Research, Inc. He lives in Madison,
 For a concise chronology of the 1989 controversy over National Endowment for the Arts grants, see "NEA Under Siege," American Theatre, September 1989.
 For further arguments and analysis along this line, see Paul Mattick, Jr., "Arts and the State," The Nation, October 1, 1990.
 The views expressed on this subject owe a great deal to Margaret Spillane's article, "The Culture of Narcissism," The Nation, December 10, 1990.
 Though Giuliani declined to take official action against the Whitney, he did comment on the merits of the work in its exhibit: See Judith H. Dobrzynski, "Giuliani Decides to Keep Hands Off Whitney Art Show," The New York Times, March 10, 2000. See, also, Frank Houston's "The Trouble with the Whitneys," Salon, http://www.salon.com/people/feature/2000/03/15/sanitation/index.html. For comments on the Mayor's earlier silence with regard to the Whitney, see Bruce Shapiro, "Everyone's a Critic," Salon, http://www.salon.com/news/feature/1999/10/02/giuliani/index.html
 For further arguments and analysis along this line, see Ellen Willis, "Freedom from Religion," The Nation, February 19, 2001.
 Arlene Croce, "Discussing the
Undiscussable," The New Yorker, December 26, 1994/January 2, 1995.
Letters appeared in the January 30, 1995 issue. Paglia's comments on 'Sensation'
appeared in her regular column for Salon, http://www.salon.com/people/col/pagl/1999/10/06/sensate/index.html.
In case this is all too depressing, a welcome antidote can be found in
Katha Pollitt's "Subject to Debate" column for The Nation, November
1, 1999. Her sarcasm deflates Paglia's posturing and names the names of
several "opinion mongers too lazy to get out of their chairs." Pollitts
thoughts on the recent "Yo Mama's Last Supper" controversy appear in The
Nations March 19, 2001 issue.
[Reprinted (unedited) by invitation from Ether Zone. Ed.]
The soil of cultural debate has been much enriched by Leftist claims that the Religious Right whoever that is is bent on "forcing its views down everyone's throats." Not only is the shopworn cliché inaccurate, it actually makes criminals of the victims. The reality of the matter is that no group in this country has had its values more systematically assailed in recent years than those who seek to practice the faith of their fathers.
First of all, there is no Religious Right. It is a convenient fiction, manufactured by supposedly tolerant Leftists as a way of stereotyping anyone who doesn't twirl a baton in their humanist parade. It is a two-dimensional label for a three-dimensional phenomenon. Religion in the United States has a thousand flavors, some highly orthodox, others as New Age as Heaven's Gate. Few agree on protocol; many disagree on fundamental principles. Not only do they often work at cross-purposes; some of them are the keenest allies of the Left! To paint that bickering hodgepodge as a monolithic force sacrifices truth for semantic convenience, and is not just fatuous, it's paranoid.
For fundamentalists another group dangerously close to a fiction the latter half of the 20th century has been an era of dwindling influence and growing persecution. In the 60's, the Jesus Movement parlayed society's spiritual ennui into a surge of grass-roots Christianity that died as soon as the novelty wore off. It's been downhill ever since. The latter 60's saw the first "civil rights" lawsuits as the ACLU and other anti-Crusaders sued to drive Christianity out of the public square. The secularization of Christian holidays began in earnest, helped along by commercial greed and Reconstructionist iconoclasm. Christmas became less about the birth of the Christian savior than a spike in retail sales for I Magnin. The move continues today as candy manufacturers and the bunny rabbit lobby seek to co-opt Easter.
The Left constantly rewrites history to diminish the role religion played in the founding of this country and its subsequent successes. All the high-flown rhetoric of the Founders was vacated because a handful of them owned slaves. "Endowed by their Creator" was just a pretty phrase; no true natural law existed. Religious toleration meant allowing Satanic masses (but not Promise Keepers), gay support groups (but no prayer meetings), Santa Claus (but not the Christ Child). The First Amendment became a bar to the practice of religion rather than a guarantor of its freedom.
There was no shortage of spotlights for religion's historical failures. In The Crucible, Arthur Miller twisted the Salem witch trials into a metaphor for persecution of communists by moral zealots. Increasingly, movies depicted the forces of good as powerless against the demonic darkness. Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist all showed us that diabolical forces were afoot, and that they could throw the Good Guys over the garden fence with one cloven hoof tied behind their back.
With the rise of the civil rights movement and the growth of the militant Black Muslim community, Christianity took on racial tones the wrong ones. Adherence to traditional Christianity became suspect in whites, and verboten among hip, urban blacks. A faith created by Jews, with adherents in every country on earth, became the exclusive domain of white oppressors. The faith that sustained many a slave family in their darkest hours was rejected as a relic of bondage by the descendants of those slaves. To this day, Louis Farrakhan spews anti-Semitism with the regularity and general effect of a leaky toilet.
Then the feminists decided to do a little celestial redecorating. They labeled Christianity a misogynist institution responsible for the second-class status women had inherited for centuries. "Eve Was Framed" read their bumper stickers, and another scar was gouged into the altar. Sure, women were major players in the biblical drama Catholics venerate Mary, the Mother of God on a level above all other humans, including the disciples. Hundreds of women from Joan of Arc to Our Lady of Fatima are hailed as saints, and although women are not allowed to be priests, it is arguable that nuns have had as much or more influence on the world as their cassocked brethren. But the "feminists" weren't having any of that. The bible needed to be rewritten to make it gender neutral. Women needed a bigger role in church politics. There was even speculation that the Big Guy was the Big Mom.
Don't forget the homosexual movement. They had to have their shot. From the bawdy cross-dressing 'nuns' of San Francisco to the invasion of Catholic masses by condom-throwing queers, nothing was sacred anymore. Any religion that condemned homosexuality regardless of the fact that it had done so for three thousand years was morally reprehensible. Priests were all pederasts anyway, and nuns were just frustrated old lesbians. Old Testament sanctions against homosexuality supposedly gave a subtle license to gay bashing. And a lifestyle defined by its licentiousness wasn't likely to respect sexual restraint (in any but the prurient sense). Sex was for recreation, not procreation. The Church was the agent of oppression, not the voice of Reason.
Sinead O'Conner on Saturday Night Live. Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano at the Corcoran. Madonna everywhere. The anti-religious assault continued unabated. We saw hours of reports about the mad cultists in Guyana when the People's Temple imploded. The media shills relentlessly pounded the drum when Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were outed as charlatans. Oral Roberts became a laughingstock when he threatened to shuffle off the mortal coil unless he got a few million dollars in lunch money. Nobody let up on the religious community. By time they were done, the media had most of secular America believing that the face of modern religion belonged to Tammy Faye Bakker.
Wars have started over less. Salman Rushdie is still a hunted man because he dared hint that Mohammed was imperfect. Yet the figure venerated by Christians as the savior of mankind is variously portrayed as a homosexual, a drunk, a burned-out loser, and a letcher. And nobody objects. No death sentence is passed on the offenders. Their theaters aren't burned or their scrawny, disease-ridden bodies torn limb from limb by mobs of angry Puritans. When Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson condemn their hateful, insulting acts, the spokesmen are pilloried as bigots and censors.
After half a century of being vilified by the vapid, the trendy, the elite, and the degenerate, Christians are still accused of thrusting their values upon the world. They are ridiculed on puerile sitcoms, excluded from the public forum, hounded from our schools, ignored by the media (except to point out their shortcomings, by people whose own shortcomings are the stuff of legend), and literally splattered with offal in museums and art galleries. Yet, these, the victims of hate, are condemned as intolerant. Men and women who only want to worship a transcendent Good are hauled up before the court of public opinion, and branded as intolerant hatemongers. The cultural juggernaut rolls on.
In a move absurd in its duplicity, yet oddly effective in our twisted world, the Left, a group marked by its licentiousness and immorality, claims the moral high ground. The stereotypes it honors are as vile and unfair as any racial epithet. It hectors people with whom it disagrees, ignoring substance in favor of emotionalism and name-calling. But its most odious tactic is to project its own biases upon the innocent, defying logic and fact to paint the Right as the aggressor in the cultural war. It's been said that the best defense is a good offense. And the Left certainly knows how to offend.
There are signs that the tide is turning. Jesse Ventura may have gutted himself with his recent broadside of traditional religion. Network tv audiences continue to decline as programming fare plumbs ever deeper and fouler sewers. Sexual abstinence among young women, and a growing rejection of Standard Feminism indicate a reluctance to accept the harridan credo wholesale. The continued presence of a moral tone in the Republican side of the primary race has forced at least one party to confront issues instead of sound bites.
But the war is hardly over. The Leftists are far from finished. As they start losing ground, expect them to forsake the logical, compassionate arguments of the past for scorched earth. If there's one thing the Left's spoiled children aren't good at, it's losing gracefully. They will stop at nothing to protect their position.
Maybe that's their downfall, the inevitable vulnerability of their movement. To defend what they've gained through deceit, they must redouble their duplicity. Their arguments become ever more strident and hysterical, and their relevance dwindles as they creep closer and closer to the edge of madness. Even their stalwarts begin to sense the dementia and mumble their excuses while they slip out the side door. Finally, the house of smoke and mirrors collapses, and from the dust arises a new distinction between good and evil. Then, hopefully, we can bury the desiccated corpse of Leftist amorality, and go about rebuilding a moral America, rather than reconstructing her in the mode du jour.
John Guthmiller is a freelance political
writer and a staff columnist for Ether Zone.
Published in the February 14, 2000 issue of Ether Zone. Copyright © 2000 Ether Zone (http://etherzone.com). Reposting permitted with this message intact.
by invitation from Ether Zone. Ed. Big City Lit(tm)]