Back to THE HISTORY OF THE FUTUREFall 1999/ Winter 2000

Friday, December 17, 1999, The Culture Wars, I.:
Tim Miller, "Stretch Marks"; Holly Hughes, "Preaching to the Perverted."

There is no agreement as to when the "culture wars" in the United States started. I start with Christina Orr-Cahall's decision in June of 1989 to cancel the Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.--in anticipation of outrage from Congress, a move which signaled that some folks within the artworld thought art could be obscene. This admission was also made later in the same year by Susan Wyatt, Director of Artists Space in New York, who alerted the National Endowment for the Arts that the exhibition and catalogue of "Witnesses" included explicit sexual content by David Wojnarowicz, opening a door which Charles Rembar thought he had firmly closed in 1960 when he argued successfully for the artistic merit of Lady Chatterly's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Lolita before the Supreme Court. But no! Senator Jesse Helms had just gotten his "decency language" passed into law, making arts institutions pledge upon signing their federal grant contracts that the content of their exhibitions would not be "obscene or indecent." The idea that artists could produce any image they wanted--as long as it was not paid for by federal dollars--was advanced by fiscal conservatives like Senator Phil Gramm, an argument that soon put the existence of the NEA itself in the balance.

Meanwhile, the artworld itself was split down the middle over how to handle attacks upon artists' freedom of expression. The institutions that presented live artists argued that controversy was a healthy, natural result of life in a diverse, democratic society. The institutions that represented dead artists wanted us to SHUT UP! I'm pretty sure that photography and performance art took a beating at the end of the 20th century because both are relatively young artistic forms, and seem closer to "real life" than paintings of nudes, for instance. Plus, this work fundamentally challenged the white male heterosexual gaze of the ruling class. What were we thinking?

Read the email responses to The Culture Wars I.

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