Controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts

Art as Theology: Chapter Twelve

      1. No Limits
      2. Piss Christ
      3. Art? or Just Vular?

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“Right now I think censorship is necessary; the things they're doing and saying in films right now just shouldn't be allowed. There's no dignity anymore and I think that's very important.” (Mae West, interviewed in 'Take One', Jan. 1974)

No Limits

There are few of us in the modern Western world that would want to limit liberal democracy to the point that creativite innovation, minority rights, or artistic and religious freedoms are suppressed. Most in the modern West deplore the levels of censorship employed by many current non-Western and some Western governments. Various artists also reflect all the social trends including vulgarity and anti-social and anti-religious sentiments. Artist's are not able to ignor the social transformation, the sense of the rush of modernity or the shock. Reflecting is what the artist does. Unfortunately, there is a large group of artists for whom shock or public outrage is desired reaction.

The question of where to limit vulgar and offensive displays becomes paramount when public institutions become involved. The pressure liberalizing forces within liberal democracy has continually spawned backlashes attempting to stop or limit the process least our children be subject to a world of lowest common denominators of the basest sort. Those sectors of the arts which reflect vulgar, debasing and antagonistic attitudes within the society are not likely to be ignored for long. The movement of these works into public institutions can only cause a negative response.

Censorship is also limited in its effectiveness. Shakespeare experienced, "Art made tongue-tied by authority," (William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 66'), but continued to produce biting analysis until all theaters where shut down by Cromwell's rebellion. Reacting to political and public pressure the National Endowment for the Arts has attempted to censor, through the withdrawal of public funding, questionable art projects. For example two projects focused on the human body had their funding cut in 1992. The result was that the band Aerosmith jumped into the controversy by providing the funding and garnering extra publicity for the projects in the process (MIT archives). Bitter reaction to censorship brought support from the arts community, and funding which allowed the project to be expanded and more widely publicized.

It needs to be said that you don't know what you've got until it's gone. The current slide towards the vulgar, crude and offensive in the arts and popular culture, is being accompanied by a rising tide of lawlessness in several levels of society, from corporate boardrooms to sports stadiums. I was one of many who went through several rebellious years before trying to reign in my appetites. I am not an outsider to the problems cause, but as theatrical designer, a participant who, like Mae West above, is now eager to find a better alternative.


Piss Christ

Conservative Christians now scour the arts for unacceptable images in the arts. This generalized effort coalesced into a group in opposition to Martin Scorseses film version of Leo Kazian's The Last Temptation of Christ. This film depicts a Christ continually re-evaluating himself and finally slipping the burden of crucifiction to retire in the countryside with Mary Magdelene. It is not surprising that many ardent Christians found the film offensive, while non-Christians and liberal Christians found the controversy amusing.

The discovery of several works being presented by National Endowment for the Arts funded institutions that contained works insulting to Christianity or pornographic in nature set off a new outcry. Two works in particular were singled out: 'Piss Christ', a photograph of a wood and plastic crucifix taken through a jar of photographer Andres Serrano's urine, and an exhibition of Robert Maplethorpe's photographs, which included several homoerotic photos. Senator Jesse Helmes led a campaign to eliminate the NEA and succeeded in reducing NEA funding. Pat Buchanan mounted continued assaults on the NEA. President George Bush, Sr. replaced NEA chairman John Frohnmayer with a more conservative candidate Anne-Imelda Radice, who immediately withheld funding to two college art galleries for featuring shows with erotic content.

Pat Buchanan's frothy comments, “While we were off aiding the Contras, a Fifth Column inside our own country was capturing the culture,” (Buchanan, pg.1F), are matched by equally frothy comments from the arts community. Not surprisingly the strongest polemic comes from activist/artists. Mark Durant, writing in Art in America, says, “It is clear that the attack against artists especially gays, lesbians and artists of color, is only a small part of a systemic campaign against those who would utter their own realities in defiance of the malicious mythologies that seem to be the order of the day.” (Durant, pg.33).

Like many current public debates, this one seems to be characterized by a hardening of the lines on both sides. We should notice that in large part the eagerness to shock on the part of the arts is intentionally creating the debate. To fall back on the high brow authority of 'art' is to ignore that the intention of much of the modern arts is to break all established conventions, both cultural and moral. Shock and anger on the part of those who disagree with this debasement of social order is the only possible reaction. There is no middle ground. The sheep cannot compromise with the wolf.


Art? or Just Vular?

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” (Pablo Picasso, quoted in Antonina Vallentin, Pablo Picasso, Ch.11, 1957)

The smug comment of Picasso, quoted above, is indicative of a general bias within the arts towards the destruction of all social limits. The line between 'art' and pornography is increasingly theoretical more than actual. This returns us to the discussion of the pile of bricks. Does placing a nude cello player in a gallery make the performance art? Does this have any more social relevance than lighting a fart in church?

There is a question of limits to vulgar and offensive displays. Has shock art not run its course many years ago? The intense desire to break old molds has led to a fascination with anything vulgar or offensive as if public discomfort was in and of itself a virtue. It would seem that much of what passes for art, is not artistic, innovative or useful in any social or aethetic sense of the word. That public institutions are insisting that the public pay for this 'art', displays to me a sort of miasma within the arts community. The notion that a public instition would risk a withdrawal of all public funding to display a painting of the virgin Mary covered with elephant dung is strange. It gives me the impression that I really must see this painting to see why it is so damn valuable. Having seen it, I realize its only value is in the offense itself. Like its more tolerable ancestors, Mona Lisa with a moustach, or 'The Fountain', there is no value in the 'ding an suche'.

This leads us to a situation where the arts appear to be in the hands of twelve year olds with little or no parental supervision. Indeed, in an interview with the author of a new book on the search to purchase an Andy Warhol painting, (forgive me, I did not catch the name), the author discribes a food fight at a party thrown for arts elites. He suggests the same. Artists and the elites of the art world tend to be rather immature in some ways. If our public institutions are unwilling to set boundaries for acceptable offense, why do we have public institutions at all? Certainly they cannot be serving the public. Common sense dictates that public art must stay within the confines of good taste. Stretching those limits is the role of the left, but not the role of the NEA or any other public institution.

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copyright © 1999 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.