The art world has sabotaged itself throughout the culture wars, and it’s happened again in the controversy whipped up around “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A week after the mayor threatened to cut off all city funding to the museum, the Cultural Institutions Group (which represents most of the city’s museums) finally sent him a letter so craven and mealy-mouthed it can’t even be called a protest. (They were “deeply concerned.”) On the day that letter went public, the Daily News offered opposing op-eds on the controversy— or tried to— but they couldn’t find anyone in the museum world to defend the art.
This has been a problem from Day One— the consistent reluctance within the art world itself to defend targeted artists. The infamous capitulation at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, in June 1989, seems to have set a tone. Director Christina Orr-Cahill decided that the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, “The Perfect Moment,” was too hot to handle and canceled the show. Just a month earlier, Senator Alfonse D’Amato had spearheaded the congressional attack on art, dramatically ripping up a catalog on the Senate floor that included a reproduction of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The Corcoran would roll over for the bullies on Capitol Hill to save itself and the National Endowment for the Arts. Supposedly. Instead, the museum lost credibility within the art world when it pulled the plug. But as sociologist Steven C. Dubin observes in Arresting Images, a comprehensive book on the beginning of the culture wars, “There was also a conspicuous reluctance to rally around Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic imagery; it was simply too difficult for many people to come to terms with, and on short notice.”
The next self-inflicted wound came along in November of that year, when Artists Space director Susan Wyatt alerted the NEA and its new chair, John Frohnmayer, about the explicit sexual content of an upcoming show devoted to the AIDS crisis, “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” Chances are that this show would never have crossed anyone’s radar screen outside the art world had Wyatt not involved Frohnmayer.
But this increasingly was the issue: the art world cocoon had been penetrated by people on the right whose rigid worldview was being challenged. They quickly became adept at targeting transgressive symbols impossible to explain in a sound bite. And sometimes even the art world seemed embarrassed by this art.
When Frohnmayer defunded Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller in 1990, the faultlines of the art world became even more visible. The newly formed National Campaign for Freedom of Expression initiated a lawsuit, charging that the artists had been defunded for political reasons and challenging a new restriction imposed by Congress— that the NEA had to consider not just artistic merit but “general standards of decency.” As she tried to marshal support for this case, NCFE cofounder Joy Silverman discovered that the mainstream arts lobbyists in Washington saw controversial artists merely as “a problem to get rid of.”
The National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), the service organization for small nonprofits like Dixon Place and the Kitchen, signed on as a co-plaintiff but stood completely alone. The bigger, better funded, more mainstream groups like the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies (now Arts for America), and the American Association of Museums refused to endorse the suit.
Silverman said the mantra from the Washington lobbyists she remembers hearing ad nauseam was that there were “only 20 controversial grants.” Call it the Bad Apples Defense. (“We just have a few bad apples.”) By 1997, defending artists had devolved to such a degree that arts advocate Alec Baldwin was telling a House subcommittee, “People keep saying Mapplethorpe Mapplethorpe Mapplethorpe Serrano . . . thinking that people on my side of the issue are in favor. We are not in favor.”
Where is the testimony before Congress that Mapplethorpe and Serrano deserved the money? Liberals keep caving, and the right-wingers never do. When Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, went on trial in 1990 for refusing to remove seven pictures from the same Mapplethorpe show, their lawyers defended them successfully by getting testimony from museum professionals about why the photos are art. Now, of course, the right-wing line is that the Cincinnati jurors were forced to say that this was art. So said a woman from the Catholic League during a recent debate on NY1.
A few days later, the story popped up in a William F. Buckley Jr. column. He says a Mapplethorpe juror told The New York Times that the jury (which deliberated for two hours) was reluctant to overrule the curator on whether the show had artistic merit. Buckley titled his column, “If People Say It’s Art, Do We Have To Go Along?” Of course, the juror helpfully provided another example of someone who was being crammed down his throat as an alleged artist: Pablo Picasso.
The real debate here is about a hundred years old, and by now the art world ought to know which side it’s on.