Once upon a time, conservatives knew how to conduct a culture war. On Aug. 16, 1949, in the most notable of several speeches he would make on the subject, Rep. George Dondero (R-Mich.) took to the floor of the U.S. House to condemn modern art in all its varieties.
“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth,” said Dondero. “Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and the insane.” And so on. The –isms presented a clear and present danger, he explained: Henri Léger and Marcel Duchamp had arrived recently in the United States, brushes bent on “the destruction of our standards and traditions.”
“The question is, what have we, the plain American people, done to deserve this sore affliction that has been visited upon us so direly?” pleaded Dondero.
In the late 1980s, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) took Rep. Dondero’s question and weaponized it. Where Dondero was poetic, Helms was curt. On Andres Serrano, the Piss Christ auteur the senator made famous, Helms offered, “Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk.”
Helms’s staff would trace even the tiniest public funding to artists like Serrano and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose value to Helms greatly outweighed whatever paltry grant the artists may have received from the National Endowment for the Arts. When the Corcoran Gallery of Art bowed to perceived political pressure and canceled an exhibit of Mapplethore’s work in 1989, Helms’ office called the museum to complain about the Corcoran’s withdrawal, then-director Christina Orr-Cahall told New Art Examiner that year.
“Make no mistake about it, we will alert our members that you are on the record as supporting tax-sponsored pornography,” stormed then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in an effort to gin up support for legislation to punish the institutions that showed Serrano and Mapplethorpe. But Rohrabacher and his counterpart Sen. Helms failed to generate anything more than bluster. Congress rejected their proposed five-year, punitive funding bans for the institutions in question and passed only a merely symbolic cut in the NEA’s budget. (Meanwhile, the value of Mapplethorpe’s work soared.)
In 1999, then–New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani manufactured some outrage over Chris Ofili’s dung-decorated Virgin Mary, but it didn’t take: Giuliani doesn’t cut a very convincing Catholic moralist. Here was another pointed religious work (by a practicing Catholic, no less), and another institution (the Brooklyn Museum of Art) that suffered no financial consequence for showing it.
The latest congressional dustup on the arts has all the hallmarks of yesteryear’s culture wars. The work in question, a portion of a video by David Wojnarowicz called A Fire in My Belly, which was showing at the National Portrait Gallery, has both sexual and religious content. It reads as offensive to those who wish to be offended and ruminative to those who would have any other experience—much as with Serrano’s Piss Christ. Like Mapplethorpe, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS-related illness.
Like back in 1989, it’s unlikely many of the people complaining about it have seen the work. And in the face of ignorance, the National Portrait Gallery both defended the decision to show Wojnarowicz while striking him from the show.
The next speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-Ohio), and the next House majority leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), already know the score. Looking for cheap culture-war points, Cantor described the exhibition in question, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” as “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season”—because, see, Christmas falls within the four-month span of the exhibit. A spokesperson for Boehner offered a strong wag of the finger: “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in].”
A new front opens in the War Against Christmas; Republicans pledge tough scrutiny to ensue. Harsh—but if history is any guide, the Smithsonian has nothing to fear in the way of actual, significant, financial reprisals. Christ and his kin have endured dung, urine, and now ants (this is to say nothing of the crucifixion). Art can survive the GOP.