The Return of the Culture Wars
A bicoastal set of unrelated incidents has stirred up a heated discussion in the art world and beyond that harks back to the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when right-wing politicians and pundits, like Jesse Helms and Al D’Amato and Pat Buchanan, along with religious leaders like Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson, launched a concerted attack on the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting artists and venues engaged in “anti-Christian bigotry,” as Wildmon tagged Andres Serrano’s notorious photograph Piss Christ. They successfully campaigned to cancel a 1989 exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and passed legislation forbidding the NEA from funding artists and institutions that “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials.”
Strangely, the central figure in the more high-profile of the current controversies is a repeat player—David Wojnarowicz, who won a lawsuit against Wildmon over the misrepresentation of his artwork in 1990. Wojnarowicz, an outspoken gay activist as well as a gifted visual artist and writer, died of AIDS-related illness in 1992. This past November 30, a condensed version of his film A Fire in My Belly—which contains an eleven-second sequence showing a crucifix crawling with ants—was removed from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in response to complaints from William Donohue of the Catholic League and Representative John Boehner, neither of whom had seen either the video or the exhibition.
“Hide/Seek” is a landmark exhibit in several ways: it’s the largest and most expensive show in the NPG’s history and the first major survey exploring gay identity to be mounted in a federally administered institution. Curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward took pains to create a scholarly and minimally provocative reassessment of the history of American modern art, with the hope of integrating the insights and revelations of previously suppressed gay and lesbian cultural history—a process that has been under way since the 1960s but suffered a distinctive chill in mainstream institutional support in the wake of the late ’80s commotion.
Apparently they didn’t take enough pains for the Christian right and newly empowered Republican House members, including incoming House Speaker Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor, both of whom publicly threatened the Smithsonian’s future Congressional funding and autonomy if the exhibit wasn’t axed, citing Wojnarowicz’s video as “an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season”—despite the fact that neither had seen the artwork in question, relying instead on intelligence provided by a right-wing blogger.
Quite apart from the central enigma of how an image of ants crawling on a crucifix translates so clearly and unequivocally into anti-Christian “hate speech” (as Donohue characterized it—I must have missed that class at art school), it’s difficult to fathom what could be deemed particularly offensive in Wojnarowicz’s poetic Super-8 jumble of surrealist tableaus and documentary footage from Mexico. Although containing disturbing material—cockfights and bullfights, sideshow mummies, crippled beggars and, with darkly ironic prescience, the artist sewing his own mouth shut—A Fire in My Belly is pretty tame by the standards of contemporary experimental cinema, and pales next to the torture-porn of the Saw franchise or The Passion of the Christ. The NPG admitted that it had, in fact, received no complaints from the viewing public.
Offense was nevertheless taken, and within hours the NPG, with no public debate and after consulting only one of the curators, removed Wojnarowicz’s film from its unobtrusive video kiosk near the back of the exhibit—whereupon all hell broke loose. Outrage went viral online, from bloggers like Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes (blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes), who devoted blow-by-blow coverage to the unraveling gaffe, to scathing op-eds in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. Protests were organized, including guerrilla screenings outside—and projected onto—the NPG. The Andy Warhol Foundation led the pack in demanding the video’s reinstatement at the risk of losing future funding. Museums, commercial galleries and nonprofit project spaces lined up to present the censored work, and several versions were made available on the Internet. MoMA acquired a copy for its permanent collection. It was even aired on Fox News.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, the College Art Association, the ACLU and others issued strongly worded reprimands. One of the NPG’s commissioners resigned in protest. Canadian artist A.A. Bronson demanded that his work in the exhibit be removed in solidarity. The NPG refused. The NPG refused to put the video back. The NPG refused to apologize or admit any error in judgment. It even denied that it was capitulating to political pressures, citing fabricated “public complaints” and trying to spin the act of self-censorship—eventually revealed to have been the initiative of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough—as an aesthetic curatorial decision. Clough subsequently admitted that threats to the Smithsonian’s funding played a major part in his decision.
If you think this sounds like a tiresome, second-rate rehash of what was a farfetched and poorly scripted piece of political theater the first time around, you’re not alone. A good portion of the liberal outrage seemed to be over the poor quality of the script they’d been handed. The bastards didn’t even bother to find a new scapegoat but dug up poor David Wojnarowicz, who had been a physically and sexually abused street urchin before teaching himself to make art, and had created the film in question as an elegy for his mentor and lover Peter Hujar, who had just succumbed to the same deadly virus that was coursing through the artist’s body. The guy’s not allowed to put some ants on a plastic crucifix? Jesus! Even the conservative pundits didn’t seem to know what to make of it, quickly switching to the real issue, your American tax dollars promoting homosexual perversity. Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her boobs! As a briefly glimpsed Mexican tabloid headline screams in Wojnarowicz’s film, ¡¡Sacrilegio!!
Crypto-fascist hypocrites lining their coffers by pandering to the lowest common denominators of ignorance and xenophobia isn’t news. The fact that the Smithsonian folded so quickly and awkwardly is. Wojnarowicz’s successful Supreme Court case against Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association was the turning point in the 1980s witch hunts, and it made him the martyred poster boy for gay rights and freedom of speech. Did Smithsonian officials actually imagine no one would make a fuss? They had gone out on a limb to present a historical benchmark in tolerance, then sawed the branch off behind them because some crackpot blowhards said to. Unfathomable.
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But even more baffling is the West Coast censorship brouhaha involving the recently recruited director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, former New York commercial gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. As an advance promotion for the Deitch-helmed “Art in the Streets” exhibit, scheduled for April, the former Manhattan art scene fixture commissioned Italian street artist Blu to create a mural on the enormous north wall of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary facility. For some as-yet-unknown reason, there was no planning stage for this project apart from engineering logistics—no preparatory sketches, no curatorial review and no oversight during the execution of the mural, a skewed overhead image of a grid of wooden coffins draped with flag-sized dollar bills.
Because of a shift in Blu’s schedule, Deitch was at Art Basel Miami when the mural was begun. He says he decided immediately on seeing it half-completed that it should be obliterated because of its inherent “insensitivity” to the surrounding community, which includes a war memorial to Japanese-American World War II veterans and a Veterans Affairs hospital (as well as a US bankruptcy court and the Metropolitan Detention Center, featured on the cover of Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz). Again, no actual complaints had been received. Again, the shit hit the fan.
Blu, back in Italy, initially held his tongue—then cried censorship. The controversy metastasized over the web, with voices of the global street-art community trying to sort out what had happened and how one of their most active supporters in the art world could have taken such action. Conspiracy theories proliferated: it had been ordered by LA’s billionaire art kingpin (and MOCA trustee) Eli Broad; or it was an elaborate publicity stunt designed to generate buzz in the wake of the Smithsonian fiasco. Deitch’s fumbling prompted a reprimand by the president of MOCA’s board of trustees, Jeffrey Soros, and, in an anonymous street-art response, he was was depicted as a smirking ayatollah holding a house-paint roller. A nighttime protest was organized, with laser-toting activists projecting images of the vanished mural, plus messages like “Dump Deitch,” “Censorship Is Un-American” and—my favorite—“Post No Bills.”
As with the Wojnarowicz flap, the decision to censor was based on questionable semiotics. Although neither Deitch nor MOCA has offered any official interpretation, it’s safe to assume—given their citation of the Japanese-American “Go for Broke” Memorial and the VA facility—that Blu’s coffins were read as a specific indictment of US military policies, presumably the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My immediate reading was a simple equation between capitalism and death; the pictorial similarity to the flag-draped coffins of fallen troops occurred to me, but the coffins were clunky and wooden, like the generic vampire model, so I took the antiwar angle as a connotative subtext rather than the main thrust. I later encountered several other ways of reading Blu’s symbolism, from the “war on drugs” to the prison-industrial complex to the high cost of parking in downtown LA. Admittedly, Deitch’s antiwar construal was the most common—but the idea that this was a patently offensive concept was a stretch for many in the community.
Man One is a Los Angeles graffiti artist, founder in 2002 of Crewest Gallery and at the center of a whitewash scandal of his own. In late 2007 the artist, sometimes known as Alex Poli, obtained permits to paint the concrete embankment of the Arroyo Seco where it empties into the notoriously bleak LA River. He organized an event called “Meeting of Styles,” which brought together more than 100 street artists from around the world to collaborate on a mural. It was considered a huge success until LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina—allegedly offended by a bare-breasted cartoon wood nymph—declared an emergency and unilaterally ordered it painted over.
Man One’s response to the Deitch/Blu affair is puzzlement. “The way I found out it was even going up was from an artist friend, Leo Limon, who’s also a vet,” he recalls. “Leo was taking photos of the mural in process and started sending them to me, because he was staying at the Department of Veterans Affairs across the street. And he told me he was so moved by the mural that he wanted to put flowers and candles in front of it. So once I heard that Deitch decided to whitewash it—and the reasoning behind that—it struck me as pretty odd.” As it did documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price; Rethink Afghanistan), who wrote on The Huffington Post that Deitch’s decision “conveyed a deep ignorance about the veterans community in the United States, which includes a great many people who strongly oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Contacted by e-mail, Greenwald elaborated: “To be opposed to war is not to denigrate the troops or our country, it is the highest form of patriotism. The notion that anti war art is offensive is an awful commentary on the right wing smear machine and its impact on good and decent folks. The fact that an institution like MOCA should be frightened into supporting the propaganda notion that anti war is somehow not respectful is a reminder, if we need one, how much work progressives have to do.”
As with the Wojnarowicz incident, a notable side effect has been the radical mobilization of members of the affected art community to voice their dissent and protest the perceived acts of censorship. As with Wojnarowicz and the New York gay community, Deitch’s decision was unveiled to a politically primed audience. Angeleno street artists are largely of Latin American descent, and their movement traces its extremely political roots to the Chicano civil rights actions of the 1960s and beyond. At the time when Blu’s mural was painted and painted over, the nearby Autry Museum had a highly publicized exhibit largely devoted to David Alfaro Siqueiros’s 1932 Olvera Street mural. Depicting a Mexican peasant crucified under an American eagle, it had been whitewashed within a year—allegedly by order of the downtown Anglo business community. Could it not have occurred to Deitch how a similar whitewashing would be received today?
Despite institutional attempts to portray street art as merely a culturally disenfranchised subgenre of contemporary artmaking, unauthorized graffiti art is, at its root, a direct challenge to the central tenet of capitalism (or any authoritarian government system, for that matter): private property. Even the most fume-addled taggers and careerist sneaker-designer wannabes know that. From the first forays of graffiti artists into galleries and museums in the 1970s, street-art community members and observers have suggested that institutional endorsement disables the essential mechanism of graffiti art’s significance, while undermining its identity as a constantly mutating, communally created folk idiom with a divisive art star agenda.
Clearly, Jeffrey Deitch believes otherwise. Over the course of his art world career—first as a consultant to collectors, then, starting in 1996, with his own gallery, Deitch Projects—he has championed many visual artists straddling the border between the gutter and the white cube: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Swoon, Os Gemeos, Shepard Fairey and more. The “Art in the Streets” exhibit—which, barring unforeseen circumstances, will still open in April—is obviously more a labor of love than Deitch’s poorly received debut, recasting the just-deceased Hollywood legend Dennis Hopper as a retrospective-worthy LA art star. “This show is my life’s work,” confirms Deitch. “I have a mission. I believe in these artists coming from this circle. They’ve been excluded from museums for thirty-five years. They’re not really let into art history as first-class citizens. It’s one of my missions: to present a case for this work. I’m bringing to Los Angeles one of the most radical shows ever presented in a museum. With outlaws. Every major street artist that I’ve worked with I’ve had to bail out of jail.”
The credibility Deitch has built in the street-art community has stood him in good stead during this crisis. Apart from Blu, none of the more than fifty artists tapped for “Art in the Streets” have withdrawn from the show. And although the community has been polarized by the overpainting of Blu’s mural, very few voices are demanding the cancellation of the landmark exhibit.
Both these incidents seem like blunders made in haste, perhaps from a sense of urgency brought on by the threat of instantaneous publicity in the Age of Tweeting. Ironically, this has been the source of most of the subsequent grief, as well as the medium by which Wojnarowicz’s film and Blu’s mural have been seen and given thoughtful consideration by millions more people than would have done so before their “censorship.” It’s not even clear what was being excised from the NPG show—the squares backed off after their token victory, but there’s still a gay portrait show up at the Smithsonian. The only discernible content is the incoming Republican Congress flexing its cultural micromanagement muscles, apparently dreaming of a time not so long ago when hysterical witch hunts actually resulted in the suppression of heretical ideas instead of their widespread dissemination. And with far more consequential censorship battles being waged on the terms of the brave new digital world—I’m talking WikiLeaks—these clumsy attempts at hierarchical symbolic propriety seem like so many exercises in epistemological nostalgia.