It is nearly half a year since the Smithsonian Institution bowed to congressional pressure and ordered the removal of an exhibited artwork deemed offensive by a religious group. But the “Fire in My Belly” controversy continues to spur reflections on the tensions between government, religious conservatism and freedom of expression in the arts.
Prompted by that controversy, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has mounted a photography exhibition that looks back to the so-called culture wars of the late 1970s through the 1990s, when social conservatives fought to prevent tax money from supporting art that dealt with homosexuality, feminism, racism or other contentious issues.
“Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art” (through Aug. 21) is not a comprehensive overview of the culture wars. Only three of the nine artists were central to the debates in that earlier period, and none of their most inflammatory works is included. But the exhibition is a timely response to the Smithsonian flap and a chance for younger viewers to learn about previous clashes between religious conservatives and advocates of freedom of expression in the arts.
My review in The Washington Post chronicles the main incidents in the culture war, and notes that they typically involved politicians reiterating Catholic groups’ baseless charges of blasphemy. The hypocrisy is astonishing: The same legislators who for decades permitted the Catholic Church to self-police its pedophilia-plagued priesthood piously express anger over alleged affronts to public decency by artists whose work they misunderstand. As the Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis wrote, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.”
More than one right-wing commentator attacked my review. (For example, one frothing-at-the mouth reader let me know that I am a Nazi.) One says that I pretend that the artists are not politicial — though my entire article is about art as political protest. He also says that the Church and the Reagan administration responded adequately to the AIDS crisis. And he notes that Serrano’s Piss Christ (above left) is a provocation, not a critique of religion, and that Wojnarowicz’ video is anti Catholic. I had suggested that the artists, both of whom are Catholic, were protesting aspects of the Church.
I suggest the right-wing critics look at the opening scenes of Sam Fuller’s echt-patriotic The Big Red One (1980), a film about U.S. GIs in WWII that opens with a shot of ants crawling over a wooden crucifix. Fuller – not the most sophisticated movie mind – intended the image as an emblem of the war’s apocalyptic degradation, and it works. But according to the thinking of my detractors, this sort of symbolism should be deemed a provocation, denied federal funding, and banned from exhibition.
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