Culture Wars Revisited at the Philadelphia Art Museum

Prompted by the Smithsonian Institution's removal of a controversial artwork from an exhibit about homosexual identity, 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.
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987, photograph.
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987, photograph.

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.

Click here or on one of the images to read my review in The Washington Post.

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.

David Wojarowicz, Fire In My Belly (still from film), 1986-87.
David Wojarowicz, Fire In My Belly (still from film), 1986-87.

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.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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8 Responses

  1. @Peteykins, thanks for your comment.

    Re: Sam Fuller – his work in the 1950s is B at best. The plots are cliched and corny, the acting often stiff and artificial. They turn war into sentimental glop. I’m talking about Fixed Bayonettes, House of Bamboo, Hell and High Water. They’re the product of a mediocre talent who knew how to pander to a broad postwar audience and how to get things done in Hollywood.

  2. As we talked earlier, perhaps it is time for artists and the left to stop avoiding God completely. Leaving it to the right wingers and Tbaggers to twist to their own desirs, the concept of God, which is fulfillment, purpose, and inner peace, has not evolved. It is the ONLY concept worth dealing with, yet completely ignored, as the lefties think of themselves as omnipotent and all knowing minigods themselves. Baseless theories revealing weakness and hubris, the reasons for our current economic debacle. With the fall of Communism, the West got soft, decadent, and using the flag and cross and clever art to avoid the real issues of being human.

    The lowest common denomnator of the few was embraced, rather than the highest of all. Art has failed, and given the field to the right. Take a stand, stop with the self absorbed and effette PC garbage, it is not all about YOU. Meism must die. Before our culture does. Art has a role in society, it is NOT creativity. That is in all fields, most in art is redundant and irrelevant ideas of narcissim. Responsibility, sacrifice, commitment are signs of being Godly.

    It is time artists got back to their calling, and learned these meanings. And created works that attempt to bind us as a people, all humanity as Modernism did. Define who WE are, explore nature, and search for god. That is creative art. Lets get back to work, and leave the last five decades of Meism in the dustbin of history. Decadent times must end. The future will be much tougher, time to manup.

    Save the spiritual Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo), tear down the souless Ivories.

  3. @Donald, thank you for your passionate comment. I agree that narcissism can limit the social function of art. But isn’t the use of the word “God” dubious? It can mean something different to everyone, serving as a mask of “Meism” by other means. The task is to define and articulate the values and means of their expression that underlie your plea.

  4. We all come up with our own, and must define what that means personaly, but in art it is only successful when striking a chord of harmony and belonging. All great religious leaders are those who bring impartial judgments and selfless teachings. Art also teaches but without words. It does not tell what to believe, it triggers that which is already within us, and awakens feelings of Truth. Not dogmas. When one loses oneself one rises above one own troubles and worries, and so achieves true peace, the peace of God.
    a salaamu alaikum

    Artists from Shakespeare to Gauguin to Coltrane sought this, and revealed pieces that we recognized as part of us. the highest common denominator.

  5. Ignoring the concept of God altogether and replacing with self reverential and worshipping propaganda does not fulfill the need of humanity to come together as one. That IS the artits job, to create the aura around one of wholeness, of purpose, of selflessness and responsibility to others. Things lacking today as much from the left and artistes as from the right and its devolving religious selfrighteousness.
    God by whatever name, Allah being the 100th and final to muslims, mean commitment, charity, and sacrifice. in our world where death is so remote and sterilized, we have lost this need, but it will come to us all soon enough. We will be judged, either by god, or our own conscienceness on our deathbed. Did we do all we could to make life better? Did we love? Nothing else matters. You can hide and deny, but you cant avoid the ultimate responsibility.
    Ashes to ashes dust to dust, an afterlife is irrelevant, more about mans vanity and fear of death, when we should be grateful for life everyday. That is respecting God. And the way to true Peace.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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