The Culture Wars again?? Really?
There has been a lot of shaming, push-back, reframing, and appropriation lately in all areas of public discourse. In similar historical moments of the modern era, such uprisings have been framed as war-like; hence “Culture Wars” come and go but seem to always simmer beneath the surface of our public dialogs. Specifically, the most current version seems eerily similar to another; one that took place in the late 1980’s and into the 90’s. That version was largely focused on the arts and on artists whose work was used to illustrate “decency,” or lack thereof, by politicians intent on stripping public funding from all of the arts. Though, in particular, their energies were focused on artists and art practices that politicized the body and addressed issues of sexuality or gender.
Near the height of the AIDS Epidemic in the US there were over 300,000 AIDS-related deaths between 1987 and 1997, according to official statistics. As misinformation and lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS created a dangerous and panic-stricken community, a group of activists formed the collective ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Founded in 1987 in New York City at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, ACT UP focused on creating direct actions, public protests, and political performances to get the attention of both the government and the public at large and to use art to educate about HIV/AIDS.
ACT UP is best known for the graphic “Silence = Death,” art used to remind people that not speaking out about the crisis would indeed result in countless deaths.
The overlap of art and activism at the end of the 20th century was quite clear. Postmodernism did not distinguish between high and low; in fact it welcomed the convergence of disciplines, cultures, material; of the personal and the political, the sacred and the profane and everything in between.
However, art in the 1980’s and early 90’s also suffered a backlash against its uninhibited frankness and its promiscuous mix of anti-establishment content with a defiant swerve into issues of the body. In the early 90’s, an air of political extremism crept into the country and contributed to an atmosphere of censorship and political exclusion. Members of Congress, including then-North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and Orange County’s Representative Dana Rohrabacher, famously set their sights on the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA chairman at the time, John Frohnmayer, quickly buckled and four artists were denied NEA funding in 1990 after Congress passed a “decency clause” that gave the NEA permission to deny grants based on the subject matter of the art. John Fleck, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, who dedicated themselves to using art to address complex and urgent social issues along with other artists, became known as the NEA Four, political targets, in part, because their various work touched on LGBT subjects or used live nudity to address the sexual objectification of both men and women. These artists spent years in court fighting to have their funding reinstated, enmeshed in the Culture War of their time.
The NEA Four successfully won back their grants in a lower court but lost the eventual Supreme Court case, allowing the NEA to consider standards of decency in its funding decisions. In addition, Congress forced the discontinuation of NEA individual artist grants.
History provides us with a set of probabilities, hence the saying (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest), “What’s past is prologue.” Shakespeare intended that the phrase point to the unlimited possibilities of the future based on the rehearsal of the past. However, it has come to mean the opposite; that the lessons learned from history should make us wary of the future. Contemporary artists who are cognizant of the ebb and flow of history can leverage that knowledge and deploy it to change history, often remaking it as they go.
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department