NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


When outrage meets arrogance:
controversial art and public funding

The controversies that shook the American art world throughout 1989 have raised serious doubts about the future of public funding for the arts. It all began in Illinois in February 1989 with political posturing over a student work at the Art Institute of Chicago in which the artist had laid an American flag on the floor with an invitation to step on it. After demonstrations by veterans and denunciations in the Chicago City Council and the media, few Illinois legislators dared vote against a punitive resolution aimed at withdrawing state funds from the School of the Art Institute or another measure forbidding the desecration of the flag. Since the U.S. Supreme Court, responding to a different case (Texas, Petitioner v. Gregory Lee Johnson), had already declared that abuse of the flag as an act of political expression is protected by the First Amendment, Gov. James R. Thompson tried to save the constitutionality of the Illinois flag legislation by an amendatory veto removing references to casting "contempt" upon the flag. As accepted by the legislature the bill is a curiously specific set of prohibitions against laying the flag on the floor or printing it on shopping bags (but not against flying enormous flags over gas stations or used car lots to attract customers). Even so, one might be inclined to think that all ended well: The politicians got to vote for patriotism, but thanks to the Supreme Court free speech was ultimately saved.

If the Supreme Court in the Texas case temporarily settled the legal question about controversial use of the flag, the court decision did nothing to cut through the tangle of moral, political and artistic issues surrounding public funding for controversial art. I doubt if museum curators are going to breathe much easier because of the court's decision. The Illinois legislation was so clearly a punitive measure against an expression of political opinion that it should easily fall before the court's stand on free speech. But who would want to win in court against a legislature one year and come back next year for an increase finding? The School of the Art Institute may be able to get along without the state's $64,000 a year for art education programs, but thousands of other arts organizations in Illinois and around the country would be hard pressed to survive without slate and federal supplements to private funding.

State Sen. Walter Dudycz (R-7, Chicago) talks to veterans and other demonstrators in front of the Art Institute of Chicago in March last year where they were protesting a flag placed on the floor as part of a student's art. Photo copyrighted 1989, Chicago Tribune Company, all rights reserved, used with permission.

If Illinois had the distinction of setting off last year's series of confrontations over public funding for art, the scene soon shifted to Washington and New York. In April Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a large photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine, provoked congressional outrage when it was learned that the work had appeared in an exhibition partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In June the exhibition "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," scheduled for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, was cancelled when the museum's director heard of congressional rumblings over some of its explicit homosexual material. Although the Corcoran's action was widely condemned as precipitous and cowardly by many artists, congressional conservatives weren't appeased by the cancellation since the original show had been assembled with NEA money. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) pushed through an amendment to the NEA appropriation bill which enjoined the NEA from funding art that could be deemed "obscene, including . . . depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts." The final version of the bill signed by the president on October 23, 1989, retained the specific prohibitions on "obscene" art, although in the next breath it condemened censorship and affirmed the valueof "free inquiry and expression."

The law got its first test before the year was over. Just two weeks after the president signed it, his new head of the NEA, John Frohnmayer, felt compelled to deny a grant to the New York exhibit "Witness: Against Our Vanishing" which was devoted to the problem of AIDS. Frohnmayer claimed he was

April 1990/Illinois Issues/23

withholding the grant because of the political character of the show and not its homosexual content. Although he later backed down, allowing funds to the show itself but not to the politically controversial catalogue, the incident brought the art year to a bitter close. Congress' schizophrenic legislation, by alternately demanding censorship and proclaiming free expression, had only intensified rather than resolved the tensions inherent in public funding for the arts.

Advocates of absolute artistic freedom contend that the public must learn to put up with art that is morally or politically offensive as part of the price of supporting artistic creativity. Although I happen to agree with that position, I also know that no plan for spending public money can survive in the face of determined and widespread community opposition. The philistines and rednecks of the world have as much right to object to their tax money being spent on offensive art works as I have to protest my taxes going to the B-l Bomber. But where are we to draw the line between works that are simply controversial and should be protected as free expression and those that are too offensive to be supported by everybody's taxes? And who is to decide? Jerry Falwell? Barney Frank? The success of small "watchdog" groups in intimidating sponsors of such television shows as Saturday Night Live suggests that undue sensitivity to pressure groups and politicians could result in only the blandest and most apolitical art being funded.

Cutting across this tension between artistic freedom and the right of a community to control how its taxes are spent is another tension, one within art works themselves. Art that attempts to make a direct social or political statement almost always reveals a conflict between aesthetic demands and political aims. To put it bluntly: Most great art has not been explicitly political and much explicitly political art has been bad art. There are exceptions, of course: David's painting of the assassinated Marat, Goya's "Disasters of War" series, Picasso's "Guernica," Grosz's "The Face of the Ruling Class." One of the lessons of art history is that great social and political art is usually the result of a fortuitous conjuncture between a gifted artist and a political event or situation that elicits a deep emotional response. But a good deal of the deliberately political art of our time is second rate for the simple reason that the desire to confront or persuade the viewer and the aesthetic demands inherent in the artist's means seldom come together in happy union. In the end either the art or the social message suffers.

This conflict is especially clear in the case of attempts to make political art out of the flag. Dred Scott Tyler, the creator of the flag installation at the School of the Art Institute, apparently wanted to make people think about misplaced patriotism, but the attempt faltered as public communication since it was designed so that it inspired an all too predictable outrage at "desecration of the flag." And although one should not be too harsh in judging a student work, its artistic quality was questionable. Taking off from conceptual and installation art experiments, this derivative piece showed just how conceptually thin a lot of conceptual art can be. Moreover, like Serrano's photograph of a crucifix stuck in a jar of urine, Tyler was offering us the tired ploy of "shock the middle class." But for anybody who regularly pays attention to contemporary art nothing about the aesthetic claim or technique of the Chicago flag piece was shocking or even interesting.

Dred Scott Tyler is hardly the first artist to use flag-art as a vehicle for political protest. An equally celebrated case during the Vietnam War was Marc Morrell's "Flag in Chains," which consisted of an American flag stuffed with foam rubber and hung in chains. "Flag in Chains" was confiscated by the New York police, and the gallery that displayed it was fined under a state law. In 1969 "Flag in Chains'' even made it to Illinois' Decatur Art Center where it was seized by the Macon County sheriff and where charges were filed against two members of the art center's board of directors. Although the two board members were found guilty by local courts, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the art display did not threaten to create a breach of the peace.

One of the underlying causes of the public's irritation over how its tax money is being spent by arts agencies is the collapse of any widely held standards for defining the boundaries between art and non-art that followed on the success of the Pop Art and Conceptual Art movements of the 1960s and has led to flag-art works like Morrell's and Tyler's. Once stacks of real soup cans or piles of trash or wall-size lists of real estate prices are taken seriously as works of art and given space in galleries and museums, the use of flags and crucifixes seems commonplace to the denizens of the art subculture. Many artists also cling to a belief in the myth of the avant-garde, namely that there has always been a dull, conventional, official art accepted by the public against which a courageous, lonely and martyred few rebelled by producing works that outraged the middle class. The broader public, which is unaware of the twists and turns of art world tastes, now gets a double shock: Many art works today don't look like art, and they seem deliberately designed to offend.

Most great art has not been explicitly political and much explicitly political art has been bad art

As a result, much of the debate over public funding for controversial art has been marred by a tendency to blind outrage on one side and blind arrogance on the other. The blind outrage is perhaps best illustrated in the reaction to the Mapplethorpe photography show which many of the offended congressmen had not seen or had seen only via those photographs selected by Helms as most offensive. The Mapplethorpe show, which broke all records for attendance and brought a large increase in membership at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art in early 1989, was a retrospective that tried to do justice to the full spectrum of Mapplethorpe's work. Most of the photographs were rather classically posed nudes, both male and fe-

24/April 1990/Illinois Issues

male, numerous portraits of friends and celebrities and a series of flower photos that reflected an oriental sensibility. The congressional anger was directed at a handful of sexually explicit, homoerotic prints. Similarly, the Serrano photograph was only one of dozens in a large exhibition that had appeared in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Richmond and had closed before the protest broke out. As U.S. Rep. Sydney Yates (D-9, Chicago) said during the debate over NEA funding, out of 85,000 grants made over the past 25 years only 20 have brought controversy.

Unfortunately, the blind outrage of the cultural conservatives is matched by an unconscionable arrogance on the part of many artists and art critics. This January the Museum of Contemporary Art showed another Serrano piece with a religious twist, entitled "Heaven and Hell." In this staged tableau a nude woman, her head back, hangs by the wrists from a rope, a thin blood-like substance running down over her breasts while to her right a man dressed in a red cardinal's costume stares nonchalantly at the viewer. The only thing that offends me about either of Serrano's works is that they seem trite and juvenile. Why do Serrano's supporters think the public ought to pay for him to settle his score with the Catholic Church? But the arrogance of Serrano's advocates pales by comparison with that of Richard Serra and his defenders. Several years ago when Serra designed his huge steel sculpture, "Tilted Arc," as a wall to cut through the middle of the Federal Plaza in New York, office workers who were used to enjoying the plaza at lunch time protested and demanded that the wall come down. Serra dismissed their complaints and desires out of hand as irrelevant. In March 1989, after years of hearings and legal maneuverings, the wall finally came down, but Serra's supporters remain bitter that the public should have had the last word about what sort of art it has to live with. A similar disregard for the public is evident in the reaction of many artists and art critics to the conservative outcry over the Mapplethorpe retrospective. In the art world press, the issue has been treated almost entirely as a matter of censorship, and a few writers have even argued that since corporations usually want to support art that is already recognized, the federal government should support the more experimental and controversial art. Thus, some artists not only want freedom to express their political and sexual views in any style that appeals to them (a right not even Sen. Helms has denied), but they also want to be paid for it by the very public they hope to shock. The myth of an embattled avantgarde fighting a benighted bourgeoisie has not served the art world well.

Many arts agencies, museums and theatres have resolved the issue of public funding for controversial work by declaring their commitment to the principle of complete artistic freedom while in practice quietly avoiding works they fear will be blatantly objectionable. That is probably why the Corcoran Gallery was jumped on for openly censoring themselves. It said out loud what others say in the privacy of their board rooms. Nevertheless, the Corcoran has had to pay dearly for its public timidity. Its staff is badly divided, some of its scheduled shows are in danger of cancellation because several artists are threatening to withdraw their work, and another artist has changed his will, cutting the Corcoran out of a $1.5 million bequest. In contrast, the Art Institute of Chicago, which refused to withdraw the Dred Scott Tyler piece, has taken its lumps from the other side. Some 500 members have formally withdrawn, and in addition to the loss of $64,000 from the state, private fundraising has become more difficult. In an apparent effort to placate its critics, the School of the Art Institute has adopted a policy according to which the administration, rather than students and faculty, will monitor future exhibitions of student work. Clearly, the recent legislation in Illinois and at the national level has had a chilling effect.

The task facing the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council and other state arts agencies could be made even more difficult by a provision of the 1989 NEA appropriation bill which has received much less attention than the ban on "obscene" art. The provision requires the NEA to establish an outside commission to evaluate the NEA's traditional system (also employed by most public funding agencies including the Illinois Arts Council) of using peer review panels in the selection of grantees. In this system, the panels, made up of artists, curators and others knowledgeable in a particular area of the arts, make recommendations for funding based strictly on the panelists' views of artistic merit. I do not think we should now expect these panels to begin mixing political, moral or religious criteria into their judgments any more than we should expect the peer review panels of the National Science Foundation to use criteria other than scientific merit. The administrators of public funding agencies, however, cannot merely rubber-stamp peer panel recommendations, partly because there is much less agreement on the criteria for what is good art than there is on what is good science, but also because public arts agencies do not exist simply to serve the small subculture which makes up the art world. If the leaders of our public funding agencies are to be sensitive to the values of the larger community while also supporting the art subculture (including its most controversial experiments), these administrators will need not only the usual qualities of aesthetic discrimination and political savvy, but a unique combination of courage and prudence.

As a percentage of the federal budget, the NEA appropriation is minuscule (about the cost of one jet fighter), and the Illinois Arts Council receives less than one-tenth of 1 percent (.087) of the Illinois budget. Nevertheless, this support is important not only materially but also symbolically since it tells artists and the public alike that we value imagination and creativity. The agenda of many of those who sponsored the restrictions on the NEA or who pushed to reduce funding for the Art Institute of Chicago is not simply censorship but an end to public funding for the arts in any form. In the current climate, the more daring arts agencies will continue, as they should, to test the limits of what can be done with public funds, and various conservative groups will continue to protest that public money is being misspent and demand an end to public funding. Those of us prepared to tolerate extreme artistic expression had better also be prepared to apply counterpressure in favor of controversial art and to make up in private support for the tax dollars that are likely to be lost.

Larry Shiner is professor of philosophy at Sangamon State University in Springfield where he teaches aesthetics for the Community Arts Management Program.

April 1990/Illinois Issues/25

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents||Back to Illinois Issues 1990|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library