Politics: Giddie Up


One of the big issues lately seems to be what role the government will play in the funding of the arts. Recent criticism directed towards the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) regarding grants given to some neo-controversial artists has brought this issue to the top of every politician’s election agenda.

One stance taken by right-wingers is that artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and Karen Finley, to name a few, are simply “filth artists” and that taxpayers’ money should not be used to subsidize such “obscene” work. Under the 1973 Miller vs. California decision, any work that has “substantial literary, artistic, political or scientific value” is not obscene. Now, granted, there is a lot of bad art, but almost none of it is “wicked” or catering to the “prurient” attitude, or even outside the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity. The problem is intolerance—we don’t know how to deal with it either.

Jesse Helms, for example, Capitol Hill’s cultural warrior, often tells reporters that in order to get an interview with him, they must show Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos with the interview. When television stations refuse to air the photos, Helm’s point is made. “If showing Mapplethorpe’s work on television could cost a broadcaster his license, why should the NEA get a free ride?” But do any of us turn on the television to see an art exhibit?

In a Newsweek poll, 75% of adults said that they should have the right to determine what they see and hear—only 21% said they would like to see laws to prohibit material that may be offensive to some segments of the community. And when asked if federal officials should exercise more control to ensure that the work of art produced does not offend the public, or, if these judgements should be left to independent panels of established art experts in each field 63% said the experts should judge, while 30% desired more official control.

John Frohnmayer, the NEA’s chairman, points out that the agency has distributed 85,000 grants and dealt with more than 1 million images in the visual arts. Fewer than 20 grants have been controversial.

“Controversial” does not mean “inappropriate” or “out-of-bounds” of federal funding. I’m pointing out that art, like everything else, can and is being used as a political mule for the re-elections.

But it doesn’t stop here folks!

Reverend Donald Wildmon, and his American Family Association (you know, those people who couldn’t deal with someone else interpreting Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ) along with others like the Traditional Values Coalition of California and Phyllis Schafly’s Eagle Forum, are out to do everything, from dismembering the NEA, restricting the content of television, censoring movies and books.

Jesse Helms, Donald Wildmon, and all the other right-wing purists think they are going to rebuild the fabric of American life. Yeah…right. What is really happening is that the place of art in our society is becoming situational. If it’s not an election year and certain politicians haven’t fucked anything else up, art is fine. But if they look and are losing votes, why not take a heroic stance on “obscenity,” churn a few votes, and come out smelling like a rose.

Members of the NEA are not there to “police” art, nor will they remain. Some grantees of the NEA are already refusing grants from the agency because it is being turned into a conservative bitch-board used for political head-banging and a way to get around court decisions.

By current definition, the works of most artists such as Serrano, Mapplethorpe and Finley are not obscene. But a handful of people still find it disgusting. So, what are we to do? Draft yet another definition of “obscenity” and use that while right-wing politicians turn the NEA into a “one-way-or no way” institution?

Check out these other articles from 1990:
SLUG June Feature Band: Bad Yodelers
The Mission UK Review/Interview