The Culture Wars, Redux

We are in the midst of a seemingly endless number of art world controversies, from the National Portrait Gallery's removal of David Wojnarowicz's video, A Fire in My Belly, and MoCA Los Angeles's whitewashing of a mural by the artist Blu, to the United States House of Representative's Spending Reduction Act of 2011. That bill proposed to end the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities (fortunately the crisis was averted, though both agencies experienced budget cuts of 7.5% each). These days, it seems like art has not been under such incisive fire since the 1980s. At that time, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and others gave name to an incipient polemical debate that exploded into what we now know as the Culture Wars in the United States.

These instances, however, are just a few among many. After all, not only have artists raised eyebrows and stirred emotions since the days of Manet's Olympia, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and well before, but they also continue to grapple with hot-button topics even without the ire of political figures or institutional administrations. Even Art21 is not immune. In 2008, an effort to include our videos and educational resources in the official curriculum of the Dallas Independent School District was met with resistance by both teachers and parents, given the provocative nature of images by featured artists such as Sally Mann and Kara Walker.

In April 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained by Chinese authorities and held for 81 days before international outcry prompted his release. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987), one of the poster children for the Sensation-era Culture Wars of the 1990s, was smashed in April 2011 by Catholic fundamentalists while on display at the Collection Lambert in Avignon, France. Previous attacks on the painting took place in 1997 and 2007. And two weeks prior to the Serrano incident, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., a visitor struck out at Paul Gaugin's Two Tahitian Women (1899) painting with her bare fists, decrying it as "evil."

How could an artist disappear? Or artworks find themselves besieged? Whether understood as blasphemous, outspoken activism, or simply provocation, art clearly does something to people. For better or worse, it affects them, moving them to act on their convictions. Art leads some to inflict violence, commit acts of censorship, withdraw funding, and even arrest artists. But it also encourages others to protest such behavior, insisting on a discursive sphere that protects artists' freedom of expression and the viewing public's ability to come to its own conclusions about the art with which it comes into contact.

This is an issue Art21 has addressed before. In fact, our very first Flash Points topic on the Art21 Blog in 2008 was titled "What's so shocking about contemporary art?" We spent three months exploring the question. But in light of recent events, we think it is important to revisit more of these seminal debates and the images that inflamed them. To this end, we've assembled a survey of texts, artworks, and related Art21 videos to further the discussion. Flash Points will continue the conversation as well, responding to the texts published here back on the Art21 Blog.

We are particularly pleased to share five newly commissioned essays on The Culture Wars, Redux.

In his essay, "The 1913 Armory Show: America's First Art War," Tom McCormack travels back to a controversial exhibition that long preceded Sensation. The 1913 Armory Show, with its legendary exhibition of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), polarized audiences over its instantiation of a new (now historical) avant-garde. But as McCormack argues, what really riled viewers was the question of whether the painting could even be called art at all.

Nettrice Gaskins's essay, "Polyculturalist Visions, New Frameworks of Representation: Multiculturalism and the American Culture Wars," connects the battles of the early Culture Wars to those of multiculturalism in the 1980s. Examining the ongoing crisis of representation in cultural institutions, Gaskins ultimately arrives at what she sees as a "polyculturalist" future for art in which it moves away from dialectical identity politics to a sphere of fluid identities. "In our age of accelerated technology," she writes, "artists can move culture, capital, and ideas between worlds."

Taking a close look at the controversy surrounding Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in "The 'Black Gash of Shame,'" Elizabeth Wolfson considers what it is that makes public memorials such charged sites for viewers and visitors of all stripes. Drawing parallels to the debates regarding recent memorials in our current moment, Wolfson examines the constellation of subject positions battling over a desire for socially useful and representational art.

Heading across the Atlantic to Poland, Russia, and Egypt in her extensive three-part essay, "Art and Morality under Neoliberalism: Reflections on 'Blasphemous' Art from the East," Ania Szremski finds myriad connections between the controversial practices of Eastern European artists in the 1990s and Egyptian artists in the early 2000s. Cataloguing the problematic receptions of their artwork, Szremski locates the crux of the conflict in the powerful conservatism engendered by national economies undergoing deregulation and privatization. Under late capitalism, she opines, the possibility of a truly open discursive space is all too often an illusory one.

Finally, Beth Capper dives into the nuances of the National Portrait Gallery's recent censorship of A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz. In "Recombinant Wojnarowicz," she critiques not only the cries of "hate speech" by right-wing conservatives but also the distortion of Wojnarowicz's film by progressive journalists and activists. Arriving at the conclusion that the film is an elusive one evading tidy identification, Capper claims that in debates such as this one, rarely does the issue have anything to do with the art, but everything to do with the ways in which artworks become repositories for our political agendas, fears, and desires.

This inaugural installment of Ideas looks at the artists and histories that continue to give art its vibrant, confrontational, and urgent reputation. Feel free to take part by commenting throughout this section. Thank you for reading.