Retrospective

Shadowboxing With the Arts: How the NEA’s Budget Nearly Got Slashed in the Early ’90s

Installation view of "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing" at Artists Space in New York, 1989. COURTESY ARTISTS SPACE

Installation view of “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” at Artists Space in New York, 1989.

COURTESY ARTISTS SPACE

Yesterday brought news that, under a newly proposed federal spending plan, the Trump administration has plans to potentially eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. For many, the notion has brought to mind events that happened between 1989 and 1991, when the NEA faced backlash from conservative politicians who were concerned that it was funding work by liberally minded artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Dread Scott, and Andres Serrano. Their work, Republicans suggested, contained immoral messages about race, sexuality, and religion. In the end, after a hard-fought battle, opposition prevailed—the NEA, which was in danger of being eliminated entirely, was kept in place. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives that detail the struggle over NEA funding, including the controversy surrounding a Corcoran Gallery of Art Mapplethorpe show, Democratic representative Mary Rose Oakar’s response, and Republican senator Jesse Helms’s vow to avenge what he saw as a loss. —Alex Greenberger

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1989. DREADSCOTT.NET/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1989.

DREADSCOTT.NET/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“Flag Furor”
By Sylvia Hochfield
Summer 1989

For a month this spring, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago found itself in the midst of a Holy War over the American flag. The conflict centered around a work by “Dread” Scott Tyler that was included in a student exhibition. Titled What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, it consisted of a photocollage hanging on the wall incorporating shots of flag-draped coffins and South Koreans burning an American flag, a shelf holding a ledger in which visitors were invited to answer the question posed by the title, and, placed on the floor, an American flag extending outward from the wall.

The exhibition opened on February 17, and for the next month, the building seemed to be under siege much of the time as veterans groups picketed and rallied outside. The protest climaxed on March 12, when 2,500 veterans and supporters marched on the school to demand that officials remove the flag. About a dozen students holding a counterdemonstration were attacked; one veteran and four students were arrested.

President [George H.W.] Bush called the work “disgraceful.” [. . .]

James Wood, the director of the Art Institute, pointed out that “controversy has accompanied the creation of art throughout history. Many of the most widely accepted and popular works in the museum’s collection were greeted with derision and contempt at the time of their creation. Only time can determine a work’s true importance, but without the freedom for artists to experiment in the present, there would be no chance to develop the work that may be deemed of importance by the museums of tomorrow.”

“Shadowboxing with the Arts”
By Steven Henry Madoff
September 1989

Freedoms provided by the First Amendment are broad enough that when extreme demands are placed on them—defacing the flag, for example—extremist reasoning sometimes answers in return. Thus it has been interpreted that the First Amendment gives license to burn the American flag, though most Americans find that an offensive act. And thus again, [Robert] Mapplethorpe’s photographs, deemed offensive by some for their provocative sexuality, are being forced, at the threat of NEA cutbacks by Congress, to represent every kind of art and artist in America. Whatever the merit or failing of his pictures, this is a ridiculous point of view.

It should be said for mainstream and marginal artists alike (and yesterday’s marginal has often turned out to be tomorrow’s mainstream) that art cuts across all constituencies at all times. In its very diversity, its vast range of attitudes, art is a symbol of the democratic spirit. And it offers each citizen freedom of choice—to look, to turn away, to rail against. [. . .]

When legislators threaten to cut the NEA’s budget if it doesn’t start toeing a more acceptable public line, they aren’t only waving a stick at funding for the public exhibition of works by the questionable Mapplethorpe. No, there go the shows, say, of Grant Wood or of any number of artists across the spectrum of styles and outlooks—all of the programming is penalized.

Installation view of "Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing" at Artists Space in New York in 1989. COURTESY ARTISTS SPACE

Installation view of “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” at Artists Space in New York in 1989.

COURTESY ARTISTS SPACE

“Caught in the Crossfire: Art and the NEA”
By Sylvia Hochfield
January 1990

The recent face-off between John E. Frohnmayer, the newly appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Artists Space in New York, a long-established and respected alternative gallery, brought to a climax the controversy that began when congressional conservatives led by Jesse Helms of North Carolina condemned the Endowment for funding art that they considered obscene or blasphemous. Spurred by anger at the Robert Mapplethorpe show, which included homoerotic and sadomasochistic images, and a photograph called Piss Christ by Andres Serrano of a plastic crucifix immersed in a jar of the artist’s urine, they legislated new guidelines that limit the Endowment’s grant-making policies.

As they now stand, the guidelines prohibit the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities from supporting “materials” which in their judgment “may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

The Artists Space exhibition had been awarded a grant before the new guidelines were legislated. Called “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” it deals with the devastating effect of AIDS on the art community and is accompanied by a catalogue that includes a highly political essay written by one of the artists in the show. After the new guidelines were passed, Susan Wyatt, executive director of Artists Space, asked the endowment to amend the grant so that it would be used to support the exhibition only, while a grant from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation would pay for the catalogue. Frohnmayer instead withheld the grant because “what had been presented to the Endowment by Artists Space was an artistic exhibition. We find, however, in reviewing the material now to be exhibited, that a large portion of the content is political rather than artistic in nature.” Frohnmayer asked Artists Space to relinquish the grant. “Because of the recent criticism of the Endowment has come under, and the seriousness of Congress’s directive, we must all work together to ensure that projects are funded by the Endowment do not violate either the spirit or the letter of the law. The message has been clearly and strongly conveyed to us that Congress means business.”

“Culture in the Cabinet”
By Mary Rose Oakar
February 1990

The recent NEA funding scandal has served a useful purpose: it has encouraged a nationwide debate on the question of artistic liberty. (The NEA, by the way, would be subsumed by the new department I propose.) I see this as a perfect opportunity to advance a thorough reevaluation of our current arts policies and, at the same time, thrust the artist upward on our national agenda.

It is time to seize the initiative and muster the forces of the artistic community. We have seen the community respond with outrage and conviction. Now we must turn this conviction to the vital task of creating a Department of the Arts and Humanities. Let us boost art as a national priority, and so enrich every American’s cultural life.

Orr-Cahall. JOE MABEL/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Orr-Cahall.

JOE MABEL/VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“Battles in the Boardroom”
March 1990

Christina Orr-Cahall resigned in December as director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., ending the most serious crisis in the museum’s 125-year history. The turmoil began in June, when Orr-Cahall, with the backing of the museum’s board of trustees, abruptly canceled a scheduled exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe because, she said, she feared that the show would arouse the wrath of conservative congressmen not only against the museum but against the National Endowment for the Arts, which had partially funded the show. The cancellation led to an artists’ boycott of the museum and consequent disruption of its programming, the loss of 10 percent of the museum’s members, and the drying-up of its fund-raising efforts. It was followed by the passage of congressional legislation barring federal funds for art deemed obscene.

“Read His Lips”
By Judd Tully
Summer 1990

In a move that shocked some of his conservative supporters, President [George H.W.] Bush announced at a White House news conference in March that he opposed legislation that would restrict the content of art supported by federal funds.

“I don’t know of anybody in the government or a government agency that should be set up to censor what you write or what you paint, or how you express yourselves,” he said. Without referring to Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano, the president continued: “I am deeply offended by some of the filth that I see into which federal money has gone, and some of the sacrilegious, blasphemous depictions that are portrayed by some to be art.”

But, he concluded, “I would prefer to have this matter handled by a very sensitive, knowledgable man of the arts, John Frohnmayer, than risk censorship or getting the federal government into telling every artist what he or she can paint, or how she or he might express themselves.”

The NEA Four. COURTESY NEW MUSEUM

The NEA Four.

COURTESY NEW MUSEUM

“The NEA: Hearings, Language, and Lost Confidence”
By Sylvia Hochfield
September 1990

As the controversy surrounding the endowment deepened, Congress put off the long-awaited debate over the NEA’s future until it returns from its summer recess. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas S. Foley, said that so many amendments had been offered to the legislation extending the life of the endowment that there wouldn’t be enough to debate them. In the past, the NEA has been routinely reauthorized every five years without restrictions to abolishing the agency altogether. One amendment would extend the life of the NEA only three years, open all of its meetings to the public, and state that obscenity is “without artistic merit” and cannot be supported with endowment funds. Another would bar federally supported artworks including a human embryo. [. . .]

But Frohnmayer did nothing to dampen the controversy when he vetoed four grants to performing artists, overriding the recommendations of the agency’s theater panel. The four—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—all deal in a provocative way with issues of gender and sexuality, and three of them are openly gay.

Frohnmayer said that he would increasingly exercise the chairman’s prerogative, used very rarely in the past, to block grant recommendations for the public. “I think we cannot look strictly at artistic excellence in a vacuum,” he told an independent commission created by Congress to examine the NEA’s grant-making policies. “But we have to look at it as how it’s going to play with the audience that we’re charged with serving—which is the people.”

“ ‘Hurdles and Hoops’ for the NEA Bill”
November 1990

“A woman in San Francisco wrote to tell me that she threw up every time she heard my name,” Senator Jesse Helms told an audience in North Carolina, where he is running for reelection against Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt. “I wrote her back and told her, ‘You may have something there. The next time it happens, frame it and send it to the National Endowment for the Arts. They’ll give you $5,000 for it.’ “

While Senator Helms jibed at the NEA in North Carolina, congressional liberals and conservatives finally agreed on a bill extending the life of the endowment for another three years. The bill was the result of a compromise worked out by the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Relations and had the support of the committee’s chairman, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and its ranking Republican, conservative Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

“Compromise or Compromised?”
January 1991
By Robin Cembalest

While the bill keeps the NEA afloat for the time being, the battle over art and obscenity is likely to drag on. Though the recent acquittals on obscenity charges of both Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center and the rap group 2 Live Crew are a positive sign to arts supporters, conservative activists have pledged to continue lobbying against government funding of art they consider immoral. Reverend Donald Wildmon, who heads the American Family Association—which first brought NEA-sponsored works such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ to the attention of legislators—has said the AFA will closely monitor art funded by the NEA for objectionable content.

The battle in Congress may not be over either. Helms, who was involved in a bitter reelection campaign and did not filibuster the legislation as he had in the past, promised to keep fighting against “people who clearly seek or are willing to destroy the Judaic-Christian foundations of this republic.” Just before he beat his liberal opponent Harvey Gantt in a race closely watched by the art world, he told his colleagues that “assuming that I am in the Senate next year, which is up to the good Lord and the people of North Carolina, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Copyright 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


  • Issues