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Inside the Culture Wars Maelstrom of the 1990s

A lecture given at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, October 4, 2016.

I was curator of Performing Arts at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1988 through 1996. Our mission was to be “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.” We presented 100 performances each season in theatres ranging from 100 to 4,800 seats. Given the mission, I at times produced identity-based performance work; some of which became entangled in the Culture Wars of the 1990s.

First some context: in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded $8.4 million in artists’ fellowships. This represented the apex of these awards. It was also the year photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS and Senator Jesse Helms eliminated New York Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ grant of $600,000, objecting to queer content in sex education material.

In 1989, two NEA grants came under political fire. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania used a NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, entitled "The Perfect Moment," that included homoerotic photographs that some in Congress deemed pornographic. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC canceled this exhibition anticipating the content would trigger a political storm on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress also objected to The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem re-granting NEA dollars to Andres Serrano because of his Piss Christ photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine.

For many artists, validation does not come originally from the market place, but had come from the federal government, often leveraging other local and regional support. Ending these fellowships had dire consequences, signaling artists were no longer valued on a national level…We have been living with the detrimental impact ever since.

Cultural Infidels
To mark the start of the ‘90s, the Walker put together a multidisciplinary festival, Cultural Infidels. Historical films by iconoclasts Andy Warhol and Jack Smith were juxtaposed with John Greyson’s Urinal and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston. Kathy Acker read from her latest writing, and we exhibited one of David Wojnarowicz’s lithographs. Art and culture were politicized; this is nothing new, and we were eager to support the present day provocateurs.

an actor on stage
Karen Finley, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

Karen Finley performed her profoundly moving We Keep Our Victims Ready. The first night was sold out. Two plainclothes police officers introduced themselves, telling me they were sent to determine if the performance should be closed down. Since this was the first night, I wondered why someone had complained to the police without having seen the work. The vice squad left midway through; there was nothing pornographic.

Critical and audience reaction was rapturous. However, syndicated columnists Evans and Novak wrote about the vice squad visit in The Washington Post, catching the attention of Jesse Helms’ staff. No mention was made of the quality of the performance, only that the vice squad visited the museum in Minneapolis.

Two months later, Holly Hughes made her Walker debut reading an excerpt of Raw Meat as part of P.S. 122’s Field Trips. She returned twice more performing World Without End and No Trace of the Blonde.

Culture Wars
Later that year, still in 1990, choreographer Bill T. Jones spoke to me about a new dance he wanted to create. His partner Arnie Zane had given the title on his deathbed: Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I invited Bill to be in residence in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

Still grieving Arnie’s death from AIDS, Jones wanted to find hope as a gay black man in America. He envisioned a final resolving tableau of fifty-two nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders. Local dancers, including students from the University of Minnesota dance department, augmented his company.

Before the performance at Northrop Auditorium, word came down that the university did not want students to be nude. Despite the warning, they all danced nude.

Some months later, Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church crowd protested Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it was performed in their home state at the University of Kansas.

Also in 1990: Keith Haring, who designed Bill T. Jones’ Secret Pastures, died of AIDS, and Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center’s Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs—though after a ten-day trial, all charges were dropped.

Senator Jesse Helms pressured the NEA, and individual artist grants to Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were denied after being recommended by a peer panel. In a lawsuit, the defendants alleged that the NEA and NEA Chairperson John E. Frohnmayer violated their constitutional rights by wrongly turning down their applications for grants. (The Supreme Court eventually ruled in the artists’ favor in 1998.)

In 1990, “Decency Amendment” language was added to reauthorization language for the agency. All NEA recipients were required to sign a “decency” form. The Walker signed it. There was nothing “indecent” in what we presented.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, New York’s Public Theater, Bella Lewitzky, Elisabeth Streb, and a few other artists refused. I spoke to Bella about it later. During the McCarthy hearings in the ‘50s, she was subpoenaed to appear before his committee, but slammed the door on the agent telling him, “My dear, I am a dancer, not an opera singer.” She was not going to capitulate forty years later.

The following year, 1991, on Easter Sunday, I presented Diamanda Galás’ Plague Mass at The Guthrie Theatre. The Goth kids loved their high priestess’ depiction of unbearable grief from the AIDS pandemic.

Two actors on stage
Reza Abdoh, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

1992 saw Walker presentations of Ron Vawter’s brilliant Roy Cohn/Jack Smith juxtaposing the closet conservative lawyer with the flamboyant performance artist, as well as Reza Abdoh’s visceral treatise on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, The Law of Remains. Abdoh’s piece was performed in an empty warehouse. The audiences followed deconstructed tableaus of violence, madness, and mayhem, moving through the building and sitting on the raw floor.

Tim Miller performed My Queer Body that spring. On World AIDS Day, Will Parker sang from the AIDS Quilt Songbook; his last concert before he died of AIDS. Two years later, Minnesota Composers Forum, Arts Over AIDS, and the Walker produced a Minnesota AIDS Quilt Songbook entitled Heartbeats.

Ben Cameron, then head of the NEA’s Theater Program, asked me to be on the Individual Artists panel that year. Given whom I had presented, I wondered if he knew who I was. “Of course I do, that’s why I want you on the panel,” he assured me. Holly Hughes and Tim Miller received grants.

David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS at age thirty-seven in 1992, two years after he won a historic Supreme Court Case over an incident in which Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association distorted his visual art in a conservative fund-raising campaign.

an actor on stage
Blue, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

In 1993, Huck Snyder, designer for Bill T. Jones’ Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, died of AIDS. The Walker showed Derek Jarman’s film Blue. The screen was filled with Yves Klein blue, devoid of moving images, with voice-over narration from Jarman’s diaries. This blue was the color Jarman had experienced while being administered eye drops to fend off blindness from AIDS. A year later, Jarman was dead.

Actor Ron Vawter died of AIDS in 1994, as did the fierce Marlon Riggs, who became another flashpoint in the NEA funding controversy when his Tongues Untied was broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. His black queer reel-ness became a lightning rod for malicious conservative outrage.

dancers on stage
Bill T. Jones Still/Here, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

Bill T. Jones brought Still/Here to Northrop Auditorium in 1994. To develop the piece, he held workshops across the country with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it but wrote about it in The New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.”

a theatrical release poster
Ron Athey, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

Ron Athey
In 1994, I presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. The work opened with a campy burlesque dance by an African-American man, Divinity Fudge, covered in balloons. Ron burst the balloons with a cigar, and then transitioned to a scene in which he raised the tattoos on Divinity’s back by cutting stylized marks, patting with paper towels and sending these blood-marked prints along pulleys toward the audience. Operative words to note: blood-marked prints and toward the audience.

In another section, Ron inserted needles into his own arm as his voice-over talked about overcoming addiction and suicide attempts. The iconography of Jesus’ Passion was then evoked with a crown of thorns pierced into Ron’s scalp with acupuncture-like needles. The evening culminated with two women being pierced and ecstatically dancing in a queer wedding ceremony officiated by Ron, now clothed in a business suit, exhorting in a booming revivalist voice, “There are so many ways to say ‘Hallelujah!’”

an actor on stage
Ron Athey, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

The sold-out performance was well received by an audience of about 100. Post-show discussions with the artist, attended by eighty people, were thoughtful and engaging. Theatre and dance critics had been invited—none chose to attend.

Three weeks after the event, a visual art critic from the Minneapolis StarTribune called, wanting to verify someone’s distorted, fantastical version of the performance. She did not want to meet in person, and warned me to look for her lead story on the front page the next morning. Here are some choice quotes from that initial article: “Knife-wielding performer is known to be HIV-positive” and that the audience “knocked over the chairs to get out from under the clotheslines.”

This was the first of more than twenty articles the newspaper published about a performance its critic had not seen. Vituperative argument about Athey’s work escalated into that summer’s fodder in the NEA’s reapropriation battle, since the Walker had received a grant to subsidize the full season of performances, including Athey’s.

When Jane Alexander, the head of the NEA at that time, defended the Walker from the “erroneously reported” and “inaccurate coverage,” the disgruntled local critic fueled the fires by writing directly to Alexander and to Congress, “Your attempts to blame the press for criticism of your agency merely trivializes the issue and obscures the facts.” By advocating directly to Congress, she inserted herself into the narrative, and still the newspaper let her continue her coverage.

That local critic also wrote an op-ed piece. Admitting “State health officials agreed there was little risk of audience members contracting the AIDS virus from the performance,” she fired off that presenting this work was “akin to adding blowfish to the buffet of a Japanese restaurant without warning the clientele…potentially poisonous fish whose flesh is said to deliver a peculiar high… An event…raises thorny questions. As someone who headed the Walker’s public-information office ten years ago, I’m glad I don’t have to answer them on the institution’s behalf.”

Walker Director Kathy Halbreich was quoted, “I find the negative responses to this troubling, not because of the artistic issues, but because they’re suggestive of the fear we have of people with AIDS.” The critic’s response was, “Given the complexity of the issues that’s a disturbingly facile response. Somewhere in the background I hear an echo of Clarence Thomas accusing his critics of racism.”

Even after this incendiary commentary, the writer continued her reporting for the Minneapolis StarTribune.

Sen. Jesse Helms called Athey “a cockroach” on the Senate floor. Rep. Bob Dornan termed him a “porno jerk” and Sen. Clifford Stearns ranted about how Athey endangered the audience’s life by the “slopping around of AIDS-infected blood.”

Minnesota’s Sen. Paul Wellstone supported the Walker, as did Congressman Martin Sabo in the House, and Sen. David Durenberger criticized the “highly inflammatory reporting…less to do with the Walker—or any single performance—than with the fundamental differences over whether and how the Federal Government should be funding the arts.”

Televangelist Pat Robertson tarnished the Walker’s good name, and the American Family Association’s fundraising exploited Athey for financial gain. But the strangest solicitation came from the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, asking for contributions to defend artists such as Athey. To my amazement, they used the same decontextualized and demonized descriptions of his work the right was using—perpetuating lies and misrepresentations. Good intentions had unintended consequences.

National arts service organizations in Washington, DC went into overdrive, trying to save the NEA. However, none called me to discuss what had actually happened. Instead they only talked to themselves within the confines of the beltway, reacting to exploitive and explosive press accounts.

My mother telephoned after watching Rush Limbaugh. “Buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience,” he snidely commented and “the audience ran for their lives.” When I told my mother Limbaugh was a liar, she responded, “But it was on television.”

The amount of hate mail and hostile phone messages I received was astounding. Example: “We got the abortion doctor, you’re next.” Blood-red graffiti was painted on the glass doors of the Walker. The police included my house in their regular drive-bys. Any time I left the house, I would hesitate and look out the windows.

Through it all, Walker director Kathy Halbreich was extraordinary. Leaders do not always get to choose their battles. Halbreich was gracious and supportive under intense pressure, as were the Walker board and staff. Local artists, too, rallied around the Walker and me. One, Malka Michelson, created a campaign button: “Safe Sex, Not Art—Be a John.”

In 1995, Reza Abdoh, the Artaud of our day, died of AIDS. This was the last year grants to individual artists were awarded by the NEA, with the exception of literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts. Art, love, and politics collapsed—an extraordinary epoch was over.

For many artists, validation does not come originally from the market place, but had come from the federal government, often leveraging other local and regional support. Ending these fellowships had dire consequences, signaling artists were no longer valued on a national level. Many state agencies followed suit. We have been living with the detrimental impact ever since.

During the entire summer of the Athey media swirl, not one museum director called Kathy Halbreich to offer support or empathy. Peter Zeisler, then head of Theatre Communications Group, called me irresponsible for presenting Ron Athey, although he had never seen him perform.

Other arts organizations facing controversy experienced the same. Few museums supported each other for controversies surrounding Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Chris Ofili. Directors and boards ran for cover when colleagues came under fire; burying their heads in sand until they, too, were challenged.

Regional theatres didn’t support performance artists under fire—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—until the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Corpus Christi firestorm or the various protests accompanying Angels in America and The Laramie Project sprung up across the country.

The art world got tripped up and confused, supporting only work we liked, but “like” should be criteria at home for above the couch. Freedom of expression is a more precious commodity than taste. Conservative critics were very clear about their moral imperative as they vilified artists and terrorized institutions. No one won the culture war; we lost it.

Ten years ago, at the World Trade Center site, The Drawing Center and International Freedom Center had to defend themselves against misrepresentative media, when then Governor Pataki demanded both institutions “guarantee” that neither would do anything “to denigrate America” or “violate the sanctity” of the site. The Drawing Center walked away and Pataki eliminated the Freedom Center from Ground Zero plans.

In 2010, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery included David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly video excerpt in its Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibition featuring painting, drawing, photography, installation, and media images of lesbian and gay identity.

Museum director Martin Sullivan pulled Wojnarowicz’s video when assailed by the Catholic League and conservative Republican Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They deemed it inappropriate for a federal institution, although none had seen the show.

Thankfully, the Association of Art Museum Directors lambasted the removal of his video:

The AAMD believes that freedom of expression is essential to the health and welfare of our communities and our nation. In this case, that takes the form of the rights and opportunities of art museums to present works of art that express different points of view. Discouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded. This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition—and the threatening of an institution’s funding sources.

Freedom of expression is a more precious commodity than taste. Conservative critics were very clear about their moral imperative as they vilified artists and terrorized institutions. No one won the culture war; we lost it.

Present Day
More than two decades later, some of the cultural infidels are being embraced by the museum world. I wonder: Are the body fluids dry enough? Is the blood pure enough after all this time?

In 2013, The NEA Four, Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller, were in residence at the New Museum.

In 2014, the Hammer Museum invited Ron Athey to perform in connection with the publication of Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey, a beautifully illustrated catalogue in which Athey’s extensive work is analyzed, placing him alongside Jean Genet, Antonin Artaud, and Yukio Mishima, as well as contemporary art-world figures Chris Burden and Bob Flanagan. The Hammer was the first American museum to present Ron’s performance since the Walker twenty years ago. I was asked to do an overview of the controversy in his career and lead a post-performance dialogue and question and answer session with the artist.

Last year, Walker Art Center included video excerpts of Ron’s historic performance and clips from the media coverage in a gallery highlighting work from the 1990s as part of the organization’s seventy-fifth anniversary celebration. Both Ron and I spoke at a symposium. It was surreal to watch myself defending Athey on a television monitor in the gallery with Ron standing beside me.

And currently, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in an exhibition entitled Focus Perfection, which had already been seen in Los Angeles and will then travel to Sydney.

However, the Culture Wars aren’t over. Here at Brown University, you are engaged in present day battles around freedom of expression and academic freedom. Your president, Christina Paxson, in an opinion piece last month in The Washington Post wrote,

Suppressing ideas at a university is akin to turning off the power at a factory. As scholars and students, our responsibility is to subject old truths to scrutiny and put forward new ideas to improve them.

At universities, we also advance understanding about issues of justice and fairness, and these discussions can be equally, if not more, difficult. From the earliest days of this country, college campuses have been the sites of fierce debates about slavery, war, women’s rights and racial justice. These discussions create rocky moments, and they should. If we don’t have these debates—if we limit the flow of ideas—then in fifty years we will be no better than we are today.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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John, thanks for sharing this important story. This is a very valuable piece. And hello from the Bay Area.
All best,
Ben Frandzel

thank you, John, for a thorough and rich examination of the culture wars and their on-going effects. One small addendum: one regional theatre actively worked to support the NEA Four. The Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was on staff, offered commissions to all four artists. LATC was Reza Abdoh's first major artistic home, so it seemed fitting. In the way of the world at that volatile time, however, the theatre itself didn't live long enough to see those commissions fully realized. And on we go.

Really appreciate you taking the time to write this article-- such a helpful (and blood pressure raising) overview.

John, THANK YOU for writing this, for taking us through a dark and vital time when every tomorrow felt darker than the day before. Your essay is an important record of a very particular moment and not only reminds us but also eulogizes fierce artists and fierce work -- work that risked stomping on convention and sometimes/often shining a beautiful/disturbing light on the very times we were all living. It was demanding work because it felt like no one was listening. I am so grateful for the work you did and for sharing it with us again, here. Everyone should read this.

Thank you, John. This is such an important reminder, particularly for all of us who work in the arts whether as artists, critics or within institutions. The kind of heroism and principle that you showed at the time in your isolation seems remarkable to me, and truly admirable. Such a dark time. We were so in need of that light (and god knows, still are.)

Thanks for this summary of that time (and now). I'm going to share with my classes, since we have been looking at work by Reza, Tim, Holly, and others.

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