In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art sensed a crisis in the making. "The Perfect Moment" -- a retrospective of the figure-study, still-life, and sadomasochistic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe -- was rapidly turning into the perfect storm. The show's runs in Philadelphia and Chicago had drawn the ire of Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who was doing everything in his power to make Mapplethorpe's representation of homoerotic imagery the first order of business of the United States legislative branch. (Helms went so far as to distribute copies of Mapplethorpe's photographs to fellow committee members, who were considering a penalty against the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting art deemed too dangerous and depraved to be looked at.) Then-Corcoran director Christina Orr-Cahal finally caved, canceling the exhibit's run at the Washington museum. Whatever hypothetical conflict she managed to avoid with Congress (who hammered on the NEA anyway) was pleasant in comparison to the mob of angry protesters that greeted her poor decision. Many of those who were furious with the museum for censoring the show were to be expected: artists, donors, students, members. One, however, was a shock beyond shock art: Jesse Helms.
"The first time [Helms's office called] they basically expressed displeasure that we had withdrawn," Orr-Cahal told the New Art Examiner later that year, following her resignation. "I have to conclude they really wanted that exhibition in Washington, so it would fuel their fire."
No public figure promoted artists in the late 80s and early 90s quite the way the recently departed Senator Helms did. There's no single heir apparent trolling the nation's galleries with the same level of success. That follows for two reasons: Conservatives all largely took Helms's lessons to heart. So did liberal arts institutions.
The names of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe might never have rocketed into the realm of public infamy without Helms's help -- though Serrano may be forgiven for not recognizing his champion as such. In 1989, Senator Helms gave his considered opinion on Serrano, who made "Piss Christ": "Serrano is not an artist. He is a jerk." However, even the biggest jerk reaches only so many viewers at Winston-Salem's Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. By hammering Serrano over and over to the point that he became a proper bête noire, Helms could exaggerate the significance of the NEA grant. By latching on to the NEA angle, he'd found the key to downplaying the First Amendment rights he was busy contravening while emphasizing the taxpayer funding aspect to motivate his base. It mattered not at all that Serrano wrote to the NEA defending his piece, describing the photograph as "a condemnation of those who abuse the teachings of Christ for their own ignoble ends."
"More insidious" than conservative challenges to contemporary art "is the chilling effect Helms and his like have had on museums, universities, theaters, and other arts-presenters," writes Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and Founding Director of the Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania, via e-mail. In The Scandal of Pleasure, Steiner provides the authoritative account of both the public-funding and obscenity-trial scandals associated with the NEA in 1989. "Right-wing politicians do not have as much offensive publicly-funded art to complain about these days, because publicly-funded institutions will not show it."
Certainly there are fewer museums taking public funding today. According to a 2006 report issued by the American Association of Museums, since roughly the late 80s museums have registered a 15-percent drop in reliance on public funding. Over the same period, museums almost doubled the amount of private funding they receive, counted as a percentage of their operating income. In recent years, half of American museums have shown growth in their endowments, while museums running deficits have decreased by one third. Business is private, and business is good (notwithstanding the real perils involved when museums get too cozy with corporate interests).
That museums have been weaned off the public teat hasn't prevented other figures from trying to milk art for controversy. Rudy Giuliani railed passionately against the artist Chris Ofili when his work showed at the Brooklyn Museum, though Giuliani makes for an unconvincing paragon of Catholic values. Roger Kimball has made a career of trashing art that strays too far from the canonical, monied, and white, but he is too much the pointy-headed critic to garner much following from the family-values set.
Yet no art controversy since 1989 has quite caught fire the same way in the nation's editorials and sermons. Not even art installed on the third rail of American politics: Consider the recent controversy that erupted when a Yale University art senior, Aliza Shvarts, claimed to have artificially inseminated herself repeatedly and induced abortions for a performance art project. Liberal Yale wasted no time running away from her work. The school explained that everything about the piece was a "creative fiction" (that is, not true) and therefore okay -- while simultaneously throwing two of Shvarts's professors under the bus. Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale School of Art and an éminence grise in American art, couched his reservations in vague and right-wing-y terms: "This is not an acceptable project in a community where the consequences go beyond the individual who initiates the project and may even endanger that individual."
Neither Kimball nor the assembled talents at the National Review nor any standing member of Congress could make much hay of a story that would have paid for one of Helms's re-elections. Invocations of the NEA scandals only underscored the point: Where was the politicking disguised as outrage?
"Arts censorship is a conservative Republican concern, and Republican values are not in high repute at the moment," offers Steiner. "Though people still worry about obscenity, they worry much more about the war in Iraq, soaring fuel and food prices, plunging real estate values, unaffordable health care, and the loss of American power and prestige worldwide."
Yet absent real solutions to these problems, one only expects more distractions from the right. What else could the dustup over Reverend Wright be considered but an effort to take a provocative, out-of-context statement from a marginal voice and ascribe it whole cloth to a political opponent? (Has Wright applied for an NEA grant? Has Obama ever been to an art museum?)
John McCain's rhetoric has even come to parallel the culture warriors in its reductive simplicity. Steiner explains in Scandal that Helms's counterpart in the House (Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)) once threatened his colleagues to support legislation penalizing the NEA with the statement, "Make no mistake about it, we will alert our members that you are on the record as supporting tax-sponsored pornography." John McCain registers a similar note when he goes on about his friends who author pork-barrel spending legislation: "I'll make them famous, and you'll know their names."
"It would take a political genius to drum up enough public outrage over obscene art to make these real-life obscenities fade from view," Steiner says. That's surely true about contemporary art, but this sort of strategy—promote a distraction, distort its significance—is the GOP's favorite brushstroke. Senator Helms was its great master, but not the only abstract artist in politics.