Messages: Prose and Contras

by Cynthia Freeland

By now my file on the Cocoran/NEA/Mapplethorpe/Serrano/Helms debacle is three inches thick and weighs a couple pounds. Buried in all the prose, it seems to me, there are still a few undeveloped issues.

Conservatives like James Kilpatrick, Samuel Lipman, and Hilton Kramer defends themselves against the charge of censorship, insisting that artists should be free to do what they want – so long as it is not at the taxpayers’ expense. But since the NEA is just about the only source of support for artists whose works are too new or controversial to secure corporate funding or commercial success, cuts here amount to de facto censorship.

Texas Representative Dick Armey says, “Let the people who are interested in art fund it,” the strange irony in this is that Mapplethorpe did earn both fame and fortune in the private sphere. On the basis of critical recognition, exhibitions, publications, and monetary success (a single Mapplethorpe print sold for as much as $20,000 – compared to the $30,000 grant in question for the traveling show), Mapplethorpe was an undisputed luminary of the art-photographic world. What are the publicly supported art museums supposed to do once a photographer like Mapplethorpe has become famous in this way? Ignore him and hope he’ll go away? How exactly can the “public/private” split be maintained? Presumably the organizers for the traveling Mapplethorpe exhibition were responding to, and trying to educate the public about, a taste and a vision that had already become institutionalized in that complex economy of private/commercial/critical forces which we call the art world.

Representative Armey says it would take the average working man or woman 276 days to earn the $45,000 spent by the NEA to support Serrano’s work and the traveling Mapplethorpe exhibit; he asks whether John or Jane Taxpayer would elect to spend 276 days’ worth of income on these shows. (How does he know? It’s not as if they’d get all that money back, anyway, if the NEA hadn’t spent it!) How many days (or years) do they work to buy a Stealth bomber? Wouldn’t they rather use that money for braces, Reeboks, or trips to Disneyland? And how about accountability to Jane and John (and us) for our tax dollars lost in the HUD scandal, or the $166 billion being spent to subsidize the S&L industry? These games of numbers and comparison-contexts are endlessly fascinating. Put the NEA’s budget of $169 million per year up against the $560 million spent by France on dance, theater, and music, or $4.5 billion spent by Germany for example. Or, put it up against the $240 million we’re going to spend here in Houston to rebuild the Southwest Freeway – to make renovations that will be obsolete within ten years.

Critics think the art establishment has one mind and one voice, championing Mapplethorpe simply because “there is in the professional art world a sentimental attachment to the idea that art is at its best when it is most extreme and disruptive” (Kramer. Or again, the “professional art world” expects that the viewer’s role is “only to approve” (Lipman). These charges are patently false. A balanced review Arts Magazine published of the Mapplethorpe exhibit – before all the hoopla erupted – concluded that “Mapplethorpe contributed beautiful, significant icons to the cultural image-pool, stretching the notion of what is acceptable to view, but his aestheticizing and emphasis on surface gloss severely limit the stretch.” Our very own journal, SPOT, published a piece by reviewer Robert Hobbs harshly criticizing Mapplethorpe both for his objectification of men and for his racism (SPOT, Spring 1988). Keep in mind that SPOT and similar publications are all supported by the NEA, which thereby advances critical dialogue in the “professional art world,” fostering intelligent debate about the merits of this work at a level of critical understanding we hope is somewhat higher than the plane occupied by Congressmen who either refuse to look at the photographs or label them “dirty pictures.”

Kramer has long been upset that NEA money goes to artists who criticize our government’s policies. Helms’ office phoned one NEA-supported organization to ask why an exhibition included pictures of Communists. Don’t turn to Went Watriss’ portrait of Daniel Ortega on out page 6, Senator Helms! In this issue SPOT is using at least some NEA money to discuss work by a number of committed and articulate artists and photographers from across the country – from Seattle, Houston, New York, and Houston – who have worked to effect social change in conflict-ridden areas in Central America, and who are openly and harshly critical of our foreign policies in that region.
The conservatives build from an unfounded presumption that what’s already enshrined in the art museums has some sort of different nature fro what’s new. They speak of having a “socially desirable impact” (Kramer) or making art that will “elevate, enlighten, console, and encourage our lives” (Lipman). Kilpatrick allows that some photography is art: “I think of such photographers as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Alfred Eisenstadt as artists.” But I wonder if he knows about Ansel Adams’ work at Manzanar (discussed by reviewer Stanley Moore in this issue). When he tried to depict oppression of Japanese-Americans, Adams’ books were tossed into the flames. To our country’s discredit, this sort of art ran counter to “public standards of decency and civility” (Kramer). But who was right? Even Congress has now acknowledged that the public standards were wrong. The conservatives should re-read their John Stuart Mill: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his own opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as dead dogma, not as living truth” (On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”).

Senator Helms wants the NEA not to support work that will “offend people’s taste.” Should the work of the photographers discussed in this issue, who oppose our government’s Central American policies, not be seen and considered? The U.S. is still committed to giving the Contras $45 million in aid, despite the recent five-nation Central American agreement to disband them. This follows eight years and how many other millions of dollars of aid (not counting the millions to Somoza). Do the pictures of the “disappeared” people we have included in this issue – people tortured and brutalized in part as a consequence of our government’s Central American policies – “offend peoples taste”? What’s the real obscenity here?