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Nicole Borland is in her final year of study at Western in an Honours Double Major in Art History and English Literature.  Her main areas of focus include aesthetic and literary theory, Canadian art and contemporary photography.  Eventually Nicole hopes to pursue postgraduate studies, particularly an MA in Art History and Visual Culture. 


While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain, not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of creative talent. [1]  

-           The National Endowment for the Arts, Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.


During the late 1980s and early 1990s there were widespread debates in the American art world regarding new and controversial subject matter in contemporary art. These debates have become known as the Culture Wars. Conservative, right-wing politicians and Christian fundamentalist groups adamantly attacked the artistic representation of subject matter addressing gender, identity, sexuality, AIDS and race, subjects that figured prominently in art production at the time. American artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe were under intense scrutiny by the aforementioned groups. Serrano, whose work depicted themes of religious, racial and personal identity, provoked controversy within the American Christian communities who labelled his photographs disgraceful, offensive and anti-Christian. [2] Similarly, Mapplethorpe’s photographs of explicit homoerotic activity mobilized the mass attacks on contemporary art that characterized this particular historical moment.  During this time, arguments based in a conservative or religious framework suggested that artworks of overtly political or contentious nature had little to no involvement with aesthetic beauty. However, how can a deliberate display of politically challenging work generate artistic or intellectual meaning if entirely void of aesthetically pleasing elements?  

In order for artists to become accessible, influential and powerful, they must work within the construct of what is publicly and historically considered to be “art”.  In this vein, artists have often assumed an aesthetic position to produce works that are both visually pleasing and aligned with artistic conventions.  Alternatively, there are artists who assume an anti-aesthetic position in order to create works that reflect social, political and historical criticism aimed at contemporaneity.  Artists who embrace anti-aesthetics also question the viability of concepts rooted in Enlightenment aesthetics and their direct parallel with conservative taste. [3] Although these two positions appear irreconcilable, artists like Serrano and Mapplethorpe attempt to unify them within their work in order to amplify intended meaning and true significance. According to them, aesthetic beauty is the vehicle with which artists may reflect back upon society their own embittered, outdated viewpoints.  Beauty has allowed these artists to challenge conventional expectations placed upon marginalized groups and artistic production as a whole.  Unfortunately, while the unification of these positions enabled Serrano and Mapplethorpe to successfully communicate with a diverse audience, it also resulted in widespread viewer discomfort and prompted drastic retaliation.  

The relationship between the American government and the art world was forever changed following the 1980s and 1990s debates that hinged upon issues of decency in the arts. During this time many offended individuals and groups waged a full-on attack against contemporary art - including prominent religious figures like Reverend Donald Wildmon (creator of the American Family Association), right-wing politicians such as Republican Jesse Helms, and various other Christian fundamentalist sects. [4] These influential figures branded the art of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe as anti-Christian, vulgar and indecent. [5] Consequently, these artists were thrust to the forefront of American media culture where their subject matter underwent intense scrutiny and withstood innumerable objections [6] . Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ (1987) was interpreted as a bigoted gesture against Christians, and it ignited debates surrounding religion and its representation in the arts. [7] The cancellation of Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment retrospective exhibition in 1989 suggested that fear of severe funding cuts and public retribution had successfully infiltrated the art world, and highlighted issues of censorship and institutional responsibility. [8]  

During this time, religious leaders and politicians ardently attacked America’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in an attempt to drastically reduce or eliminate public funding for the arts. In 1989, Helms introduced an amendment that directly challenged the NEA’s 1965 Arts and Humanities Act. It prohibited the NEA from funding “obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or materials which denigrate the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion.” [9] For quite some time thereafter, the visual arts were relentlessly criticized and monetarily restricted with little to no defensive input from prominent art institutions or the media.  

Those on the receiving end of inexorable scrutiny responded with unprecedented artistic production governed by “perspectives so diverse as to defy categorization” which perpetuated the ongoing, controversial dialogue between the state and art institutions. [10] Following drastic government funding reductions to the NEA, private foundations such as Art Matters (1985) developed fellowships that were awarded to those experimenting in the arts. Art Matters sought to promote art that examined issues surrounding diversity, AIDS, censorship and funding. This foundation also wished to explore the social and historical impact of the “cultural” debate that came to define this influential, instructive moment. [11]  

Throughout the twentieth century, artists and theorists have sought to determine whether or not works of art can be both aesthetically beautiful (aesthetic) and politically challenging (anti-aesthetic). During this time, many artists positioned their work in the subversive, anti-aesthetic context so as to comment on current social and political issues; often employing traditional aesthetics as a means of conveying them. For example, although the Dadaists promoted anti-aesthetics in order to address the brutalities of World War I, it has been argued that some of their work can be interpreted as visually pleasurable nevertheless. [12] Artworks that embody both aesthetic and anti-aesthetic qualities are not unique to this particular time; in fact, they date back to the Romantic and Neo-Classical periods with works such as Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819) and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People(1830). These paintings are aesthetically pleasurable from a modern perspective, yet still communicate poignant political messages through disturbing, somewhat morbid imagery that was highly contentious and controversial at the time of their production. Delacroix’s painting honoured the strength and determination of the French citizens following the Revolution in 1789, while Géricault’s statement of injustice and tragedy on the French ship Medusa was considered a full-on political attack in 1819. [13] Similarly, Jacques-Louis David’s representation of a revolutionary martyr in The Dead Marat(1793), with its intensely emotive, unnerving and barren composition, is considered by some to be the greatest political image ever painted. [14]  

Edouard Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian(1867), in its shameless display of military barbarism, is said to have redefined the notion of Romantic sincerity to “signify, not so much emotional integrity as artistic honesty.” [15] The aforementioned paintings are comparable to contemporary artworks that address new and challenging subject matter while still working with traditional media. These works, as well as those of Mapplethorpe and Serrano, are initially granted an ontological status as “art” (“artistic honesty”) and are only later challenged on the basis of their content whether or not traditional aesthetics are employed (“emotional integrity”). The notions of artistic honesty over emotional integrity in relation to the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic positions are very much at play in the work of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, as well as within the context of the culture wars. The artists’ personal proximity to and affinity with issues of gender, sexuality, AIDS and identity paved the way for subsequent expressions of artistic honesty.  

The infiltration of highly personalized, autobiographical content within the American art world isolated artists of the late 1980’s and 1990’s; their aesthetic mastery and artistic execution were discounted by those incapable of seeing past the unconventional intimacy of their content. In contemporary society, it is not uncommon for one person to advocate for an entire marginalized community.  This “artistic martyr” becomes synonymous with changes in the art world, government and society. Although the works of said artists did portray an acute attention to formal qualities and classical composition, their subject matter furiously attacked artistic conventions.  Consequently, the rise of identity politics during the culture wars came to define the crucial and continuing connection between art and history. Despite perpetual criticism in this regard, both Mapplethorpe and Serrano helped to advance the ever-changing, ever-progressive vision that defines the history of art.   

The highly contentious nature of Serrano’s work is due to its religious and morbid content. Using photography as a medium for self-reflection, Serrano explores issues pertaining to his own religious upbringing as well as those of illness, identity, immortality and death. The content of particular photographs can be disturbing, unnerving and at times nauseating. At first glance, Serrano’s Bloodstream (1987) and Bloodscape IX (1989) are two photographs that appear inoffensive and harmless in that they closely resemble expertly rendered abstract paintings. [16]   However, many people were appalled after the artist revealed that the deep, immersive reds and elegant whites were in fact blood and semen. Serrano justified his incorporation of abnormal media through a juxtaposition of positive and negative connotations. He highlighted the redeeming and revitalizing qualities of blood and semen in order to counteract their impure, deadly associations with homosexuality and AIDS. [17] Serrano’s ability to encourage meditation upon the beauty and luxury of his unconventional subject matter articulates the profundity of his practice.  

Serrano invites the audience to contemplate their own spirituality in his religious photography. He encouraged his viewers to look beyond socially constructed identity in the Nomads or Klansman series (1990), and to meditate upon issues of life and death in The Morgue photographs (1992). [18] His most controversial photographs to date are those that explored bodily fluids and how they relate to personal identity. Piss Christ (1987), a photograph that depicts a small crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, came to exemplify what religious officials and conservative politicians perceived as everything wrong in the contemporary art world. Consequently, this image prompted much debate over whether or not American tax dollars should fund such unorthodoxy. [19] Senator Jesse Helms labelled the photograph “o as   bscene” and “indecent,” and used his 1989 amendment to prohibit artistic expression of themes that relate to or challenge religion and political or personal identity. [20]  

Due to the blasphemous and offensive nature of Piss Christ, it was seen by many as nothing more than a blatant display of anti-Christian discrimination. According to Serrano this work embodied a “rejection of organized attempts to co-opt religion in the name of Christ,” for at the time there was no way to mend the gap between art world concerns and those who contested them. [21]   An examination of Serrano’s work reveals that the artist used formal qualities such as colour, light and composition to convey underlying meanings beyond the immediate surface. For example, in Piss Christ, the use of a brightly lit background enhanced the photograph’s lustrous glow, while evoking religious inspiration through an artistic display of divine serenity. Through formally brilliant photography, Serrano equates relevant artistic concerns with prominent contemporary issues while offering his viewers a new perspective on approaching and interpreting art.  

Serrano takes an idiosyncratic, avant-garde approach in order to institute social, political and artistic change. Prominent art world critic Arthur Danto feels that “every new work of creative design is ugly until it is beautiful”; in other words, the avant-garde is initially considered an abomination until its meaning is recognized as necessary for progression in the arts and society at large. [22] Artworks are often labeled offensive or antagonistic when the artist’s medium is interpreted as one that contradicts his or her message. In fact, many are unable to accept the visual manifestation of a concept when they perceive it as distasteful. Serrano uses oppositional imagery in order to unify viewpoints previously considered irreconcilable. His work, which could be understood as the single catalyst for the culture wars as a whole, questions traditionally ethical content and effectively upsets American bourgeois complacency.  

The opposition and ultimate unification of medium and message in Serrano’s photographs undermines the seemingly irreconcilable positions of the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic. Serrano’s descriptive titles employ anti-aesthetic tactics that allow his viewers to embrace or reject his art. For example, as in Piss Christ, the artist alerted the viewer to his use of bodily fluids. This work, amongst many others by Serrano, uses unconventional media to echo the colouration of formal painting or the tonal range of contemporary photography, which refuses to meet conservative expectations and challenges dogmatic definitions of “art”. Piss Christ’s grand scale and portrayal of a luminescent Jesus Christ reflects the artist’s mastery of formal characteristics such as value, colour and composition. Although Serrano consistently adheres to these traditional aesthetics, he also uses what James Meyer and Toni Ross call an “avant-garde strategy of estrangement” to emphasize his own inquisitions regarding religious identity and personal heritage. [23] This has allowed him to illustrate and address previously unmentionable subjects through visually pleasurable displays of complex issues, thus perpetuating the progressivism that defines contemporary art. [24]  

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs are similar to Serrano’s in that they are technically and formally very strong. His photographs encompassed both traditional subjects, such as still-lifes, nudes, portraits and children, as well as non-traditional subjects, such as his blatant depictions of homoeroticism. Although his portraits of children and nudes garnered much controversy, it was the physical sensuality of his homoerotic photographs that were labeled “extreme” by politicians and religious officials. [25] The controversial nature of these photographs prompted the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. to cancel Mapplethorpe’s posthumous retrospective, The Perfect Moment, in 1989. The gallery was paralyzed by the prevalent fear of future funding cuts as Mapplethorpe’s work exemplified everything that was perceived as morally corrupt within the American art world. [26] The cancellation of this exhibition illustrated the collective power of the religious or offended communities who sought to literally eliminate freedom of artistic expression. Although the exhibition was eventually rescheduled and held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Pennsylvania that same year, it would ultimately characterize the debates surrounding his work that arose thereafter. [27]  

Mapplethorpe’s photographic practice exemplified his ability to frame highly controversial subject matter in an aesthetically pleasing manner. However, the social and political objection to his errant depictions of human sexuality cannot easily be settled through the simple justification of artistic execution. Many people were unable to comprehend the gravity of Mapplethorpe’s work, and the lack of support from prominent figures in the art world only contributed to this confusion. Institutional representatives were reluctant to defend his work for they were concerned that this would result in significant funding cuts.  This tendency to shy away from further controversy validated the arguments made by the right-wing and religious communities. [28] Art world experts simply discussed Mapplethorpe’s work in terms of its formal qualities and technical perfection, as though absolving its shocking subject matter. [29] In order to properly understand and accept Mapplethorpe’s work, one must look beyond what is immediately visible to the much larger issues that inform his imagery. Ultimately, politically challenging artwork, specifically that which adamantly attacks upheld conventions, must be examined within its own contemporary, artistic context.  

The shameless exhibitionism that characterizes Mapplethorpe’s subject matter allowed the artist to communicate with a diverse audience while upsetting traditional conventions of portraiture. While Serrano’s work speaks to many different communities, Mapplethorpe’s generally addressed the marginalized male homosexual population.  According to scholar Brian Wallis, religious and conservative revulsion in response to works such as Helmut (1978) or Joe (1978) is inevitable because it is difficult to explain, let alone accept art that so blatantly attacks established moral values. [30] Similarly, although Mapplethorpe was working in the guise of aesthetic pleasure, he photographed many taboo issues that offended deeply conservative and/or religious individuals. For example, in Marty and Hank (1982) Mapplethorpe overtly depicted two men engaged in oral sex. The artist’s brilliant manipulation of formal qualities in this work contains a symbolic meaning beneath its surface. [31] The photograph’s subject matter, as articulated by Philip Yenawine, proclaims that a homosexual man has just as much right to a “public presentation of autobiography as anyone else.” [32] All the same, Mapplethorpe struggled with imposed and engrained artistic conventions in order to merge the beautiful with the political. A display of such unmediated, unconventional imagery will perhaps remain invariably contentious, establishing polarized views and arguments. Nevertheless, Mapplethorpe’s imagery confirms his accomplishment in merging the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic positions.  

Mapplethorpe existed as much on the margins of society as he did at the centre of the art world. He struggled to define himself as a homosexual man living with AIDS during a time when many Americans were openly homophobic. The politically charged nature of his work is in response to that which is ignored in society and rarely addressed in contemporary art. Mapplethorpe used aesthetic beauty in order to investigate and validate the unexamined themes that defined his life and artistic practice. [33] He successfully employed conventional aesthetics to convey unconventional messages that enabled him to define his own unique, artistic approach.  

No matter where one stands in relation to these culture wars, it is important to recognize that Mapplethorpe’s artwork is a metaphor for the life of a man, of an advocate, who strove for recognition and equality on behalf of a marginalized community.  As explained by Henry M. Sayre, his work is not about sadomasochistic sexual behaviour, it is about “cutting through the surface of things and bringing them to light, which is to say, is about making art.” [34] Within the context of the culture wars, the surface of things dictated convention and control. Mapplethorpe’s art helped to dispose of these surface expectations to reveal that which exists below: the governing forces of his own life and those of many others. Art constantly disfigures reality. Thus, an abolition of established convention can refigure public consciousness to instigate social, political and creative progress, even if through illustrations of past aesthetic principles. [35]  

Both Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe effectively merged the aesthetic and anti-aesthetic positions in their artwork. Although in very different ways and necessitating different justification, each artist challenged convention and contributed to the visual arts’ inevitable progression. Serrano and Mapplethorpe’s aesthetically pleasing photographs commented on social and political issues that were important to Americans during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The fusion of aesthetic beauty and politically challenging content defined the artistic practice of many during this period. Their mandate to oppose artistic conventions through formally precise, visually pleasurable aesthetics continues to re-define message, power and influence in contemporary art today. Whether one supports the radically arrière-garde position of the right-wing conservatives or the avant-garde position of the art world, it is imperative to recognize the importance of the culture wars. These struggles shaped future direction in the arts, aroused new debates while settling others, and characterized subsequent movements that have impacted contemporary artistic production indefinitely.



Bolton, Richard. Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts. New York: New Press, 1992.

Danto, Arthur C. “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art.” Art Journal, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 24-35.

Furgurson, Ernest B. Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Honour, Hugh and Fleming, John. The Visual Arts: A History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2005.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. Ten By Ten. Berlin: Schirmer/Mosel, 1988.

Meyer, James and Ross, Toni. “Aesthetic and Anti-Aesthetic: An Introduction.” Art Journal, no.2 (2004): 20-23.

Nolan Jr., James L. The American Culture Wars: Current Contests and Future Prospects.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.  

Sayre, Henry M. “Scars: Painting, Photography, Performance, Pornography and the Disfigurement of Art.” Performing Arts Journal, no. 1 (1994): 64-74.

Wallis, Brian. Andres Serrano: Body and Soul. New York: Takarajima Books, 1995.

Wallis, Brian. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York University Press, 1999.



[1] Brian Wallis. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 33.

[2] James L. Nolan Jr. The American Culture Wars: Current Contests and Future Prospects (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 92.

[3] James Meyer and Toni Ross. “Aesthetic and Anti-Aesthetic: An Introduction” Art Journal, no. 2 (2004), 20.

[4] Ernest B. Ferguson. Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 30. 

[5] Wallis, 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard Bolton. Culture Wars: Documents and Recent Recoveries in the Arts (New York: New Press, 1992), 27.

[8] Ibid., 51. 

[9] Nolan Jr., 93.

[10] Wallis, 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Arthur C. Danto. “Kalliphobia in Contemporary Art” Art Journal, no. 2 (Summer 2004), 24.

[13] Hugh Honour and John Fleming. The Visual Arts: A History (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2005), 646.

[14] Ibid., 642.

[15] Ibid., 672.

[16] Brian Wallis. Andres Serrano: Body and Soul (New York: Takarajima Books, 1995), n.p.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Nolan Jr., 92.

[20] Ibid., 93.

[21]   Ibid., 92.

[22] Danto, 27.

[23] Ibid., 22.

[24] Wallis, n.p.

[25] Robert Mapplethorpe, n.p.

[26] Nolan Jr., 93.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Wallis, 19.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Mapplethorpe, n.p.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Wallis, 19.

[33] Henry M. Sayre. “Scars: Painting, Photography, Performance, Pornography and the Disfigurement of Art” Performing Arts Journal, no. 1 (1994), 73.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.










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