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.
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.
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
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.
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.
These influential figures branded the art of Andres Serrano and Robert
Mapplethorpe as anti-Christian, vulgar and indecent.
Consequently, these artists were thrust to the forefront of American media
culture where their subject matter underwent intense scrutiny and withstood
Christ (1987) was interpreted as a bigoted gesture against Christians,
and it ignited debates surrounding religion and its representation in the arts.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
Senator Jesse Helms labelled the photograph “o 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
experts simply discussed Mapplethorpe’s work in terms of its formal qualities
and technical perfection, as though absolving its shocking subject matter.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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