Don’t Equate Today’s Culture Wars to Those of the 1990s

Isaac Kaplan
Dec 26, 2017 1:00PM

Photo by Michael Bilsborough, courtesy of Parker Bright.

In 2017, a recurrent call to “take it down” echoed throughout the art world. It was a year in which a handful of artworks provoked outrage for what critics, largely on the political left, deemed to be an exploitation of marginalized peoples’ suffering. The most controversial examples included Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial, Sam Durant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center, and Omer Fast’s “transformation” of James Cohan’s Chinatown gallery into a recreation of the kind of Chinese business that once occupied the space.

Critics of these pieces challenged the artistic value of the works. Some went so far as to demand that the exhibiting institutions and galleries remove them. This call to take down work for being offensive (to put it very reductively) elicited quick comparisons to the “Culture Wars” of the 1980s and ’90s, when conservative politicians tried to cut off government funding for exhibitions featuring artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, whose art dealing with queer and Christian subjects irked their religious sensibilities.

Those agitating for the removal of Schutz’s painting, wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times, “appear to side with Roman Catholics who in 1999, led by [then-New York City] Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, protested a painting at the Brooklyn Museum by the British artist Chris Ofili.” Over the past year, I’ve heard curators and First Amendment lawyers voice similar comparisons, suggesting the need for a deeper evaluation of the commonalities, or lack thereof, between Culture Wars past and present.

The most obvious difference between the rebooted Culture Wars of today and those of the ’90s is the different political persuasions of its warring factions. But that is why comparing today to the ’90s is such a weighty task, requiring a detailed examination. Critics who casually conflate the Culture Wars of the ’90s with the controversies of 2017 run the risk of equating the contemporary political left with the right-wingers of decades past. And that potentially shuts down discourse in the present. After all, the implicit logic is that if conservatives were wrong in the past, and the left-leaning protesters of the present are demanding the same thing, then those calling for the removal of Open Casket or Scaffold can simply be dismissed or even actively rejected the way the art world rightly opposed people like Giuliani.

But such alignment is historically flawed in meaningful ways. While the call to remove certain artworks appears to be a consistent throughline between the 1990s and 2017, the identity of those making that call has shifted—from elected, right-wing officials wielding institutional power to more left-leaning grassroots groups mobilizing collectively against institutions. The differing role of structural power in the original Culture Wars versus our newly reignited Culture War 2.0 makes broad-brush comparisons between the two reductive and ill-advised.

Photo by John Roca/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.


The political power wielded by those looking to remove artwork during several of the prominent Culture Wars flare-ups is visible in how the battles ended up before juries, judges, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1999, Giuliani threatened to shut down the Brooklyn Museum by withholding city funds after the institution showed an Ofili painting titled The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), featuring an image of the titular figure accompanied by mixed-media elements that included elephant dung, a common material in Ofili’s practice, set before a background covered in glitter and cut-out pictures of women’s buttocks. Ofili said the work was meant to create a black Madonna, drawing on his experience as an altar boy.

But Giuliani claimed the work was offensive to religious viewers and ought not receive tax dollars. The mayor’s position didn’t involve much scholarly visual analysis. Backers of the museum, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, accused Giuliani of censorship. A New York court ultimately slammed the door shut on the mayor, finding that his efforts to choke off funds in order to coerce the museum amounted to a violation of the First Amendment.

In another legal fight, in 1990, Dennis Barrie, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, was charged with obscenity over an exhibition of sexually charged artworks by Mapplethorpe. On the exhibition’s opening day, police arrived to temporarily close the exhibition and gather evidence. (According to Smithsonian magazine, conservative columnist William F. Buckley quipped to Barrie after touring the exhibition that “there are only 13 images for which you should go to jail.”)  Ultimately a jury acquitted Barrie and the museum, but the threat was real: The museum faced a $10,000 fine, and Barrie himself faced a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

That same year, Congress, in response to exhibitions by artists such as Mapplethorpe and Serrano that had received public funds, passed legislation that required the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to incorporate “general standards of decency and respect” into its the analysis of the exhibitions and artists it would support. Artist Karen Finley and several others challenged the provision and filed a lawsuit against the NEA, arguing that it was unconstitutional for the government to suppress challenging or dissenting viewpoints that were deemed indecent, particularly given that the word “indecent” was something of a synonym for work by queer artists like Mapplethorpe, and others whose subject matter upset evangelical Christians.

But in an 8-1 ruling reached in 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “decency test” as constitutional, in part because the provision did not, in the court’s estimation, amount to prohibition in violation of the First Amendment.

Photo by John Stamstad. © John Stamstad, 1990. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

Fast forward to 2017 and, in contrast, the trial of Open Casket was litigated not in courtrooms but in the forum of public opinion—via protests, Facebook posts, and op-eds. Schutz’s painting depicts the body of Emmett Till, who was lynched by two white men after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. His murderers, who confessed, were tried and then acquitted by an all-white jury. Schutz’s detractors accused her of exploiting black suffering, and some of those critics called for the removal and even the destruction of the artwork. She herself asserted the painting would bring her no profit since it wasn’t for sale.

The debate over representation, profit, and power is valuable. But comparing those who protested the piece to conservative crusaders of the past is wrong. Those who called for the work’s removal, beginning with artist Hannah Black, were not elected officials wielding government power that required the intervention of the courts or triggered First Amendment protections. However, both then and now the word “censorship” was invoked by those critical of calls to remove the artworks. And both were products of what can broadly be called “identity politics.” But only in the ’80s and ’90s was the state itself actively working to undermine certain forms of artistic expression.

Likewise, legal doctrines of freedom of speech played no tangible role in the debate over Durant’s controversial sculpture Scaffold that unfolded this year. The work, which was to appear in the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden, depicted a gallows made to look like that on which 38 members of the Dakota tribe were hanged in 1862—a resemblance that some members found offensive and even traumatizing. They protested the work, demanding that it be burned. That dramatic call quickly elicited a sharp counter-reaction from both peaceful groups concerned about censorship and more violent factions.

“There were people driving by the protests and screaming racist things at [protesters], saying things like, ‘That’s our trophy, don’t you touch that,’ and throwing rocks at them,” Durant told the Los Angeles Times. He agreed to remove the work, and the Dakota elders decided to bury it in a ceremony. Importantly, the artist has said he didn’t feel censored, given the prevailing power dynamics. “Censorship is when a more powerful group or individual removes speech or images from a less powerful party,” he said. “The Dakota are certainly not more powerful, in political terms, or in terms of the international art world.”

Photo by Lorie Shaull, via Flickr.

So if comparisons to the conservative culture warriors of the ’90s are unhelpful and inaccurate, does history offer better guideposts for our present conversation? Yes, and they show that criticism of the art world did not always come from the right. Among the most productive but rarely made historical comparisons, noted by Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu discussing Durant in the Huffington Post, is the 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by a white curator sympathetic to black marginalization, the exhibition was controversial in large part because it failed to include fine art made by African Americans—it was narrowly focused, instead, on documentary photographs of Harlem.

Enraged demonstrators picketed outside the museum. Before the show began, they called for it to be cancelled and for the curatorial ranks of the Met to be diversified, among other demands. But this protest did not elicit a major lawsuit; neither did it pit the religious right against the liberal left. Rather, it involved the unrepresented protesting their exclusion from institutional spaces and structures, other than in a form that was out of their control. (Ironically, the mayor at the time did successfully call for the removal of the catalogue for the exhibition, but only because Jewish groups criticized an essay within it for being anti-Semitic.)

Looking back at “Harlem on My Mind” is productive because, rather than provide a shortcut for dismissing today’s protests, it forces us to think about how criticisms of broader structural imbalances made in 1969 continue to be relevant. The fundamental demand for racial equality among the curatorial staff of New York’s major cultural institutions made in the ’60s and ’70s remains more or less unfulfilled. “Harlem on My Mind” is one notable reminder that the fight waged in the 1960s for equitable representation at major art institutions continues today.

Another historical moment worth recalling is an 1979 exhibition of white artist Donald Newman held at the non-profit, publicly funded New York gallery Artists Space that used a racial slur for African Americans in its title. The work itself was not overtly racist, and the artist himself gave an equivocating justification, saying, “My reasons for choosing that title are as complex as they are contradictory and given even the best of explanations they would remain unclear.”

An open letter signed by artists that including Carl Andre, May Stevens, and Howardena Pindell criticised the gallery for the “racist gesture,” saying “the appalling title is an abuse of the esthetic freedom artists allegedly enjoy in this society.” The activist group Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the same group that protested the Met show, arranged for demonstrations outside the gallery, among other actions. Met curator Lowery Sims criticized that the “blatant and unprovoked racial insult” had received “public tax dollars” from New York State. Artists Space apologized to the offended, while supporters of the gallery including Roberta Smith, Douglas Crimp, and others condemned racism in the art world but also pushed back at those seeking to “use government funding agencies as organs of censorship.”

On the surface, this broader debate much more clearly resembles those happening today. But the case is rarely cited. Looking back on these historical precedents, they show how complex the issues are, and continue to be; they don’t offer an easy way to dismiss deep criticisms of the art world, but rather demand engagement. Indeed, equating the debates of 2017 to those of the ’90s is not helpful because it does exactly the opposite: It shuts down debate.

Avoiding flawed comparisons doesn’t make the conversation any easier, but it at least makes it a conversation. There is clearly a difference between protesting absence from an institutional space, as happened with “Harlem on my Mind,” and the total prohibition against white people artistically engaging with the suffering caused by white supremacy (an end some believe that critics of Schutz advocate). Regardless, the events surrounding Scaffold, Open Casket, and other works are the continuation of an important dialogue over representation and appropriation—one that remains unsettled.

Some are disturbed by the idea that certain subjects would be closed off to certain people. Those who have adamantly opposed any calls to take down the artworks—but have embraced underlying critiques of inequality within the art world and, more fundamentally, the broader conversation around the issue—include artist Coco Fusco and L.A. Times art writer Carolina A. Miranda, who wrote, “I am here to engage a full palette of concepts and ideas, not just the ones that pertain to my identity.…let’s allow for the messiness and the mistakes.”

Breaking the comparison from the cultural struggles of today from those of the ’90s doesn’t necessarily mean you must alter your position as to whether Open Casket and other works that provoked outrage should be removed from view (let alone destroyed). But flatly equating the dynamics of the present to those of the original Culture Wars—without a consideration of the differing power structures at play—is a slippery slope. Doing so can provide an easy, sometimes disingenuous, way to sideline the crucial debate about institutional control and representation in the art world that continues to be raised in important way.

Isaac Kaplan