Religious leader protests NEA-funded art exhibit (April 21, 1990)

By Kim Masters
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 1990; 12:00 AM

With the help of a mass mailing by the Rev. Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, photographer David Wojnarowicz may soon become as controversial as Robert Mapplethorpe.

An exhibit mounted earlier this year with $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts is the target of a mailing aimed at every member of Congress as well as 178,000 pastors on the American Family Association mailing list.

"It's not the kind of mailing you can send to the general public," Wildmon said. "I could be prosecuted by the U.S. Postal Service for that mailing. What I'm trying to do is put it into the hands of key leaders."

The package includes two pages of mostly homosexual images taken from larger collages by Wojnarowicz. While NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer denounced the mailing as misleading, it has nonetheless rattled some congressional nerves as the fight over NEA reauthorization gains momentum.

Frohnmayer said the mailing implies incorrectly that the show, called "Tongues of Flame," was funded after he became NEA chairman and after Congress added language to the NEA appropriation bill prohibiting the agency from funding obscene work. While the works were displayed this spring, Frohnmayer said it was funded last May before he became chairman in October and before the legislation was passed.

He expressed his concerns yesterday in a letter to Wildmon, in which he asked Wildmon to reconsider his position against the NEA and concluded, "I respect your zeal and your absolute right to speak on any subject whatsoever. I do not respect your use of falsehoods, half-truths and intimidation."

"It's simply not something that I had any opportunity to exercise any judgment over," Frohnmayer said in an interview yesterday. He said the pictures in the mailing are "pretty strong stuff that would offend almost anybody." But since he hadn't seen the exhibit, Frohnmayer wouldn't say whether he would have considered funding the show. "I have made a promise to the president and Congress and to the American people that we will not fund obscenity," he said.

Wildmon responded that the letter doesn't say the exhibit was funded under Frohnmayer, only that "the exhibit came after" Frohnmayer became chairman. "Mr. Frohnmayer is having difficulty reading," Wildmon said.

Reached in New York, the 35-year-old Wojnarowicz said those who attack his works are "a bunch of repressed 5-year-olds." His works are not fairly represented in the mailing, he added. "They're creating pieces of their own," he said. "They're not even my pieces, when they've gotten through with them." He said he made the most controversial works, known as the Sex Series, last year because "I felt the conservative climate had gotten so high ... that there was this call to deny sexuality itself."

He said he opposes the use of his works to attack the NEA. "Public monies are being used to fund covert wars, to buy instruments of death," he said. "The few pennies that come out of people's pockets to fund the NEA is nothing -- and absolutely does not cause death."

Wojnarowicz said he believes the obscenity issue is a pretext for an attack on freedom of expression. "I can really approximate what it must have been to be a Jew during Hitler's rise to power -- as a human being, as a homosexual, as a person with AIDS," he said.

Frohnmayer said that "it's too early to tell" whether the Wildmon mailing will whip up the type of national controversy generated by Mapplethorpe's pictures or an Andres Serrano photo of a crucifix immersed in urine. Those works became a focal point in the emotional debate over government funding of art and freedom of expression.

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