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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.

"The thing that I hope doesn't happen is hysteria here," said Frohnmayer, who practiced law in Portland, Ore., before becoming NEA chairman. "In the law, we used to say that sympathetic cases make bad law, and this is that kind of situation."

Hill aides said they are uncertain what to expect from the Wildmon mailing. "I'm still trying to gauge this whole thing," said a staffer on the Senate education subcommittee that will handle the reauthorization process. So far, he said, he has received only a couple of calls from Senate offices seeking more information about the exhibit. "They weren't outraged," he said.

On the House side, reaction was mixed. "I don't think we've had any time to assess how worried we are or should be," said one staffer who will work on reauthorization. But another subcommittee staff member said the mailing will erode support for the NEA.

"I expect it to have a big impact," he said. "... I think it's going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back for a lot of moderate members of Congress who cannot support these kinds of graphic sex images."

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), who chairs the House subcommittee that has launched the reauthorization process, could not be reached for comment.

The Wildmon mailing came almost seven weeks after the closing of the "Tongues of Flame" exhibit at the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. Director Barry Blinderman, who assembled the show, said it ran from Jan. 23 through March 4 and included more than 60 works, 20 of them photographic pieces and 40 paintings and sculptures. Six thousand students and local residents saw the show and the galleries registered only two protests, Blinderman said. After the show closed -- when Wildmon began to publicize the exhibit -- the galleries received about 50 letters of protest.

The exhibit included eight montages that make up the Sex Series, Blinderman said. The Wildmon mailing includes blow-ups of insets that depict sexual images. "They've gone through the entire 128-page catalogue, which contains something like 140 illustrations, and they've just zeroed in on these insets, not showing you the collage, which could show you what it's about," he said. "They've taken a 6-foot-by-9-foot {work} and given you one little scene."

Blinderman said he got $15,000 of the $45,000 cost of the show from the NEA. That funding came before Frohnmayer's tenure, he confirmed. The balance came from a foundation and the galleries' budget. The university administration remains supportive of the galleries despite the growing controversy, he said.

"Most people who saw the exhibit don't know what the fuss is about," Blinderman said. "There's only a fuss when they start distorting and excerpting. ... Yes, there are sexual acts that are depicted. But they are in the service of social and political ideas."

Wildmon acknowledged that the pictures are excerpted but asked, "Does that make those photos less offensive? Does that make them less obscene? ... Even in Washington, D.C., if you take that on the street and ask 50 people, I'll bet you 45 to 48 of them will say the government shouldn't be funding that."

Wojnarowicz has stirred controversy before. His essay in a catalogue at New York Artists Space led Frohnmayer to pull NEA support from the show soon after his appointment last year. After visiting the show, he reinstated the funds but excluded the catalogue from the grant. NEA adversary Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) included a Wojnarowicz photo in a Feb. 20 letter sent to other members of Congress, and a Wojnarowicz photo depicting Jesus with a syringe in his arm has been used in anti-NEA ad campaigns. That image was not included in the exhibit.

The show's next stop is the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, where it is scheduled to run -- without NEA support -- from July through September. Then it moves to New York's Exit Art in November, also without government support.

Santa Monica Museum Director Thomas Rhoads said he won't be deterred by controversy.

"I think people should know what they're using for target practice," he said. "It's a free country and I think people should be able to see the work."

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