The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind the right’s loathing of the NEA: Two ‘despicable’ exhibits almost 30 years ago

Projection of a Mapplethorpe self-portrait during the protest at the Corcoran Gallery in 1989 (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s proposed budget calls for the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, much to the delight of many conservatives, particularly those old enough to remember when the battle against the NEA became a crusade, who will tell you, with anger unabated after nearly 30 years, about the “Mapplethorpe” exhibit and a photo called “Piss Christ.”

The year was 1989. The right’s effort to defund the NEA, founded as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, was well underway, but mostly as a spending issue, something to be cut, disliked by the administration of Ronald Reagan but not necessarily loathed.

“In the 1980s, the NEA was seen as little more than an irritant and not an agent for political or social change,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told The Washington Post.

After all, Shirley said, Reagan was a “patron of the arts” and a former actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild. Eventually, he merely proposed cuts to the agency’s budget.

“The transition team really did want to defund it,” W. Barnabas McHenry, vice chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Arts & Humanities under Reagan, told the New York Times in 1988. “So we put a lot of people on the task force like Charlton Heston and Adolph Coors who were close to the President, and we all thought the task force did finally persuade him that it would be a terrible thing to stop the Federal support.”

“In the 1980s, the economy is in bad shape, the military is in bad shape, the Soviet Union is looming,” Shirley said. “So when people wake up in the morning, they’re not thinking of the NEA and art they think is obscene. They’re thinking about getting a job. They’re thinking about the potential of World War III.”

The end of the ’80s, however, was a “time of relative peace,” which Shirley said is when “people turn their eyes to something like the NEA.”

President Trump's proposed budget calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Small and rural programs would be hit hardest. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

There had long been “a perception that a lot of liberal causes and a lot of liberal art was being promoted by the NEA,” he said.

But the passion to do away with the organization had yet to reach a fever.

Then came “Piss Christ” by Catholic artist Andres Serrano, a snapshot of Jesus on the crucifix, soaking in the artist’s urine. It debuted quietly in New York in 1987 but caused an uproar two years later when it was shown in Virginia on a tour partially funded by an NEA grant.

“The Virginia Museum should not be in the business of promoting and subsidizing hatred and intolerance. Would they pay the KKK to do a work defaming blacks?” one museum-goer wrote in a letter to the Richmond Free-Press.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon, founder of what is now called the American Family Foundation, sent a letter to every member of Congress, according to “Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century.”

“I would never, ever have dreamed that I would live to see such demeaning disrespect and desecration of Christ in our country that is present today,” Wildmon wrote. “Maybe, before the physical persecution of Christians begins, we will gain the courage to stand against such bigotry.”

Conservative Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Alphonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) took to the Senate floor in May 1989 “to question the NEA’s funding procedures.” Helms called Serrano “not an artist, he is a jerk,” and D’Amato theatrically tore a reproduction of the work to shreds, calling it a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.”

Meanwhile, more than 50 senators and 150 representatives contacted the NEA to complain about the exhibits.

Serrano still remembers being “shocked” by the angry reaction and, he told The Post on Sunday, how suddenly the work became a “political football.”

“I was born and raised a Catholic and have been a Christian all my life,” he said. “My work is not meant to be blasphemous nor offensive. … It was very surreal to see myself become the object of a controversy and national debate I did not intend.”

Regardless of Serrano’s intentions, the religious right’s crusade against the NEA had begun.

But the exhibit that pushed Helms over the edge was a retrospective of work by late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who Andrew Hartman, author of “A War for the Soul Of America: A History of the Culture Wars,” wrote “became the Christian Right’s bête noire.”

After being displayed with little fanfare in Chicago and Philadelphia, “The Perfect Moment” was set to arrive at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington on July 1, 1989, four months after Mapplethorpe died at 42 of complications from HIV/AIDS.

Like the exhibit containing “Piss Christ,” it was partially, indirectly funded by the NEA.

The exhibit featured 175 photographs. One hundred sixty-eight were inoffensive, such as images of carefully arranged flowers. The seven from his “X-Portfolio,” though, were intensely provocative. One presented a finger inserted into a penis. Another was a self-portrait showing Mapplethorpe graphically inserting a bullwhip into his anus. Two displayed nude children.

The exhibit so enraged Helms, he mailed reproductions of four offending images, including one of a prepubescent girl exposing herself and one of a naked boy, to several senators in what The Post called “Helms’s ‘Indecent Sampler.'” That outrage quickly spread.

“Mao is dead,” as author Todd Gitlin described the moment. “Now Mapplethorpe is the devil king.”

One person who viewed the exhibit wrote in a museum registry, “I’ve been here four times already and this show disgusts me more each time I see it.”

Amid the outcry, the Corcoran canceled the exhibit to avoid being involved in the fight over the NEA’s funding of the work, as the museum’s director, Christina Orr-Cahall, told The Post at the time.

Nearly 1,000 gathered outside the museum to protest the cancellation. They projected 50-foot enlargements of Mapplethorpe’s work on the gallery wall from 17th Street. “We’re giving him his show,” artist Rockne Krebs told The Post.

Meanwhile, as Hartman told The Post, “There were probably hundreds of thousands of phone calls and letters made about these issues to congressmen.”

The House quickly cut $45,000 from the NEA’s proposed budget, “the exact amount of the two grants that funded Mapplethorpe and Serrano,” The Post reported in 1989.

Fueled by outrage, Helms sponsored a bill, which passed, to bar the NEA from using funds to ”promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts, or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or nonreligion.”

This pair of controversies transformed the NEA into a political symbol and brought it front and center in “The Culture Wars,” which Pat Buchanan called “as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”

”We are not going to give the money to aging hippies anymore to desecrate the crucifix or do other strange things,” stated Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) in 1997. Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) called the organization “the single most visible and deplorable black mark on the arts in America that I have seen in my lifetime.”

As then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would say in that same year, calls to defund the organization weren’t just about government spending but about fighting “an elite group who wants the Government to define that art is good.” It was a common theme. Two years earlier, Gingrich said about the NEA on C-SPAN, “I’m against self-selected elites using your tax money and my tax money to pay off their friends.”

Even the NEA in its own written history acknowledged that this was the point the anti-NEA sentiment became an issue of values. “To many the names Serrano and Mapplethorpe were now tokens of moral corruption inside the agency,” it stated.

Conservatives found the exhibits so deplorable, they still talk about them nearly 30 years later as among the reasons for abolishing the NEA.

In February, Frontpage magazine published a piece titled, “Lefties freak out over that Trump may cut funds for ‘Piss Christ’ agency.” In an op-ed Wednesday, conservative columnist George F. Will again invoked the photograph. It also appeared in a commentary arguing against NEA funding, published this morning in the American Spectator. Both artists are mentioned several times in a Heritage Foundation article titled “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.” In a piece about the NEA’s “top 10 crazy grants,” the Washington Times sarcastically called “Piss Christ” “an oldie but goodie.”

Still, the NEA has avoided defunding, in part because the right has never been ascendant in both Congress and the White House and also because these  controversies “really scared” the NEA, Hartman said. He said that the agency has mostly avoided funding controversial art since.

It may survive this storm, too.

The NEA, Hartman said, “has been so smart about the types of programs that they fund, because they placed them all over the country so just about everyone in Congress has constituents who benefit” from its largesse.

Dana Gioia, former chairman of the NEA, recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The NEA Shakespeare program, for example, has helped bring professional stage productions to 3,900 towns, mostly small and midsize communities. … It has provided millions of high school students with a chance to experience live theater, most of them for the first time.”

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