Issue 114, Spring 2011

In the fall of 2010 culture wars rhetoric seemed like a thing of the past, remembered alongside attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and Congressional saber-rattling about “offensive” art. What a difference twenty years made: the National Portrait Gallery in Washington was mounting Hide/Seek, a show on queer portraiture in art, and Congress was voting to repeal the military’s repressive “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. It almost appeared as if the old cultural battle-axes had been buried.

And then the firestorm hit. As in so many earlier cases, it was ignited by the press, in this case, fueled by religious groups, in this case the offense-hounds from the Catholic League, and inflamed as a result of political threats to cut the institution’s funding. Smithsonian Secretary W.G. Clough, demonstrating a fatally low melting point, immediately requested that one of the works in Hide/Seek be removed – a sacrificial victim, according to Clough, to save the show from further attacks and soften the hearts of Republicans in their next discussion of the Institution’s funding.

Congressional critics may have been temporarily appeased, but their appetite for cultural slaughter was only whetted: the moment a new Congress convened in January a rejuvenated GOP was again threatening to slash funding for the NEA, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While the threats have not been carried out, they serve as a clear reminder that public display of “controversial” art is a risky business.

Deepening the sense of déjà vu, protests among members of the art world and LGBT activists outraged by the Smithsonian’s censorship replayed the passions inspired by 1990s political attacks on the arts. But what had been going on in the last decade? Have the culture vigilantes been sleeping only to be jarred awake by the invasion of the venerable Smithsonian by gays and lesbians? That, in spite of appearances, is not the case:

Only a month before the controversy over Hide/Seek hit the news-cycle, a print by Enrique Chagoya – accused of being offensive to Catholics – was physically attacked and destroyed in Colorado after city councilmen abandoned the effort to have the work removed when they realized that would violate the First Amendment. Even more recently California government officials removed a painting of a nude from a show of work by local artists, and an hour-long video installation was switched off during prime viewing hours in a Texas art space because of concerns that teens might be exposed to a few minutes of sexually suggestive images.

Such incidents, sometimes involving nudity, sometimes religion or politics, hide behind the (pregnant) lull that is periodically punctuated by national censorship firestorms.  The censors have not gone away: they have just relocated. Censorship rarely brings artists national fame.  More often it confronts them with the mundane reality of petty politics and public officials’ fear of controversy. When an incident gains national exposure everybody becomes a free speech warrior, but few have the patience to deal with everyday censorship. Yet those are the real battles that define our culture.

For more on the Hide/Seek controversy, and NCAC’s activities in response, visit /issue/visual-art/. While you’re there, check out all the other art censorship controversies that didn’t make front page news or inspire national protests.