A Selective Timeline of Art Censorship from 1989 to the Present

Art and culture are popular targets of censorship. NCAC’s Art and Culture Censorship Timeline shows you how art and cultural censorship have evolved over time.


Art and Culture Censorship

One of Arnautoff’s murals depicts George Washington pointing westward over the dead body of a Native American. (Photo: Dick Evans, CC BY 4.0)

  • San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) votes to remove 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals at George Washington High School. June 25, 2019: At issue are depictions of George Washington’s slaves and violence against Native Americans. The murals, created in fresco by Russian-American social realist painter Victor Arnautoff, can only be removed by the irreversible act of destroying them. Complaints about the murals first arose in the 1960s, leading the school to commission murals from artist Dewey Crumpler to offer positive imagery of people of color. But a 2017 proposal to designate George Washington High School as a historical landmark reignited calls for the murals to be removed. The school convenes a Reflection and Action Group which recommends that the murals be removed. Arts advocates and anti-censorship organizations, including NCAC, call for additional educational programming around the murals. The murals’ critics argue that Black and Native American students are traumatized by these images of the historical violence and oppression of their ancestors. Advocates for preserving the murals maintain that this art must be considered in its historical and social context and that arguments for removal do not give students enough credit for their ability to grapple with complexity.  August 13, 2019: The San Francisco Unified School District votes to reverse their decision to destroy the murals and to instead cover them with panels. More details available here.

Beau Stanton’s mural at the RFK Community Schools complex.

  • Los Angeles School Plans to Whitewash Mural That Offends Korean Activists. December 2018: The superintendent of a Los Angeles school district (LAUSD) unilaterally decides to remove a mural from the exterior wall of a high school gym. The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) disagrees with this decision and urges the school district to reconsider. The mural, by artist Beau Stanton, was created as part of an arts initiative at the school, which involved workshops and seminars with students. The Kennedy Foundation grant-funded mural was vetted by the school district and intended as an homage to actress Ava Gardner. The radiating design element is found in many of Stanton’s murals. Some community members represented by the Wilshire Community Coalition are offended by the rays, which they associate with the Japanese imperialist Rising Sun flag, and call for the erasure of the entire mural. In late December, LAUSD postpones its plans to remove the mural until after the holidays. In late May 2019, after intervention from artists, advocates and community groups, a compromise is reached that will allow the mural to remain with Stanton overseeing changes to the work.


  • Pulphus, et al v. Stephen Ayers is dismissed by the D.C. Circuit court. Nov. 30, 2018: the D.C. Circuit dismissed the lawsuit as moot because the 2016 art competition—and its corresponding Capitol exhibition have ended—so there was no longer any injury for the court to redress. In its opinion in Pulphus v. Ayers, the court rejected Pulphus’s arguments that the case continues to present a live controversy, finding the case moot.

Untitled (Flag 2), 2017 by Josephine Meckseper Photo credit: Guillaume Ziccarelli/Creative Time

USM Exhibition: ‘Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape’


Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, Blue Mosque, 2016, watercolor

  • An abrupt policy change by the US Department of Defense prohibits art created by detainees at Guantanamo Bay from leaving the base, even in the event of a detainee’s release. November 2017-January 2018: This new policy appears to have been inspired by an exhibition of artwork created by detainees, hosted at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The policy is the subject of an official letter sent by NCAC and 10 co-signatories to President Donald Trump; Secretary of Defense James Mattis; Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan; US Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Edward Cashman; and US Marine Corps Sergeant Major Dennis Bradley. The letter warns that the new policy flagrantly stifles any public discussion that could arise from viewing the art, and therefore the artistic and human side, of Guantanamo detainees. Art that has previously left the base has been subjected to intense military scrutiny before being cleared for release. Absent security concerns raised by that review, this policy also violates the human rights of the detainees under international norms. Further, the directive suppresses documents of clear political and historical importance to the American public.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World

‘Untitled #1,’ by David Pulphus

  • Congressmen Remove Student Painting from Exhibition on Capitol Hill, Provoking Lawsuit, January-April 2017: Republican lawmakers repeatedly remove, without permission, an allegorical painting by high school student David Pulphus from an annual art exhibition at the U.S. Capitol. Representative Lacy Clay (D-MO) restores the painting each time it is removed. The Architect of the Capitol sides with Republican representatives who argue that inclusion of the the painting breaks the art competition’s guidelines forbidding works that depict “subjects of contemporary political controversy.” A dozen free speech organizations condemn the decision; Rep. Clay files a lawsuit in federal court, but the judge upholds the painting’s removal. In May 2018, Pulphus and Congressman Clay filed an appeal. Additional info: Judge Upholds Removal of Student’s Controversial Painting from U.S. Capitol; Capitol Painting Lawsuit Doomed, Legal Scholars Say
  • American University Removes Sculpture of Leonard Peltier from Grounds of Katzen Center Museum, January 2017: American University in Washington, D.C. removes a sculpture installed in front of the AU Museum and Katzen Arts Center after reporting complaints and violent threats from outside groups, including an association of FBI officers. The 9-foot sculpture by California artist Rigo 23 is based on a self-portrait by incarcerated Native American activist Leonard Peltier. The installation of the sculpture was timed to coincide with Peltier’s latest application for clemency, and with a symposium for the Peltier Defense Committee hosted by the University’s law school.

‘Proverbs 22 v.6.’ by Mark Harris

  • San Jose School District Removes Artist Solo Exhibition About Race, February 2017: An exhibition of paintings by San Francisco artist Mark Harris celebrating Black History Month is removed from the lobby of an East Side Union School District building by the school district’s superintendent, due to ‘complaints.’ Harris’ eleven paintings depict the African American experience and the history of racial injustice. Despite pressure from free speech groups, the works are not restored.

Whitney Biennial: Parker Bright protests Dana Schutz painting

  • Whitney Museum Faces Protests and Call to Remove Painting by Dana Schutz Depicting Open Casket of Emmett Till, March 2017: The opening of the latest edition of the Whitney Biennial is met with protests over the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, that takes as its subject an iconic photograph of Emmit Till lying in his casket after being brutally murdered. The artist Parker Bright stands in front of the painting to block it from view while wearing a t-shirt that reads “Black Death Spectacle,” and British bi-racial artist Hannah Black posts a letter and petition calling for the painting’s immediate removal and destruction. A heated debate ensues across mainstream media, art outlets and social media platforms. The museum does not remove the painting.
  • Burnsville Minnesota Arts Center Cancels Play over the Word ‘Mulatto’ in Title, March-May, 2017: The Ames Center, a city-owned performing arts center in Burnsville, Minnesota, refuses to allow their resident theatre company, the Chameleon Theatre Circle, to stage a play with the word “mulatto” in its title. The play, Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales, is written, directed and performed by biracial playwright Derek ‘Duck’ Washington.

Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, before it was dismantled.

  • Walker Art Center Destroys Controversial Sam Durant SculptureMay-June 2017: Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center became the center of a heated controversy over Scaffold, a massive 2012 work by Los Angeles artist Sam Durant meant to create awareness about capital punishment and its disproportionate effect on people of color. Scaffold is based on designs for gallows used in seven U.S. state-sanctioned executions, including 38 Dakota men hung in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. The installation was not discussed in advance with the local Dakota community, and it sparked a protest and demands for it to be destroyed. After a meeting with Dakota tribal elders, a determination was made to dismantle the sculpture and burn the wood in a ceremony; Durant pledged to not re-create the work, and to transfer his intellectual property rights to the work to the Dakota tribe.



‘Voyeur,’ by Brooke Mason (courtesy the artist)

  • West Hollywood Removes Photographs Celebrating Women During Women’s History Month, March-April 2016: Precipitated by an unknown city staff member’s complaint, City of West Hollywood officials remove three works by Los Angeles photographer Brooke Mason from exhibitions celebrating women artists for Women’s History Month. After receiving pressure, they reach an agreement with the artist to exhibit the works.

Aaron Bell’s sculpture, ‘Stand Tall, Stand Loud’

Direct Drive exhibition, Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri

  • Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAMSTL) Faces Protests/Calls for Boycott over Exhibition of Racially Charged Artworks, September 2016: The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Missouri, faces protests over Direct Drive, an exhibition by Georgia-born artist Kelley Walker, who appropriates images of African-American history in some of his works. Deemed racially insensitive and demeaning to African Americans, local activists, artists, and museum staffers demand the museum remove the works and that the exhibition curator resign. CAMSTL cordons off the works behind a wall. Soon after, the curator resigns.
  • California State University Cancels Race-related Comedy at the Carpenter Center, September 2016: The Carpenter Performing Arts Center at California State University Long Beach is forced to abandon a production of the acclaimed race-centered comedy N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK after the university administration calls for its cancellation. The university’s decision prompts the resignation of Center’s long-standing Executive Director, Michele Roberge, who refers to the cancellation as an act of censorship.

‘A Partial Listing Of People Lynched By Police Recently’ – rejected billboard proposal by Dread Scott

  • OUTFRONT Media Rejects Public Art Billboard Proposal by Artist Dread ScottAugust-November 2016: Outfront Media rejects artist Dread Scott’s proposal for a billboard displayed at the alternative Kansas City art space 50/50’s Black Lives Matter exhibition on the grounds that it violates their policy against “negative advertising.” The design includes a list of names of those killed in recent police violence juxtaposed with a photograph of Scott’s flag decrying police lynching. When Scott proposes a modified design, (and after receiving pressure), Outfront Media reverses its decision.
  • Tillman Hall Threatens to Punish/Expel Student Activist Artist over Protest ArtworkNovember-December 2016: South Carolina’s Winthrop University threatens one of its students with expulsion over an art installation made in protest of the name of the university’s main building, Tillman Hall. Benjamin Tillman (“Pitchfork Ben”) after whom the building is named, advocated for lynch mobs while serving as governor of South Carolina (1890-94). After being pressured by free speech groups, the university drops its charges against the student. Additional infoWinthrop: No charges filed in case of hanging black figures outside Tillman Hall



MFA Boston, Kimono Wednesdays protest and counter protestor



  • Emerald Art Center Rejects Artist’s Work from Members’ Exhibition, February 2014: The Board of the Emerald Art Center in Springfield, Oregon, rejects Linda Cunningham’s collage entitled, School Days, from the monthly members’ art show. The collage, which includes school children and bullet casings, is “too controversial” and “inappropriate.”
  • Installation Removed for Fear of Offending Viewers, February 2014: Kennesaw State University officials remove Ruth Stanford’s installation, A Walk in the Valley, at the Zuckerman Museum of Art. Officials claim the installation contains content that does not fit the “celebratory nature” of the museum’s grand opening.

Damien Hirst, ‘The Virgin Mother’ 2005: Before and After.

  • Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother Covered Up on Long Island, May 2014: Community members of Long Island’s Village of Old Westbury place restrictions on The Virgin Mother, a 33-foot sculpture by Damien Hirst, in the art-filled estate of developer Aby Rosen. A black tarp is placed over the sculpture because the monumental nude pregnant woman was “giving children nightmares.”



Tom Gregg, ‘Teacup’

  • Kansas University Removes Art and Closes Exhibition Hall, July 2013: Dykes Library Interim Director Dr. Vince Loffredo orders the removal of Tom Gregg: Unsold – Grenades, Cute Animals and Bad Apples ahead of its scheduled end date, and closes the exhibition hall permanently. The work featured in Unsold — including paintings of grenades, pistols, and rotten apples — apparently did not support the campus’ “core mission.”
  • National Hispanic Heritage Month Censored by County for Nudity, September 2013: The San Bernardino County Government building Board of Supervisors asks artists Armando Aleman and Efren Montiel Jiminez to remove paintings that contain nudity after receiving complaints from people who visit the building. A court case enforces the reinstatement of the paintings.



  • John Michael Kohler Art Center Censors Family Exhibition, October 2012: The Art Center removes Betsey Schneider’s photographic series Quotidian due to complaints concerning nudity. The photographs were part of the kids are all right exhibition and are a documentation of Schneider’s daughter growing up that includes images in which she is nude.



Cariou v. Prince

Judy Taylor, ‘History of Maine’ Labor Mural



Enrique Chagoya, ‘The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals’ (2003), lithographic color codex, 7 1/2 x 90 inches, published by Shark’s Ink; Lyons, CO

  • Woman Destroys Enrique Chagoya Print at Colorado Museum, October 2010: A disgruntled woman rips into Enrique Chagoya’s controversial lithograph The Misadventures of the Romantic Cannibals after busting the artwork’s plexiglass case with a crowbar at the Loveland Museum in Colorado. City council members, religious groups and individuals hoped that the public pressure caused by the artwork’s racy religious content would get Chagoya’s piece yanked from the government-funded museum. Part of the lithograph appears to depict a Jesus Christ face on a female body receiving oral sex.

David Wojnarowicz, ‘A Fire In My Belly’ (Film In Progress) film still

  • David Wojnarowicz Video Censored, December 2010: The Smithsonian Institution pulls David Wojnarowicz’ video Fire In My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery.

Blu’s mural being whitewashed, LA MOCA





  • San Francisco Art Institute Cancels Adel Abdessemed Exhibit, March 2008: In response to threats of violence directed at staff members and their families by animal-rights activists, The San Francisco Art Institute cancels Don’t Trust Me, an exhibition by Algerian-born French artist Adel Abdessemed consisting of video footage of animals being killed by a single blow from a sledgehammer.

Wafaa Bilal, ‘Virtual Jihadi’ (video game)

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Closes Art Exhibit, March 2008: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY closes “Virtual Jihadi,” a video art exhibition by Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal, and announces the creation of a committee to “vet and monitor” artwork on campus after College Republicans vocally oppose the exhibition. The work is then displayed by The Sanctuary for Independent Media, a private exhibition space. But the controversy does not end there: the City Commissioner for Public Works leads a protest demonstration at the opening, and, in a suspicious coincidence, the next day The Sanctuary is closed for a building code violation.



‘Patriot Act’ by Al Brandtner, a sheet of 42 mock 37-cent stamps.

Paul Gravett, MANGA – Sixty Years of Japanese Comics



The House of Representatives passes a FLAG PROTECTION AMENDMENT giving Congress and state legislatures authority to outlaw the physical desecration of the American flag.

Gayla Lemke’s ceramic work, ‘Hope Stones’



Steve Kurtz, Critical Art Ensemble



The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, passed in October 2002, keeps Mickey Mouse, who made his screen debut in 1928, from entering the public domain. The law is referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” due to Disney’s central role in its passage.

  • The Dixie Chicks Banned From Radio Stations, March 2003: The Dixie Chicks are banned from radio stations nationwide after lead singer Natalie Maines criticizes President Bush. At a Louisiana rally, a tractor smashes Dixie Chicks CDs and other paraphernalia.

John Trobaugh, G.I. Joe and Ken dolls

  • Shelton State Community College Removes John Trobaugh Photos, November 2003: John Trobaugh’s photographs are removed from the photo gallery of Shelton State Community College at the direction of the President who claimed that the images ”created a negative impression” and were “offensive” and “controversial” because they might be interpreted as an endorsement of homosexuality.

Aaron McGruder, The Boondocks comic strip: ‘Condi Needs a Man’

  •  The Washington Post Pulls The Boondocks Comic Strip, October 2003: The Washington Post pulls a week’s worth of The Boondock comic strips, the “Condi Needs a Man” series in which Huey and his friend Caesar create a personal ad for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, portraying her as a “female Darth Vader type that seeks loving mate to torture.”



The Department of Justice purchase drapes to cover the two semi-nude art deco statues that have been in the Great Hall of the Department since the 1930s.

John Ashcroft, Spirit of Justice

  • Attorney General John Ashcroft Covers Statue of Justice, February 2002: The Department of Justice purchases drapes to cover the two semi-nude art deco statues that have been in the Great Hall of the Department since the 1930s.
  • Artwork Depicting 9/11 Attack Removed From Armory Show, March 2002: Ennio Bertrand’s interactive video Remote Stills/Under Attackis removed from the Armory Show at New York City’s Pier 88 after staff members complain that the continuously-looped images of UA Flight 175 exploding into the World Trade Center are inappropriate in light of the fact that the pier had been used for months as the staging area for attack-related operations.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court declares the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act unconstitutional (April, 2002).

Eric Fischl, ‘Tumbling Woman’

Sharon Paz, Falling (detail)

  • Sharan Paz Public Artwork is Removed from Arts Center in QueensSeptember 2002: City officials remove Sharon Paz’s project, Falling, 2002, in which human silhouettes falling through mid-air are pasted to the windows of the Jamaica Center for the Arts in Queens, NY. Some staff members and public officials decide the work is “insensitive.”
  • Jill Friedman’s Photographs of Peace Rally Removed from Hartford Exhibition, October 2002: The Director’s Gallery in Hartford, Connecticut, removes two photographs by artist Jill Friedman from an exhibition. Hartford’s director of human services calls one of the photos “un-American” and orders the removal of both photos after several employees find them offensive. The photographs document a Washington, D.C. peace rally.
  • Willits Center for the Arts Refuses to Exhibit Art Critical of GovernmentOctober 2002: The Willits Center for the Arts, Mendocino County, CA refuses to exhibit two panels of Evan Johnson’s photographic work, which comment critically on issues of American foreign policy, because city officials would disapprove.
  • Supreme Court Upholds The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, October 2002: The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the 1998 Sonny Bono law extending copyright to 70 years after the death of the artist (for individuals), and 95 years for corporations. The Sonny Bono law is the result of strenuous lobbying by companies with lucrative copyrights. Often called (derisively) the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” due to Disney’s central role in its passage, it prevents the original Mickey, who made his screen debut in 1928, from entering the public domain in 2003. The law prevents more than 400,000 other works from entering the public domain.

The Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum), impersonating Dow Chemical

  • Internet Provider Denies Service to Thing.net for Hosting Parody Website, December 2002: After receiving legal threats from the Dow Chemical Corporation, Internet access provider NTT/Verio declares it will terminate its contract with Thing.net for hosting a parody press release from the activist artist group, The Yes Men, on their server. The press release was posted on the anniversary of the lethal gas leak in Bhopal, India; the parody site closely resembles Dow Chemical’s real site, which leads Dow to send Verio a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down complaint claiming trademark infringement. Additional info: Democracy Now: Yes Men Hoax; DOW Chemical Apologizes for Bhopal



Renée Cox, Yo Mama’s Last Supper

  • New York Mayor Guiliani Announces Formation of Decency Committee, February 2001: In response to a work by Jamaican-American artist Renée Cox exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York Mayor Rudolf Guiliani announces the formation of a decency committee to explore the possibilities for controlling the content of art shown in city-funded institutions. The work, Yo Mama’s Last Supper, is a photographic montage consisting of five panels depicting: 11 black men, a white Judas, and a naked black woman (the artist’s self-portrait), all posing in reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. Additional info: Yo Mama’s  Last Supper (Wikipedia)

Alex Donis, WAR. ‘Shadow and Sergeant Kooney’ (oil and enamel on plexi)

  • LA Cultural Affairs Department Cancels Alex Donis Art Installation, April 2001: Claiming threats of violence, the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs department (LACAD) cancels War, a painting installation by L.A.-based artist Alex Donis, before it opens at the Watts Towers Arts Center. The exhibition displays a series of paintings featuring fictionalized pairings of LAPD officers and gang members in same-sex dancing poses with companion text from renowned African-American poet and performance artist, Keith Antar Mason.
  • U.S. Senate Censors Artist Laura Ferguson, May 2001: Laura Ferguson’s drawings of nudes, featured in a touring exhibition organized by the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, are censored when the show comes to the U.S. Senate building in Washington, D.C. Senator Mitch McConnell’s staff director Tamara Somerville affirms that the Senate censors representations of nudity and violence.
  • New Guidelines for Decency Standards on the Airwaves, June 2001: The FCC issues new guidelines indicating that innuendo and context are factors in determining whether a record violates its decency standards, regardless of the specific words. Using the new guidelines, the FCC fines two radio stations $7000 each for airing the “clean version” of Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady and Sarah Jones’ Your Revolution. Jones sues the FCC. Under pressure, in 2003, the FCC decides Your Revolution is not indecent.
  • NEA Chairman Rejects Grant Application for Documentary Film about Gay Family Life, 2001: NEA Chairman Bill Ivey rejects a grant application for Family Fundamentals, a documentary film by Arthur Dong profiling families with gay adult children. The grant had been recommended by the agency’s media arts panel.

Alma López, ‘Our Lady,’ digital print



The House of Representatives passes a Flag Protection amendment giving Congress and state legislatures authority to outlaw the physical desecration of the American Flag.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) goes into effect. This new law requires public and school libraries receiving federal assistance for Internet connections to install filters on all computers.

  • Harry Potter Books Challenged in School Libraries, 2000: School libraries in Michigan, Kansas, Colorado, California and many other states face challenges to Harry Potter books. Protests against the series in Florida result in at least one reading incentive program being canceled.



Chris Ofili, ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’

Tom Forsythe, ‘Malted Barbie’ (photograph from the Food Chain Barbie series)



The Child Online Protection Act is Passed. COPA mandates restriction of minors’ access to “harmful to minors” materials commercially distributed over the World Wide Web.

  •  National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 1998: NEA v. Finley was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld the “decency” standard for federal grants to the arts, requiring the NEA to take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when making grants. The majority decision held that the “decency” standard is only advisory, and cannot be used to censor controversial art or ideas. Additional info: National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (Wikipedia)
  •  Catholic League and Others Threaten Manhattan Theatre Club over McNally Play, 1998: Terrence McNally’s Play, Corpus Christi, and the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it was to premiere, face protests and threats from the Catholic League and others objecting to its portrayal of Jesus Christ and the apostles as gay. When one of the theatre’s sponsors withdraws financial support, the Manhattan Theatre Club tries to cancel the production. Under pressure from free speech advocates, including playwrights, directors, and the media, the theatre reverses its decision.



Jock Sturges (Scalo, 1996)

  •  Jock Sturges Photos Vandalized in Bookstores, 1997: Barnes & Noble is indicted in Alabama and Tennessee on “harmful to minors” charges for selling Jock Sturges’ books after a new book of photographs by Sturges draws protests at Barnes & Noble and Borders Bookstores across the country. Randall Terry, notorious for his anti-abortion “Operation Rescue” tactics, is one of the organizers of the new assault on books and bookstores. Protestors demand the book’s removal for its photos of nude children, some ripping pages from the book in stores, claiming the stores “sexually exploit children.”
  •  Oklahoma City Police Seize Videos of The Tin Drum, 1997: Videos of Academy Award-winning film The Tin Drum are seized by Oklahoma City police under pressure from Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCAF). Police claim the film violates the state’s child pornography law. Additional info: NCAC: Censorship News: Oklahoma City Censorship Battle



The Communications Decency Act prohibits posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials in a public forum on the Internet, including web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists. The Child Pornography Prevention Act outlaws all depictions (inclusing computer simulations) of those “appearing to be” minors engaging in sexual activities.

The original 1990s Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (Photo credit Joan Marcus)



The U.S. Senate narrowly rejects a Constitutional Flag Protection Amendment.

  •  The Senate Rejects Constitutional Amendment to Outlaw Desecration of the Flag, 1995: The amendment, a broader version of which had already passed the House in the six-year political battle pitting the values of patriotism against the values of free speech, is intended to circumvent a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that flag burning by protesters is a protected form of political speech. The amendment declares, “The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

Enola Gay exhibit

  • Smithsonian Institution Cancels Controversial Program, 1995: Under extensive pressure from the Air Force Association and Congress, the Smithsonian cancels a program planned by The National Air and Space Museum: “The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II.” The program questions whether dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary, and featured photos an artifacts belonging to victims. In lieu of the planned exhibition, the restored forward fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb, is put on display through 1998. Additional info: Enola Gay Controversy sites



Ron Athey, ‘Four Scenes From a Harsh Life’ (poster for Walker Art Center performance)



Start of Gulf War One from the window of Al Rasheed Hotel, Baghdad, 1991 (Brent Sadler)



The Supreme Court upholds rulings that the Flag Protection Act of 1989 is unconstitutional. A proposed Flag Protection Amendment falls short of the two-thirds approval required to amend the Constitution.

Karen Finley, ‘We Keep Our Victims Ready,’ 1990

Congress passes an amendment which requires that all NEA grants take into account “general standards of decency and respect of the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

Joseph Papp, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, rejects a $50,000 NEA grant because of its requirement that grantees sign a statement that they will not produce “obscene” work.

Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, CAC

2 Live Crew, ‘Nasty As They Wanna Be’ (album)


Fall of the Berlin Wall

  •  Ayatollah Khmeini Issues Fatwa Against Author Salman Rushdie, 1989: Ayatollah Khomeini, the First Supreme Leader of Iran, issues a fatwa against British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie on charges of blasphemy for his novel The Satanic Verses on 15 February, 1989. The Ayatollah calls for the death of the book’s author along with all those “involved in its publication.” The U.S. Senate issues a resolution condemning Khomeini’s fatwa, and declares its “commitment to protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy, and read books without fear of intimidation and violence.”

Dread Scott, ‘What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?’

  •  Dread Scott installation, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? is Attacked, 1989: A student exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is attacked for its inclusion of Dread Scott Tyler’s installation, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? A group led by Republican Senator Walter Dudycz, and including representatives from veterans’ organizations, files a suit to close down the show. The judge dismisses the suit, reminding the court that works of art are protected under the First Amendment. State funding for SAIC is cut and many benefactors pull donations.

THE FLAG PROTECTION ACT, 1989: Legislation is introduced in Congress to prohibit willfully displaying the U.S. flag on the floor or ground. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Texas v. Johnson upholds the First Amendment right to burn the flag as symbolic political speech. The Flag Protection Act takes effect. Subsequent flag desecration charges are dismissed on the grounds that the Flag Protection Act is unconstitutional.

Andres Serrano: ‘Piss Christ’

  •  Director of American Family Association Attacks Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1989:  Reverend Donald Wildmon, the Director of the American Family Association, attacks Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ​ in a wide direct-mail campaign. In response, Senator Alphonse D’Amato denounces the work in a public statement in Congress. In a letter to acting National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chairman Hugh Southern, signed by 23 senators, D’Amato calls for a review of NEA procedures for allocating grants to artists. The letter calls Serrano’s work “shocking, abhorrent, and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever”; the issue, it says, is “not a question of free speech” but “a question of taxpayers’ money.”

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) ‘Joe’ 1978

AN AMENDMENT PASSED BY THE SENATE WOULD BAN FUNDING for the South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia (ICA) for five years, in reaction to their displaying the work of Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe respectively. The amendment is eventually dropped. The NEA Budget is cut by $45,000, which equals the amount that had gone to fund Serrano and the Mapplethorpe retrospective.

An addition to the NEA appropriations bill bans funds appropriated by the National Endowment for the Arts or Humanities from being used to support “materials which in the judgement of the NEA…may be considered obscene,” including “depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or of individuals engaged in sex acts, which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” A federal court invalidates the amendment in 1990 as unconstitutionally vague and chilling the excercise of First Amendment rights. 

Artists Space Protest, 1989