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Art, Morals, and Politics

1.

I mean to ramble over matters of art and morality, censorship, politics, and public institutions. And to make things worse I am going to start with an event which is certainly emblematic, but which you may have heard altogether too much about already—namely, the scandal over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs a couple of years back.

To me, the interest of the Mapplethorpe affair lies in its stark display of colliding American values—but not much else. Despite the enthusiasm of his fans, I have never been able to think of him as a major photographer. I first visited his New York studio in 1970; at the time his work, such as it was, consisted of fetishistic but banal collages of beefcake photos with the addition of things like a leopardskin jockstrap or a gauze patch with a pus stain on it. If you had told me, as I was going down the stairs forty minutes later, that this small talent would be as famous as Jackson Pollock within twenty years, and that the scandal produced by his work would threaten the equilibrium of the whole relationship between museums and government in America, I would have said you were crazy.

I saw quite a lot of his work, though not of Mapplethorpe himself, over the ensuing years: the heavy, brutal S&M images of the X portfolio, the elegant overpresented photos of Lisa Lyons, the icy male nudes in homage to Horst and Baron von Gloeden, the Edward Weston flowers. It was the work of a man who knew the history of photographs, for whom the camera was an instrument of quotation; the mannered, postmodern chic of his images was then, sometimes, slammed back into a dreadful immediacy by the pornographic violence of the subject matter. But I don’t think chic is a value, and I felt at odds with the culture of affectless quotation that had taken over New York art, and my notions of sexual bliss did not coincide with Mapplethorpe’s; and so when he asked me to write a catalog introduction to his show—the show that caused all the trouble—I had to tell him that since the X portfolio was obviously the key to his work and constituted his main claim to originality, and since I found the images of sexual torture in it too disgusting to write about with enthusiasm, he had better find someone else. Which he did. Several, in fact.

Now most of us know, at least in outline, what happened to Mapplethorpe’s retrospective in 1988–1990. It was shown at the Whitney Museum in New York to scenes of enthusiasm rivaling the palmiest moments of his mentor, Andy Warhol, and then, under the title The Perfect Moment, without the slightest incident at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. But when the show was about to appear at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, it came under heavy attack from conservatives on the ground that the display was partially underwritten by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and that the government had no right to be spending taxpayers’ money on supporting work so repugnant to the general moral sensibility of the American public.

The sum involved was $40,000, representing one fiftieth of 1 percent of a copper penny for every man, woman, and child in America; but still, as Hilton Kramer and others were at pains to point out, it was public money all the same.

The main spokesman was that tribune of the people Senator Jesse Helms, and when the dewlaps of his wrath started shaking outside the Corcoran, the curators caved in and canceled the show. Helms and other conservatives, including Orrin Hatch, then tried to push an amendment through the Senate preventing the NEA from underwriting filth and blasphemy again. The measure was defeated by seventy-three votes to twenty-four; wisely, the Senate decided that the definition of pornography should be left to the courts. And into court it went. The Mapplethorpe show moved on to Cincinnati, where the conservatives decided to make a test case out of it, arraigning the director of the Contemporary Arts Center for public obscenity.

There was much pessimistic hand wringing in the art world over what would happen when the X portfolio was shown to a bunch of, well, rubes in the Midwest. But once again a kind of natural American common sense, maybe more common in Cincinnati than in Soho, prevailed. Largely because the prosecution could not find any credible expert witnesses against the work, the director was acquitted and the Mapplethorpe circus rolled on; the dead photographer was by now either a culture hero or a culture demon; but either way, everyone from Maine to Albuquerque had heard of him, and the net economic result of Senator Helms’s objurgations had been to push the prices of X portfolio prints from about $10,000 to somewhere around $100,000.

But the Mapplethorpe debacle had two broad cultural results. First, it caused paranoia in the relations between American museums and their funding sources. It produced an atmosphere of doubt, self-censorship, and disoriented caution among curators and museum directors when it came to raising money and facing the political demands of pressure groups.

This crisis shows no sign of going away; in fact, in an election year, it only gets worse. Clearly, and depending on IQ, the agenda of American conservatives is either to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts or to restrict its benefactions to purely “mainstream” events. The latter seems more likely, given political realities: too many rich Republicans (and Democrats too of course) have a stake in the kind of prestige that cultural good works confer in their home cities—such as support of the local museum or symphony orchestra—to allow the NEA to perish altogether. Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of the present panic over state cultural funding that a coarse hack-journalist like Patrick Buchanan, not so much neoconservative as neolithic in his cultural views, could have forced George Bush to fire the head of the NEA, John Frohnmayer, in order to appease the know-nothings and fag-bashers on his right.

And second, it marked the demise of American aestheticism, and revealed the bankruptcy of the culture of therapeutics which had come to dominate the way so many cultural professionals in this country were apt to argue the relations between art and its public. To argue what I mean I am going to have to leave Mapplethorpe, leave our fin de siècle, and circle back to a much earlier time.

Senator Helms and his allies on the fundamentalist religious right had gone after Mapplethorpe—and Andres Serrano, too, and others—for two basic reasons. The first was opportunistic: the need to establish themselves as defenders of the American Way, now that their original crusade against the Red Menace had been rendered null and void by the end of the cold war and the general collapse of communism. Having lost the barbarian at the gates, they went for the fairy at the bottom of the garden. But the second reason was that they felt art ought to be morally and spiritually uplifting, therapeutic, a bit like religion. Americans do seem to feel, on some basic level, that the main justification for art is its therapeutic power. That is the basis on which the museums of America have presented themselves to the public ever since they began in the nineteenth century—education, benefit, spiritual uplift, and not just enjoyment or the recording of cultural history. Its roots are entwined with America’s sense of cultural identity as it developed between about 1830 and the Civil War. But they reach down to an earlier soil, that of Puritanism. If we are going to understand what happened at the end of the Eighties we have to go back to the very foundations of Protestant America, and not in some facile spirit of ridiculing the Puritan either.

The men and women of seventeenth-century New England didn’t have much time for the visual arts. Painting and sculpture were spiritual snares, best left to the Catholics. Their great source of aesthetic satisfaction was the Word, the logos.

In their sermons you glimpse the preoccupations of a later America: the sense of nature as the sign of God’s presence in the world, and the special mission of American nature to be this sign and to serve as the metaphor of the good society, new but everlasting, precarious but fruitful. Here is Samuel Sewall, preaching in Massachusetts in 1697, handing down the covenant:

As long as Plum Island shall faithfully keep the appointed post, notwithstanding all the hectoring words and hard blows of the proud and boisterous ocean; as long as any salmon, or sturgeon, shall swim in the streams of Merrimack,…as long as any Cattle be fed with the grass growing in the meadows, which do humbly bow themselves down before Turkey Hill; as long as any free and harmless Doves shall find a white oak within the township, to perch, or feed, or build a careless nest upon…as long as Nature shall not grow old and dote, but shall constantly remember to give the rows of Indian corn their education, by pairs:—so long shall Christians be born here; and being first made to meet, shall from thence be translated, to be made partakers of the Saints in Light.

Words like Sewall’s still have immense resonance for us today. The perception of redemptive nature, which would suffuse nineteenth-century American painting and reach a climax in our time with the environmental movement, was right there in America from the beginning.

There was as yet no art in America that could rival the spiritual consolations of nature, or be invested with nature’s moral power. Almost all Americans before 1820 breathed a very thin aesthetic air. They were short of good, let alone great, art and architecture to look at. We tend to forget, when we visit the period rooms of American museums and admire the fine furniture in them, that the general aesthetic atmosphere of the early republic was much more like Dogpatch. Most Americans saw no monumental sculpture; few great churches, and none on a European scale of effort and craft; no Colosseums or Pantheons; and as yet, no museums. And everything was new. The public monuments of American classicism, like Jefferson’s State Capitol in Virginia, were islands in a sea of far humbler buildings. Average Americans lived not in nice houses with foundations and porches and maybe pediments, still less in permanent edifices of stone or brick, but in makeshift wooden structures that were the ancestors of today’s trailer home, only far worse built.

American beauty resided much more in nature than in culture. Thus the intelligent American, if he or she got the chance to visit Europe, could find his taste transformed in a sort of pentecostal flash by a single monument of antiquity, as Jefferson’s was by the sight of the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, the Roman temple that created his conception of public architecture. One hour with the Medici Venus in Florence or the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican could outweigh all one’s past aesthetic experience as the raw child of the new republic. One’s own experience endowed the English or European work with a stupendous authority.

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