Culture Wars Return to Washington and New York

As a Presidential Appointee in the 1980's to the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, it pains me enormously to see a replay of the Culture Wars that were played out so destructively in those years. Congress' intercession into the workings of the NEA humbled that institution. What was once a strong and respected voice and support for the arts community became a shadow of itself, never to fully recover, having been forced to dissolve its Peer Panel Program and its support for the creativeness of our large community of visual artists ranging from painters, sculptors, video artists and on. Virtually anything that helped the individual artist in his creative enterprise ceased to be supported.

Now here we are again. An exhibition at Washington's National Portrait Gallery displayed a work by David Wojnarowicz -- one of America's major angry artists of the 1980's who died of AIDS in that fateful decade. His work "A Fire in My Belly" -- which contains sequences of ants crawling over a crucifix -- was denounced by Bill Donohue, president of the U.S. Catholic League as "hate speech." In consequence it was further attacked by politicians and subsequently withdrawn from the exhibit by the Museum's director, Martin Sullivan.

To be clear, Mr. Donohue has every right to have his opinion and to voice it forcefully. But Mr. Sullivan's action in removing the work from the exhibition, thereby trampling on the artist's creative expression and the independence of the curatorial process that selected the work for this exhibition is shameful. It flies in the face of what a museum director is meant to do, stand up for the art on display in his institution, the artists and staff. It may not correspond to his views nor taste, but once on display it becomes a public legacy and is embedded in the history of the institution. Our freedoms are not enhanced by cravenly caving in to Congressmen and pressure groups.

Perhaps, given the miasma of pessimism and concern permeating the land, institutional appeasement seems to be spreading its wings. Just last week Steve Martin -- whose latest novel A Object of Beauty was recently published -- was invited by New York's prestigious 92nd Street Y to a public 'in conversation' with the gifted Deborah Solomon who writes a weekly interview column for the New York Times.

The result of the public conversation was to be aptly classified by the NYTimes as worthy of being "archived under disaster. Or comedy." ("Comedian Conversation Falls Flat at 92nd Street Y" 12.01.10).

The Times reported the interview seemingly centered on the book and on Steve Martin's experience in the art world, which was, after all, the theme of the book. It became a discussion focusing on Mr. Martin as writer and a collector of renown, and not on Mr. Martin's experience as an actor and other aspects of his heralded career.

Receiving complaints from some listeners that "the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art" the Y hurriedly reacted. In response the Y balefully surrendered its reputation and its institutional integrity. Instead of supporting the artists and professionals they had enlisted, they shamefully apologized to the audience and offered to refund the price to all who had purchased tickets. Thereby the Y callously abandoned their responsibility to the artists they had engaged, and worse, held them up to embarrassment and opprobrium.

Not the kind of institutions you want in a foxhole with you.