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As conservatives switch their sights from art to social issues, are the culture wars over for artists?

The Bush administration and its supporters now have their guns trained on social policy

Culture wars, a term that has been used to describe the political, moral, and artistic divisions in US intellectual and academic circles over the past 20 years, was heard for many of those years mostly on the lips of those on the Right. Now it is being used by both sides to describe their principles. On the Left, the phrase usually means the struggle for freedom of expression and government funding; on the Right, the term applies to faith, family and nation under siege. At the latest scoring, partisans of George W. Bush seem to be winning. The evidence includes the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; the success of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, the conservative cable channel, and a chilling effect on museum shows with political content. It may be that institutions fear politically powerful evangelical Christians, who could influence everything from public art to decency codes for museums.

The trend’s comic side is the Washington Puritanism of a staunch Baptist, the former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who draped the bare breast of a statue of Justice with a blue shawl. The Art Deco 1930s statue had stood uncovered in the halls of the Department of Justice for decades. Yet breasts are more sensitive than art these days. The split-second exposure of the singer Janet Jackson’s breast on television at the 2004 Super Bowl was a national scandal.

As President Bush begins his second term, the culture wars have abandoned disputes over obscenity in contemporary art to wage battles over popular culture and the media. Even bolstered by a Republican majority, activists are no longer calling for the suppression of objectionable contemporary art, while at the same time deploring gay marriage, secularism, and anything French. Artists now find themselves increasingly ignored by conservatives.

They feel sidelined, particularly at the once-maligned National Endowment for the Arts, where funding skirts individual artists to focus on art education and, in the words of First Lady Laura Bush, “masterpieces [that] reconnect with our nation’s greatest artistic achievement and rich cultural heritage”.

“They’ve got their sights on bigger game”, said the dealer Richard Feigen. Finding oppositional art to suppress may be the problem. “It seems to me like we’re at a fairly toothless moment”, said Richard Meyer, an art historian at the University of Southern California and the author of Outlaw representation: censorship and homosexuality in 20th-century American art.

“As soon as you call it art, it’s already marginalised”, says Art Spiegelman, whose ongoing autobiographical comic, In the shadow of no towers, recently depicted Uncle Sam next to the author wearing a T-shirt inscribed, “I’m with stupid”.

Dennis Barry, the director of the Malrite Company in Cleveland Ohio, which runs the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, also believes that contemporary art has been marginalised as a field of ideological battle. Mr Barry was the director of the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati that in 1990 hosted “The perfect moment”, an exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. He was indicted, with pressure from Evangelical Christian activists, for pandering obscenity and using underage children in pornography (the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, came under attack for using government funds for “indecency” and cancelled the same show), but a jury acquitted Mr Barry in October 1990. He, too, maintains that art no longer has a part to play in the culture wars: “As part of a ‘national dialogue’, art has diminished”, Mr Barry said, “In the late 80s and 90s when I was involved in these battles, I and others predicted that this was just where they were going to go. The art issues weren’t on a big enough scale”.

Meanwhile, during the recent election campaign, Philip Burress, who led the attacks on Mr Barry in 1990, campaigned for the Ohio State legislature to ban gay marriages, a proposal which has now been voted into law. Mr Barry believes that this is symptomatic of the conservative change of targets from art to social issues: “I don’t think people care. I think you can probably get away again with something in museums, because they are so far from the principal targets for the individuals who are fighting this cultural war”.

Svetlana Mincheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship does not interpret the current truce in the conservative attack on contemporary art as a sign that art has lost either its potency or sense of direction; in fact the polarisation that came about in the attacks of the 90s, tended to reduce art to two-dimensions in the eyes of even a sympathetic public. “In the previous decade, when art was in the spotlight of the cultural wars, I’m not sure that served a positive purpose. It really flattened the way art was perceived”.

The art world has not, however, gone completely supine. In December, a group show at the Chelsea Market in Manhattan was shut down. At issue was Chris Savado’s Bush monkeys, a portrait of George W. Bush assembled from small images of apes. Citing private property rights, the market’s operators closed the show. With the support of two charities, a veterans’ group and the American Coalition Against Censorship, the show’s organisers have auctioned the painting and placed an electronic image of Bush monkeys on the billboard at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 155 February 2005