This is the last post in the initial series I did for Ovation TV.com. We’ll be doing a follow up post once a month with new interviews and investigations into Arts in America.
Looking at the videos from the Ivey book event has given me an appreciation for the long view. Here where I write and work from – in Washington, D.C. – we are about to celebrate an important anniversary. This fall the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Corcoran’s decision to cancel a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, and the WPA’s decision to host that show. The Mapplethorpe controversy was the beginning of what came to be called “The Culture Wars,” the outcome of which included the savaging of the NEA’s individual artist granting programs.
Robert Mapplethorpe died four months before the Corcoran/Culture War began. Which is to say: he was not affected by the controversy his work generated. But artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano grow their vision from participation in their communities. When we look back at what happened after the Mapplethorpe, and Serrano, controversies, the impact is measured not on individual artists, but on communities.
In 2000 Bill Ivey stated that the Mapplethorpe controversy was “the one that let the genie out of the bottle and demonstrated the power of images in creating political conflict around artistic work.” Despite almost 20 years distance, the Culture War mentality has not disappeared; it has infiltrated how we relate to the arts today. Public funding for artists reflects support for the individual, sometimes controversial, voices which come from diverse communities.
When the City of New York eliminated arts education in 1977, Agnes Gund stepped in and created an organization to fill the need. Just like the Washington Project for the Arts decision to host the Mapplethorpe exhibit, her actions should be lauded. But they shouldn’t be necessary. Our individual voices and choices are the last line of defense, but they should not be our only defense.
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