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A Brief History of Political Censorship of Art & Pop Culture in Modern America

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Think Pieces | May 2, 2017 |


Anti Giuliani protests.jpg

On ABC This Week, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a man who somehow stands as one of the more competent members of the Trump administration, defended another ridiculous tweet from the Tangerine-in-Chief. While this seems to be an hourly occupation for his staff, this latest tweet was especially revealing given that it neatly fits into a decades old practice held dear by the GOP. After Trump touted “loss of citizenship or year in jail” for anyone caught burning the American flag, Preibus admitted that potentially punishing flag burners was “probably going to get looked at” because “people need to stand up for our flag”.

I’m guessing none of this administration have seen the Futurama episode that dealt with this issue and how free speech actually works, but more than that, it highlights how much Republicans are ready to repeat history. Almost 30 years ago, the Senate did try to legislate against so-called desecration of the American flag, only this time it was in partnership with another favourite past-time of politics: Censorship of art and pop culture.

In 1989, a Chicago art student Dread Scott Tyler exhibited a piece called What Is the Proper Way To Display a US Flag? The concept was simple: Attendees to the show could answer that simple question by filling in their response in a book, but to do so they would have to stand on an American flag Tyler had lain on the ground. Tyler’s work is rooted in interrogating how we respond to statements deemed “political” and how the answers we give indelibly shape us, so having citizens step across the flag to give their feelings on the subject was a pretty ingenious way of inspiring discussion. It didn’t really play out like that. In fact, outcry to the piece was so fervent that President George HW Bush himself called it “disgraceful”. This supposed act of treachery got some Senators so riled up that legislation was submitted to “protect the flag” by banning its display on the floor or ground, and it passed 97-0 (Chicago City Council also unanimously voted to do so). The Illinois legislators in turn defunded the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Tyler was a student, just to hammer home the message further. On top of that, Tyler received multiple death threats, racist abuse and accusations of treason. The laws were eventually struck down as unconstitutional, but the message was clear - free speech for some, footprint-free American flags for others.


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Abolishing funding for the arts has always been a key aim for Republican legislators, with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) remaining the prime target since the 80s. Ronald Reagan tried to abolish it completely upon entering office, but the most public attacks against the agency took the form of supposed stances against “anti-Christian bigotry” and perceived indecency. The conservative American Family Association focused in on an exhibition by Andres Serrano, which included his now iconic photograph Piss Christ, featuring a plastic crucifix floating in a jar of the artist’s own urine. Senator Jesse Helms led the rallies against the NEA for supporting this supposed attack on family values. Their attacks widened to include other artists, most notably the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

His 1989 exhibit The Perfect Moment, displayed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, was part of a show curated by the NEA endowed Institute of Contemporary Art. The work on show was certainly controversial - images of BDSM and homoeroticism, allusions to the erotic drinking of urine, a self-portrait of the artist with a whip stuck up his arse: All in all, typical Mapplethorpe. As political outcry intensified, the Corcoran ultimately cancelled the exhibition (which lost them over $1m from the late Mapplethorpe’s will). While Mapplethorpe’s work is undoubtedly provocative, it’s hard to overlook the ways in which his art, so explicitly and proudly gay, was seen as obscene and anti-family, and censored because of that.


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The following year, conservative politicians and media increased their attacks on the NEA, with four performance artists falling under the microscope. Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, known collectively as the NEA Four, had their grants vetoed on the basis of subject matter, which they eventually won back after a court case, although the Supreme Court themselves declared that failing a peer review for funding was not the same as violating the First Amendment. Once again, a pattern was forming in what art was considered a breach of public and moral decency: Finley’s performances were explicit but rooted in explorations of feminism and rape culture; Miller’s dealt heavily with his life as a gay man and AIDS activist with ACT UP (this was still a period in time where the political establishment stumbled over even saying the word “AIDS”); Fleck’s most famous performance involving a toilet and a crucifix; and Hughes’s work drew on everything from lesbian pulp fiction to John Waters. Hughes herself noted that “Other than being called “The NEA Four,” we were often called, “Karen Finley and the Three Homosexuals”“. It’s hardly a shock that the GOP’s chosen figureheads of the alleged filth and liberal evils of the NEA, and by extension the art world as a whole, were artists who took on what were deemed those most American of issues: Faith, the flag, and family values.

Outside of the NEA, attacks against the art world remain a popular way for politicians on the wane to drum up some support from the zealous base. In 1999, then Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, a man never knowingly right about anything, launched a near dictatorial attack against the Sensation exhibit, then housed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Sensation was the most famous collection of works from the Young British Artists scene, which included now major names like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Chris Ofili had just won the Turner Prize and was at his most powerful when Giuliani took offence to his painting The Holy Virgin Mary, a blaxploitation inspired piece that depicted a Black Madonna (a common motif in art) surrounded by close-ups of genitalia cut from pornos, displayed atop pieces of varnished elephant dung. The Mayor’s fury at the “sick” painting was so potent that he tried to withdraw the museum’s city grant for housing the piece, then threatened them with eviction. The museum sued him for breach of the First Amendment, and won.


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Of course, it’s not just the Republicans who have engaged in this sordid history of cultural censorship in the name of concern-trolling or fearmongering. I would be remiss to not include Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Centre, which was responsible for the Parental Advisory sticker placed on many albums. While Gore herself insisted that the council’s aims were not censorship, and that a Parental Advisory label acted more as a tool of consumer awareness, many in the music industry vehemently disagreed. Nineteen record companies did voluntarily agree to use the labels on certain albums, but a Senate hearing was still held to hear testimony on the dangers of “porn rock”. The “Filthy Fifteen” songs deemed the most objectionable included Darling Nikki by Prince, Possessed by Venom, and Dress You Up by Madonna, with content condemned for being sexually explicit, condoning drug use and the occult, and good old fashioned swearing. An unlikely trio of musicians, composed of Dee Snider, Frank Zappa and John Denver, opposed the label, with Denver noting the obvious that “That which is denied becomes that which is most desired, and that which is hidden becomes that which is most interesting.” After all, kids will always want what their parents tell them is bad. The label may have enticed some sales, but many record stores and supermarkets refused to stock albums with the sticker.


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Media changes but the panic remains. Video games were inevitably going to end up on the receiving end of political ire, but this time it was the Democrats pushing it. A 1993 joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee hearing was held on the subject of video game violence, focusing heavily on Mortal Kombat, Doom and Night Trap. It became quite clear that none of the people involved with decrying the latter game (including then-Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman) had actually played it, as they condemned its non-existent displays of sexual assault and explicit brutality against women. Even Hillary Clinton waded into the controversy during her time as a Senator, calling for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the now infamous “Hot Coffee” mod in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and submitting a bill to fine retailers who sold mature labelled games to minors (it never passed). A discussion about violent and sexually aggressive content in video games would have been welcomed, but it was dishearteningly apparent that nobody in the Senate seemed to have played any of the games they condemned, thus opening the floor to uninformed grandstanding, not to mention the ever-irritable presence of the ambulance chasing opportunist Jack Thompson.

This barely scratches the surface of the ways in which politicians latch onto transgressive art and pop culture to push an insidious form of censorship that seems to mostly apply to disruptive voices. There’s much to be written about related to the attacks against the Dixie Chicks, the overwhelming attempts by local authorities to ban books in libraries and schools, video games as a scapegoat for gun violence, and the ways in which the MPAA’s ratings board treats sexual and LGBTQ content with a tighter grip than its counterparts. Donald Trump’s own pathetic obsession with “taking down the liberal elites” of Hollywood isn’t just a reality TV judge’s temper tantrum: It’s a signal of the ways in which the current administration have labelled culture and the arts as an elitist luxury designed only to provoke and denigrate “true American values”. This newly revived clutching at the flag, with draconian measures to supposedly protect it while stripping citizens of a basic right, is an old record from 28 years ago, with the Parental Advisory label stuck in the corner.

In a way, it’s hilarious that the same figureheads who smugly mock “special snowflakes” and their evil social justice warrior ways get so upset over a photo of some pee and a flag with a few boot-prints over it. Yet it should never be forgotten how easy it is for such people to rile up public anger by pushing forward a few convenient scapegoats that usually take the form of women, LGBTQ citizens, or people of colour. While art and pop culture can be seen as an easy cut to make during tough economic times, a quaint frivolity of no real value, it’s crucial to be reminded of its intrinsic worth and power to challenge outdated norms. Otherwise, what the hell are we fighting for? Perhaps Reince Preibus could do well to stop fetishizing a piece of fabric and remember the things it actually stands for.


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