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Identity Politics and Artistic Controversies

Identity Politics and Artistic Controversies

Author: Ian McConnell

This lesson will explore identity politics and recent controversies in the arts.

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An overview of identity politics and an overview of important artistic controversies.

Video Transcription

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Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell, and today's lesson is about identity politics and artistic controversies. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms. You'll be able to describe the controversies regarding Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili and relate these controversies to the theme of the culture wars in the United States.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is culture wars. Conflict between values and philosophies in opposing cultures. And National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA, a federally funded program that supports artists, organizations, and their creative activities.

The big idea for today, the artistic controversies of Karen Finley, proper Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili bring to light the ongoing culture wars in America regarding freedom of speech and issues of decency. And the art and controversy that we're talking about today takes place between 1980 and 2000. Today we'll be traveling to New York City, Cincinnati, and Washington, DC.

So the lesson today is going to be a little bit different than the others you've seen in this series. It's going to focus more on the questions regarding artistic controversies and identity politics. That is, the discourse related to the interests and perspectives of social interest groups. So we're going to look at three artists and describe the controversy, and then pose some questions at the end to get you thinking about these in a broader context. Now these can be very controversial issues, so in the spirit of neutrality, I'm simply going to present the facts, pose the questions, and try to keep my personal feelings out of the matter.

Karen Finley is a very well-known performance artist whose work often incorporates themes pertaining to women's and children's rights, abuse, drugs, and the effects on the American family. Now the manner in which she addresses these issues is often met with controversy given the graphic nature of the performance. She received funding from the NEA through a grant, which she used to finance her traveling show called We Keep Our Victims Ready. The performance involves her sitting in a rocking chair at the beginning and delivering a monologue. She then removes her clothing above the waist and smears chocolate over her bare chest while describing, without holding back, a sexual assault. It's a rather shocking performance, but her motives behind it have been personally stated to the effect that she is confronting people with the reality of these issues versus pretending they don't exist.

Senator Jesse Helms, who represented North Carolina at the time, felt it was only smut and attacked her and the NEA for awarding her the grant. Now the chairman of the NEA subsequently retracted the awards, and after pressure from Congress and three other highly profiled accounts of alleged indecency from NEA award recipients, the NEA no longer funds individual artists. Finley subsequently sued the NEA for violation of her first amendment rights. And after winning in the lower courts, the case went to the Supreme Court in 1998, where the ruling was overturned in favor of the NEA.

Robert Mapplethorpe was an immensely talented photographer known for is large, stylized black and white portraits of celebrities and famous people, color and black and white pictures of flowers, and highly stylized portraits of nude men. Now Mapplethorpe, an open homosexual, had gained a degree of notoriety among a portion of the public for what they felt were obscene and/or pornographic depictions of graphic homosexual activity, which were featured as part of a traveling exhibit called The Perfect Moment.

Despite the fact that the show had gone through two major cities, Chicago and Philadelphia, the fact that the NEA had donated a sizable amount of money to the Philadelphia Museum for the exhibit drew criticism from, once again, Jesse Helms and about 100 other members of Congress. Now despite this, the show continued on to Cincinnati, after which the head of the Cincinnati Museum was actually charged with obscenity. But the charges were later overturned. And this is one of the only cases I can recall where the artist wasn't personally attacked, as Mapplethorpe had sadly died from AIDS complications in 1989.

One of more recent controversies took place in 1999 when Chris Ofili's exhibit Sensation was held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. His depiction of a dark skinned Virgin Mary surrounded by naked backside cut-outs in the shape of butterflies was shocking to many people, as well as the fact that the artist had used elephant dung as a major component of the artwork.

There was significant public outrage with Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani being one of the most vocal critics, threatening to cut off funding to the museum. True to his word, Giuliani took action against the museum, which resulted in a court battle, resulting in a federal judge ruling against the mayor and the City of New York. The painting is currently held at the Tate Museum in London.

So let's take a moment to tie these things together. Culture wars, again, refers to the contention that can occur when conflicting value systems are exposed to one another. So in our first example we had Karen Finley, who was one of the artists whose NEA grant was revoked due to alleged indecency. And I apologize for all the quotes I'm using on this page. The NEA no longer provides grants for individual artists.

Robert Mapplethorpe's X-Portfolio of his traveling exhibit The Perfect Moment was labeled as obscene for its explicit homosexual S and M photographs. And Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary was denounced by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and others for its offensive depiction that included naked bottoms and the use of elephant dung.

So here are some questions to consider. Where does the line form between freedom of expression and censorship? Should public funds be allotted to works of art that some disapprove of? Or does art need to appeal to everyone, or have mass appeal, to be considered worthy? And to further expand on that, does art need to appeal to everyone? Mass media is the process of reaching large numbers of people through various forms of media like print, television, the internet. In terms of art, this is great for exposure, but it has a flip side to it, which is that the backlash against controversial pieces of art will be amplified. But should that have any bearing on decisions regarding the value of exhibiting works of art?

And do some artists encourage controversy with the intention of increasing publicity for themselves? In other words, they purposely create controversial works of art for their own self-interests, gaining publicity through the controversy with news exposure, for example.

Now these are difficult questions that people will continue to face regarding the arts as long as there are opposing sets of cultural values and people willing to stand up for them.

That brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the controversies regarding Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili? Can your relate these controversies to the theme of the culture wars in the United States?

Once again, the big idea for today, the artistic controversies of Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Chris Ofili bring to light the ongoing culture wars in America regarding freedom of speech and issues of decency.

And there you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Identity Politics and Artistic Controversies"


  • Culture Wars

    Conflict between values and philosophies in opposing cultures.

  • National Endowment for the Arts

    A federally funded program that supports artists’ organizations, and their creative activities.