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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BAM Artists and the Culture Wars of the 80s and 90s

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), Photo: Maria Baranova

By Susan Yung

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), coming to the Howard Gilman Opera House June 6—8, is a paean to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was key in the culture wars of the 1980—90s. The Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, and its Director Dennis Barrie, were acquitted of obscenity charges stemming from an exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs. Bryce Dessner, who composed the score for Triptych, grew up in Cincinnati and recalls, “I was told by the authorities that I was not allowed to look at Mapplethorpe’s photographs—that these tremendous works of art were not art at all, but pornography … Barrie was jailed and art was put on trial in municipal court. It was a huge moment for me.”

This case was one example of a late-20th-century conservative trend to censor artwork that might be offensive, particularly those made at least in part with public funding, and which paralleled the denial of AIDS by the Reagan Administration and the suppression of information about the ravaging disease. Some BAM artists became targets of censorship as well.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Still/Here, 1994 Photo: Dan Rest

Bill T. Jones
Still/Here, Bill T. Jones’ 1994 multimedia meditation on people lost to AIDS, was described by Arlene Croce in The New Yorker as “victim art,” and was thus un-reviewable. It sparked fierce debate. “By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism,” Croce wrote. “I think of him as literally undiscussable—the most extreme case among the distressingly many now representing themselves to the public not as artists but as victims and martyrs.”

Andres Serrano, Hooded Warbler II, Cibachrome print, 23.5”x19.5”, 2000. Edition of 40 signed and
numbered. BAM Photography Portfolio I, published by Serge Sorokko Gallery.

Andres Serrano
Serrano’s Piss Christ drew criticism by US senators, who were outraged that the work, which they deemed blasphemous, had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s budget was subsequently cut. Serrano contributed Hooded Warbler II to BAM’s 2000 photography portfolio.

Tim Miller, Democracy in America, 1984. Photo: Tom Caravaglia

Tim Miller
Miller was one of the “NEA 4”—four artists (also Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes) whose NEA grants were vetoed by the head of the NEA in 1990. Their work received scrutiny and criticism as being blasphemous and a waste of taxpayer money. After their cases went to court and their grants were restored, the NEA stopped funding individual artists.

Philip Glass. Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe, 1976

Robert Mapplethorpe
In 1989, Mapplethorpe’s exhibition The Perfect Moment was canceled by the Corcoran Museum (DC). When it traveled to Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, the director Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity, unsuccessfully. Besides being the subject matter of Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), Mapplethorpe photographed a number of BAM artists (including Philip Glass, above) over the years.

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) will be at BAM Jun 6—8.

Susan Yung is senior editorial manager at BAM.
© 2019 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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