Art in an Era of Intolerance

by Lynne Munson

In her book Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance (Ivan R. Dee., 2000), Lynne Munson, now Deputy Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has assembled a collection of journalistic portraits of some of the institutions--museums, universities, government agencies, and others--that comprise the "establishment" of the contemporary art world. It is a damning portrait, and one which should be read by anyone vitally interested in the ongoing culture of today. What follows is a transcript of a lecture she gave as part of the Bradley Lecture Series at the American Enterprise Institute in November, 2000.

Most everyone would agree that the art wars of the last decade have been driven less by reason than by rage. Each controversy has packed a fury that made it resemble a military engagement more than an intellectual argument. Here's a chronicle of the ongoing conflict: the Battle of Piss Christ, Mapplethorpe's Last Stand, The Finley Offensive, and--most recently--the Great Dung War.

Now, each of these skirmishes was sparked by art that was crafted to provoke the public. After all, the fluid in Andres Serrano's infamous image would have been unidentifiable had the artist not gone out of his way to title it Piss Christ. And if its pachyderm waste had not brought wrath down upon Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, the pornographic photographs that the artist collaged over and around the icon likely would have. To varying degrees, the artists who started the art wars each acted like an exhibitionist, baiting public sensibility in order to call attention to himself.

The vast majority of these artists' defenders and critics appropriated this exhibitionist strategy, framing every dispute in a way that was sure to generate much heat but little truth. Each time, the combatants take their positions along exactly the same battle lines. On one side is arrayed the army of the offended, rallying around the cry of blasphemy. Against them are amassed the troops of art advocacy, rousing to the charge of censorship. After a full-scale barrage--in the press, via direct mail, and even in the courts and on the Senate floor--the dust settles each time to reveal that the debate has not advanced.

The art wars have accomplished nothing aside from bloating the coffers of the opposing armies and propelling the careers of the artists who started them. Least of all have they served the public, which has been left wondering what happened and why. In Exhibitionism I don't rehash these controversies, but try to get at their root cause.

The art wars erupted at the apex and throughout the waning days of what is widely referred to as the postmodern era. Postmodernism is a spinoff from deconstruction, a set of theories most everyone here is familiar with, that dominated humanities scholarship throughout the 1980s and 1990s. According to deconstructionists, what we believe to be true--about past events and historical figures long considered significant, or about the merit of artistic and literary treasures--is actually a propagandistic illusion perpetuated by the powerful.

Postmodernists would argue, for example, that Leonardo da Vinci's place in the history of art is less a result of qualitative judgment than of Eurocentric influence, both now and in the past. To this way of thinking, the best artists and the most useful scholars are those that eschew the search for eternal truths and instead engage in an ongoing struggle for power. Now I don't want to go on at length about art theory except to point out that the art wars essentially have been public protests against the effect of these postmodern ideas on art and on our art institutions.

Postmodernism was accompanied by a culture of intolerance which took root inside and eventually engulfed many of the art world's most central institutions. It is a prejudice that has operated in reverse of the established stereotype, favoring the so-called "cutting edge" over the traditional--political art at the expense of painting, for example. In art funding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, in museums, college art history departments, and even in artists' studios, this bias has placed narrow limits on what type of art it has been acceptable to fund, to exhibit, to study, and even to make.

In this book I don't attempt to document the breadth of postmodernism's impact, but rather to offer a few important examples of how deeply it affected some key institutions. I look at the art history department at Harvard which, in 1874, was the first English or American university to offer an art history course. Harvard spent a century turning out students with an encyclopedic knowledge of art and extensive firsthand exposure to art objects. In course after course students would learn about art by examining objects of the highest quality at close range. In fact, the collection of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum was so central to the graduate program that students were said to be enrolled not at Harvard but "at the Fogg." Graduates included future directors of the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, and the current directors of New York's four largest art museums.

But as postmodern theory swept the discipline in the early 1980s much of Harvard's art history faculty all but divorced itself from the Fogg museum and even talked about selling off its collection. Soon classes from the freshman survey to the graduate seminar level were stripped of their connoisseurial components. And a new faculty member named T. J. Clark, who had become a rising star in the profession by advocating for an art history concerned more with social context than with art objects themselves, told his students that they could not also study with Sydney Freedberg, the department's senior connoisseur. This boycott essentially pushed Freedberg into early retirement and marked the end of the tradition of connoisseurship at Harvard. By 1995 the program had changed so dramatically that a Washington Post art critic could write almost matter-of-factly about how "Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, radical feminism and other ideologies have swept Harvard's fine arts department."

Now you may ask: Why be concerned with how professors teach art history in the enclaves of Harvard and the like? It's for one simple reason: The kind of shift we saw at Harvard, away from objects and toward politicizing art history, is not merely "academic," because other institutions follow suit.

For example, under the rubric of what is called the "new museology," some art historians now advocate turning the traditional art museum, which was dedicated to providing an unfettered forum for learning through looking, into a new revisionist institution committed to challenging the importance of Western art. Although some museums have resisted this trend, where the new museology has been embraced its impact is evident inside the museum and out.

In Cleveland, Baltimore, and elsewhere, museums have closed their original Greco-Roman style entrances that conveyed a sense of institutional authority and uplift by leading patrons up a grand staircase, through a colonnade, and through massive doors. Condemned as elitist, many of these entrances have been replaced with inconspicuous ground-level doorways more akin to a strip mall than a treasure house.

The new museology also has challenged the traditional museum's presentation of the history of art as a continuous evolution of artistic achievement proceeding from ancient Greece through the Renaissance and ending with modern America. Revisionists have dubbed this arrangement the "master narrative" and, at most museums, have disrupted it by positioning non-Western collections at the front of the museum, along with the gift shop, café, and temporary exhibition space, making it possible, in the words of one revisionist art historian, "to visit the museum, see a show, go shopping, and eat, and never once be reminded of the heritage of Civilization."

Now, because the National Endowment for the Arts has been the font of so many of our art wars--I want to talk a bit more in depth about how the culture of intolerance has impacted that agency. I'm going to contrast two periods in the history of the Endowment's visual arts program to give you some insight into how that agency has gone wrong.

When the Endowment opened its doors in 1967 the man at the helm of its visual arts program was Henry Geldzahler, who was also curator of twentieth-century art for New York's Metropolitan Museum. Geldzahler's challenge was to design a fellowship program and a grant-making process in which both the art world and the taxpaying public would have confidence.

One part of his solution was to focus the Endowment's grants on artists and art forms of proven merit. Grants would go just to painters and sculptors and only--as Geldzahler put it--"in recognition of past contributions." The focus would be on artists working in proven mediums and on people who had worked long and hard enough to demonstrate their seriousness and to earn the respect of their peers.

Now, Geldzahler was aware of emerging art forms such as performance art and conceptual art, but he didn't want to position the Endowment on the cutting edge, roaming the ramparts trying to fertilize artistic seedlings. His fellowships would be investments in the most serious artists to help ensure that their work would come to fruition, and to increase their potential to influence others.

In order to concentrate support so keenly on the best artists, the Endowment needed a sound selection process. Geldzahler's idea was to assemble small groups, mostly of artists, with intimate knowledge of the serious art world and to trust that they would know who the best artists were. Reaching a consensus was not a goal of the Endowment's early visual arts panels. In fact these panels never even took votes because the idea was to fund the best artists, not just those which each and every panelist found agreeable. Keep in mind that, in 1967, you couldn't apply to the NEA for a grant. There were no applications, no artist statements, no slides to review. The entire system relied on the pool of information, and wisdom, each panelist brought to the process.

The first of three regional visual arts panels convened on September 11, 1966, at Geldzahler's apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. There were three participants: Robert Motherwell, a painter and a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism; Barbara Rose, an art historian and authority on minimalist painting and sculpture; and George Segal, a young figurative sculptor who was quickly gaining respect as an early Pop artist.

These panelists hailed from different stylistic communities, but they had one important thing in common: They took the idea of quality seriously. Segal recalled: "I think our generation--I include the abstract people, the Pop people, the realist people--believe very strongly in the idea of quality. [There was] remarkably little disagreement about who was a good artist and who wasn't." Panelist Barbara Rose agrees: "We shared an absolute commitment to elitism in terms of quality. No one would have dreamed of giving a grant to any kind of ephemeral art because it was about permanence. It was about betting on people whose work had a chance of lasting."

The final grant list was greeted with applause from both artists and the press. Hilton Kramer, who was then the art critic at the New York Times, remembers reading the names of the awardees as the list came over the wire and thinking that "both on the basis of the quality of the artists' work and their financial situations it was an excellent list."

Many of the 1967 grantees produced work which now is celebrated so widely that it is difficult to believe that at the time these artists received their NEA grants they could hardly find an audience for their work. According to panelist Barbara Rose, in 1967 painter Agnes Martin was "completely unknown and selling nothing" and sculptor Donald Judd was just getting noticed. Painter Robert Mangold recalls the grant coming "at a time when it was really needed, my work wasn't selling." Surrealist Edward Ruscha, who had just switched from painting to making photo books, remembers having "no art income to speak of" in 1967.

Today these artists are world-famous, their work the textbook examples in their areas of endeavor. But in 1967 most were unknown, except to the type of people Geldzahler put on his panels. The high standard set by these early panels in essence took much of the gamble out of the grant-making process. The panels weren't guessing and placing bets on artists who they hoped might pan out, but making sound investments in some of America's best living artists.

It is worth pointing out that stylistically, the NEA's 1967 visual arts grantees had little in common. Grants went to artists working in a wide range of styles: second generation abstract expressionist painters, budding minimalist sculptors, artists reintegrating the figure into painting, and assemblage sculptors making art from junk. Art historian Irving Sandler, who served on a panel the following year, observes that "the heads of the NEA seemed to make sure that no single artist and no single tendency would control these panels." Even though some panelists would be more familiar with some communities of artists than others, no one was gunning for a particular style of work, or for a particular constituency--just for the best artists.

The 1967 grant list is a story of consistent quality, but contrasting styles. Let's fast forward now to 1995, which was the last year the NEA gave grants to individual visual artists.

The 1995 awards reflected the biases the program had developed in the thirty years since its founding. Those biases were an outgrowth not just of changing times, but of policies that had shifted the Endowment's focus away from funding proven artists, to supporting artists who self-consciously sought out the cutting edge. The effect of this shift was exaggerated by a number of practices which encouraged favoritism, including the use of repeat panelists and the practice of giving grants to the same grantees year after year. The result was an extreme narrowing of what kind of art received NEA support.

In 1995 fifty-eight visual arts fellowships were given in three categories: other genres, painting, and works on paper. "Other genres" was a catchall category for artists who work in nontraditional mediums, including performance and video. Now, it was much easier for an "other genres" artist to get a grant than a painter because there were exponentially more painting applications, though approximately the same number of grants were awarded in each category. In 1995, each of the 2577 applicants in the painting category stood less than a 1% chance of getting a fellowship. Any of the 375 other genres applicants was six times more likely to get a grant than was any painter.

Many of the 1995 grantees were also NEA "regulars." For almost a third of the awardees this was at least their second Endowment grant. For five grantees, it was their third.

The painting fellowships panel that year was chaired not by an artist, but by a curator, Terrie Sultan of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. By most panelists' accounts it was Sultan's voice, along with that of conceptual artist David Diao, which prevailed on the panel. In 1996 Diao showed a work titled Plots Available, described as "a diagram made to scale showing plots still available in Green River Cemetery in Long Island in the vicinity of celebrity artists." Diao is a three-time NEA grant recipient. Here's how Diao explains his view of art:

"I'm not impressed by craft or skill. I'm more impressed by ideas and something that's driven more by conceptual issues. So already that's a problem for a lot of people. For them art is still predicated on some kind of know-how at the level of material or craft. . . . For me it's always the culture that generates ideas, not individuals."

Painter Sylvia Plimack Mangold also served on Diao's panel. She received a $3,000 NEA grant back in 1974, and her husband, Robert, was a 1967 grant recipient. Mangold spends most days painting trees and the space around and inside them. Her view of art is greatly divergent from Diao's:

"I don't categorize things but I don't think that images have to constantly be in reaction to other images. I just look for work that I respond to. . . . I am impressed by craft and skill. Ideas come out of making work."

It's not surprising that Diao and Mangold disagreed. What is significant is how they clashed, and how the way the panel was conducted enabled Diao's view to win out.

Another painter on the panel recalls that, right from the start, some panelists very clearly identified themselves as "spokesmen for particular types of work." Instead of debating the merits of individual applicants' work, these panelists were using the art to conduct a debate on the validity of different ways of working. Mangold saw that the discussion was "not about good art and bad art" but about "people promoting" one type of art over another.

The deliberations quickly deteriorated into a verbal shoving match. At one point, as Mangold was attempting to articulate the merits of a particular painter's application, Diao responded: "I can't believe you fall for that kind of sentimentality." Instead of arguing applications on their merits, Diao would, in Mangold's words: "make the person who doesn't agree with him seem backward, reactionary, or in the past."

Because Sultan, the panel's chairman, allowed the conversation to move in this direction Mangold concluded that "curators and critics have a persuasiveness that is about persuading, not seeing." The purpose of the 1995 panel wasn't to fairly and objectively assess applications one-by-one, but to declare one type of art important and all others insignificant, and to award the grants accordingly.

This also enabled garden-variety favoritism to play a part. Of the final list of grantees, Sultan admits: "There were many people that showed up on that list that I had organized into exhibitions. Quite a few of them. So obviously I had some vested interest in them." Indeed, Sultan had shown four of the NEA grantees within the last four years.

The 1995 NEA grantees' work runs the gamut in terms of processes, materials, and subject matter. Yet only a handful of grants went to artists who are primarily concerned with formal aesthetic issues. By far most grantees make art to make a point about something else, most often politics. A few grantees produce work which gives equal weight to their critical message and to their aesthetic interests. But for most awardees the pursuit of social critique engulfs their entire process. I'll describe the work of just two grantees here though I discuss over a dozen in the book.

Annie West is part of a two-person art collective called "Girl Germs" which, in 1995, showed Filthy Mouth, a ceramic wall piece one critic describes as "a face whose open mouth is filled with individual bar soaps." In 1990 West surreptitiously replaced the toilet paper in the bathrooms of Chicago's Art Institute, City Hall, and Mercantile Exchange with rolls bearing critiques of those institutions. What West called the "disposable graffiti" at the Mercantile Exchange included pictures of pigs and comments including: "85% of traders have never seen a real pig" and "Swine have a keen sense of smell and can run fast."

Grantee William Pope.L describes himself as an "activist-performance artist" who is "suspicious of things that make sense." In addition to his 1995 visual arts grant, Pope.L received fellowships from the NEA's theater program in 1993 and in 1994.

In February 1997 Pope.L staged ATM Piece across the street from New York City's Grand Central Station--this is the piece which appears on the book cover. Pope.L outfitted himself in work boots and shorts overlaid with a hula-style skirt fashioned from dollar bills. He intended the piece to be about "the forgotten street person," in particular the panhandlers who open doors for people as they enter ATM vestibules. Instead of asking for money as a panhandler might, Pope.L planned to turn the tables by inviting ATM visitors to take dollars from his skirt.

To make an additional point about the relationship of individuals to institutions (in this case, Chase Bank) he shackled himself to the door of the building with what he described to me as a "custom made" 12-foot length of Italian sausage. Within minutes a crowd formed and the police were bearing down. In order to quell the group Pope.L started giving away the $100 or so in his skirt. Soon people were "pulling at the skirt and ripping the money off and running down the street." To this day Pope.L remains undeterred. He has said: "My skirt is cleaned and pressed [and] ready for another assault on culture for the proper fee."

Obviously there is much to be said about how the level of seriousness displayed by NEA grantees plummeted over the years. But the most stunning contrast between the NEA's first and last visual arts fellowship recipients is the stylistic narrowness of the art the NEA sponsored in 1995 in comparison to 1967. Whereas the earlier grants went to artists working in a wide range of styles, the vast majority of 1995 grantees were working within the confines of postmodern academicism, making work which, like the art which has set off the art wars, takes baiting the public as its goal.

In looking at the state of our art institutions and at the kind of art that garners most of the attention today, it is important to remember that, ultimately, the history of art is constructed from the accumulated wisdom of individuals who have stood face-to-face with art objects and measured their worth. It's a process that begins when a work is created and proceeds for centuries.

Works which cannot withstand such scrutiny lose currency, if not in their own day then years later, when the space between a work and the viewer's eye is cleared of contemporary commotion. As the products of the postmodern period undergo this test the calculated misperceptions and genuine follies of our time will be undone and the truth will emerge, long after the exhibitionists have left the stage.

Posted April 3, 2003

© Lynne Munson, 2000-03

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