Sleazeballs, filth, and sickness dressed up as art

The exhibtion focuses on the censorship debate in the US in 1989 and in particular the storm over funding from the National Endowment of the Arts which broke on the US Senate floor on May 18 of that year.

It was on that day that Senator Alphonse D’Amato rose to denounce Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ as “trash”. He said: “This so called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity”.

He convinced more than 20 senators that day to join him in sending a letter to the head of the NEA, demanding to know what was going on with the American taxpayers’ dollars.

“This work is shocking, abhorrent and completely undeserving of any recognition whatsoever,” the senators wrote.

Senator D’Amato later ripped up a copy of the exhibition catalogue containing Piss Christ and Senator Jesse Helms joined wholeheartedly in the kicking: “The Senator from New York is absolutely correct in his indignation and in his description of the blasphemy of the so-called art work. I do not know Mr Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is a not an artist, he is a jerk.” He continued, “Let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonour our Lord.” (1)

The 60 by 40 inch print depicting a wood and plastic crucifix submerged in Serrano’s urine, which received similar attention on its recent visit to Victoria, had been shown in an uneventful three city exhibit organised by a group who had received NEA funds. A panel had selected Serrano and nine others from 500 applicants to win $15,000 fellowships and appear in the show. Despite this relatively inconspicuous showing, the now famed piece of art came to the attention of the American Family Association, headed by the diligent Reverend Donald Wildmon.

The AFA had spent the previous summer protesting Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ..The group’s newsletter, with an estimated circulation of 380,000 including 178,000 churches, urged its readers to protest Serrano’s art work and demand that responsible NEA officials be fired. It provided the appropriate names and addresses, and letters poured in to the congressmen, senators and the NEA. In the words of Carole Vance in The War On Culture, “a full fledged moral panic had begun”. (2)

To give you are idea of the scope of Rev Wildmon’s mission, he was quoted as saying, “We started the AFA to deal with sex and violence on TV, that’s what we thought we were dealing with ... when we saw the whole broad picture we realised what we are talking about is a struggle for the heart and soul of civilisation”. (3)

The AFA run on an annual revenue of $6 million, all from donations from the public or as they prefer to call them, “Christmas gifts in Jesus’ name”. (4) The AFA has 700,000 names on their books. Rev Wildmon said his group like to “affect those influences that affect the family”, as payments are at times given over with a note suggesting which cause they should go to, whether it be abortion, pornography, TV, or in this case government support of what he calls porn via the National Endowment of the Arts.

Swept up in the hysteria at the time was another photographic exhibit scheduled to open on July 1 in Washington. The 150 work retrospective, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, was organised by the another group who had received $30,000 for the show from the NEA. The show included a vast range of Mapplethorpe’s images from flowers to sadomasochistic images (see list of works).

Again the show was well received and again the NEA came under fire for funding such “morally reprehensive trash”. (5) Representative Dic Armey sent a Southern a letter signed by more than 100 congressmen denouncing grants for Mapplethorpe as well as Serrano, and threatened to seek cuts in the agency’s $170 million budget which was soon up for approval. Armey wanted the NEA to end its sponsorship and wanted new grant guidelines that would “clearly pay respect public standards of taste and decency”(6). Armey claimed he could “blow their budget out of the water” by circulating the catalogue to fellow legislators prior to the House vote on the NEA funding (7).

As a result about 50 senators and 150 representatives had contacted the NEA about its funding, and to the art community’s disbelief, the show was cancelled.

In response, artists and art groups mounted protests, lobbied, and the Washington Project for the Arts arranged to show the Mapplethorpe exhibition.

The cancellations didn’t stop the drama though. The NEA funds were still under siege when the 1990 budgeting came around. Some representatives wanted to stop the funding altogether. However the NEA got out of there intact, albeit very shaken by the whole experience. Disapproval of Mapplethorpe’s and Serrano’s work was very evident as their total grants cost ($45,000) was stripped from the next year’s budget.

By late July, Sen Jesse Helms also introduced a Senate amendment that would forbid the funding of “offensive, indecent” and otherwise controversial art and put the money toward “folk art” and community projects.(8)

To give an idea of the political environment at the time, in a column for The Washington Times, conservative columnist Pat Buchanan wrote the following in attack on this type of work.

He said: “As with our rivers and lakes, we need to clean up our culture: For it is a well from which we must all drink. Just as poisoned land will yield up poisonous fruits, so a polluted culture, let to fester and stink, can destroy a nation’s soul. Let the citizens be warned, we should not subsidise decadence.” (9

With this background in mind Sleazeballs, filth, and sickness dressed up as art will be held in the local county courthouse in Cincinatti, Ohio.

This was the site of the court case which ruled in October, 1990 on the showing of seven of Mapplethorpe’s pictures at the Cincinatti Contemporary Art Centre.

The obscenity charges against the centre and its director Dennis Barrie were not proven and the centre found not guilty. The prosecution had failed to come up with any credible witnesses to convince the jury that Mapplethorpe’s photographs “lacked artistic merit”. (10)

I will show pictures of the space in a moment, but first I want to show the pieces of art.

In the main courtroom pictured frames are evenly placed around the walls at eyelevel. Within them are video monitors which play the speeches taken from congress in 1989 of the likes of Jesse Helms, and Alphonse D’Amato (see video). Also comments from the Reverend Donald Wildmon who heads the American Family Association. The image of Jesse Helm’s speech making will also be projected on the front of the courthouse to show where the American tax dollar is going. All will run on a loop throughout the run of the two week exhibit.

The speeches have been edited to play as they will appear in the exhibit.

Also in the courtroom will be a stenographer who will be typing extracts from the speeches which patrons can take home with them.

The jury room (see video) is to be set up as a chemist like processing lab, where patrons on the opening night are told to pick up photos waiting for them.

Each pack contains photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe many of which were shown in that aforementioned exhibition and held up in the Senate such as Man in Polyester Suit, (which the artist said: “he did not want the portrait to be taken in relation to his cock”(11)), and of course Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ.

When picking up their photographs, each patron must first have their name marked off. There is a list behind the counter of all those people invited -- their names and addresses. Mapplethorpe would have liked the tangibleness of the exercise, as he once remarked, “I never liked photography. Not for the sake of it. I like the object. I like photographs when you hold them in your hand”. (12)

The basic thinking behind the show is an attempt to take the critical spotlight off the work and back onto the politician. To take them out of context and repeat their words, as they have done to the art work for their own end.



1,2,5,6,7,8,9 Vance Carol, War on Culture, Art in America, September, 1989, 39

3,4. Yule Paul (dir/pro) Damned in the USA, Berwick Universal Pictures.

10. Morrisroe Patricia, Mapplethorpe A Biography, Macmillan, Great Britain, 1995, 376.

11. Danto Arthur, Playing with the Edge, University of California Press, 1996, 111.

12. Levas Dimitri (ed), Robert Mapplethorpe, Parco, 1987, 5