Revisiting the Culture Wars and Looking Ahead

Using the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts’ “decency clause,” National Coalition Against Censorship initiated a conversation about the arts and their place in society today. Two panels, organized in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, brought together survivors of the culture wars and culture workers who are coming to creative maturity today. The story went like this: once upon a time artists and arts organizations could depend on government grants that gave them room to experiment and explore ideas, perhaps even to try and change the world, but public arts funding was relentlessly attacked.

Conservative legislators crucified the work of controversial artists on the Senate floor, and the NEA was forced to become an agency funding mainly “safe” programs. The good news is artists today still believe they are changing the world and they still create work that questions certainties (albeit with the awareness that it may be attacked, even censored). They no longer, however, have public funding as an option, and institutions that depend on public funding are all too much aware of the strings attached. As the “decency” clause targeted primarily work dealing with sexuality, the live events concluded with a screening and discussion of films challenging taboos around the representation of sex (co-sponsored by the BFA Department of Visual & Critical Studies at the School of Visual Arts). The conversation continues online through an ongoing series of video interviews with artists and curators worldwide, Power, Taboo and the Artist.

[In 1990, Congress amended the statute governing the National Endowment for the Arts to require that the NEA chairperson consider “general standards of respect and decency for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when awarding art grants. Four artists—Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, known collectively as the “NEA 4″—sued in federal court, claiming the so-called “decency clause” violated the First Amendment and forced artists to engage in self-censorship in order to obtain NEA funding.

The Supreme Court, in 1998, upheld the “decency” standard for federal grants to the arts, which requires the NEA to take into account “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public” when making grants. But the 8 to 1 decision held that the “decency” standard is only advisory, and cannot be used to censor controversial art or ideas. Justice Souter, the lone dissenter, said the “decency” clause violates the First Amendment: “A statute disfavoring speech that fails to respect Americans’ diverse beliefs and values’ is the very model of viewpoint discrimination.]

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