Piss and Vinegar

Ron Judish Fine Arts, which opened just this past spring, has already distinguished itself as one of the city's finest commercial galleries. But the current Judish show, Andres Serrano: A Survey, which sketches out the career of one of the nation's most famous photographers, really puts the place on the map. "I opened this gallery in the first place because I'm interested in social issues," says Judish. "I see art in the context of contemporary society, and I want to explore the way art and society influence one another."

Though Serrano is widely known today, this was not always the case. As recently as a decade ago, the New York artist's work was appreciated only by a small audience, mostly in his hometown. (In 1988, for example, he was the subject of just two solo shows.)

Then, in the spring of 1989, something happened that had a profound effect not only on Serrano, but on the entire art world. A large-format cibachrome photo Serrano had done in 1987 titled "Piss Christ" was included in a group exhibition that traveled to ten cities across the country. The exhibit, which included the work of nine contemporary artists, had been organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had been the beneficiary of a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant was used to defray shipping costs.

More important than the fact that Serrano's piece was included in the show was that it was reproduced in the accompanying catalogue--which is where the trouble began. Somehow, Donald Wildmon of the right-wing American Family Association got a copy of it. Wildmon immediately sounded a clarion call, and the response from the religious and cultural right was swift and severe.

To get an idea of the hubbub Wildmon and his minions were able to generate, a principal sponsor of the show, the Equitable Life Assurance Society, received some 50,000 mailings protesting the company's role in funding the exhibit. Most of these missives were in the form of pre-printed postcards prepared by Wildmon's organization. Congress, too, was besieged with protests both by mail and by phone.

On May 18, New York senator Alphonse D'Amato denounced the NEA for funding the "shocking and abhorrent" "Piss Christ" and tore up the catalogue reproduction. Later that day, D'Amato and 25 other senators sent a letter demanding that the NEA's acting chairman, Hugh Southern (at the time, there was no official agency head, since President Bush had failed to fill the slot), make substantial changes to prevent the future funding of things like "Piss Christ." A month later, on June 8, Texas congressman Dick Armey wrote a similar letter that was signed by more than 100 members of Congress.

Serrano, whose work was branded sacrilegious, was linked to another contemporary photographer with ties to the NEA, Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work was deemed obscene. The two became the twin bétes noirs of the Christian right. And it didn't seem to matter that Mapplethorpe was already dead, as revealed by the NEA grant itself, which was earmarked for a memorial exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, that was organized by the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. (Mapplethorpe's photos, like Serrano's, are available locally from Ron Judish Fine Arts.)

The rhetoric of conservatives attacking the NEA frightened many art administrators. Tipped off that North Carolina senator Jesse Helms planned to brew some trouble, Christiana Orr-Cahill, then the director of the prestigious Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., canceled the Mapplethorpe show just two weeks before it was scheduled to open. At that point, the art world was really scared: More than 700 protesters demonstrated against the cancellation in front of the Corcoran, and as an act of defiance, artists projected slides of Mapplethorpe's work onto the museum's exterior walls. Artists also announced a boycott of the Corcoran, which turned out to be extremely effective, as many canceled plans to exhibit there. By the end of the year, Orr-Cahill had stepped down in disgrace.

On July 13, the NEA budget for 1990, which amounted to $171.4 million, was docked $45,000--the exact amount given to the show Serrano was in combined with the amount of the grant for the Mapplethorpe show. Congress also passed legislation taking punitive action against the two institutions where the shows had originated. Neither the SCCA nor the ICA would be eligible for NEA funds for five years. In addition, some half a million dollars was removed from the visual-arts portion of the NEA budget and reassigned to folk art.

To say the least, curators around the country were scrutinizing their schedules. Even worse, NEA budgets would, in the next few years, annually shrink by $4 or $5 million, leading to a total appropriation of $152 million by 1995--down nearly $20 million since the Serrano and Mapplethorpe flaps were orchestrated by right-wingers.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia