PRINT September 1989


Editors’ Letter

Humani nil a me alienum puto.
(Nothing human is alien to me.)
Terence, ca. 163 B.C.

THOSE CONCERNED ABOUT ART have probably already formed strong opinions on events that absorbed and disturbed the editors of Artforum in June and July, as we prepared this September issue—the assault, in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere, on the prerogative of the National Endowment for the Arts to fund controversial work. (Some of these events are discussed in Gary Indiana’s column “Democracy, Inc.,”) Our readers will also know how things have developed since we went to press; as we write, at the end of July, they are unfolding rapidly. Nonetheless, it is important to Artforum’s editorial staff to state its opposition to the current initiatives, the most aggressive of them being Senator Jesse Helms’ move to bar federal financing of “obscene and indecent art.” Whether or not this amendment is eventually overturned in congressional conference, it offers a chilling vision of the future its supporters desire for art—for life—in the United States.

These discussions of the morality of spending public monies, of mediocrity and quality, of free speech and censorship, of obscenity and decency, are not abstract; they go to the heart of our culture. Critics of the NEA claim that tax money should not be spent on art unpopular with the public. If their argument sounds reasonable, that is because it leaves unspoken the question of how that public is constituted. It is not our purpose here to assert the merits of Andres Serrano’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs; in fact, we may differ in our approaches and responses to their work—just as we know others do. The disagreement arises because we are disparate members of a diverse public. In trying to reduce the range of art that the NEA can fund, Congress is eliding and denying that diversity.

However art is defined (and the point is that art can be many things), it is certainly a vital forum for our culture’s self-expression and self-examination. Senator Helms and his colleagues, both on and off Capitol Hill, seek to dampen that debate and to limit our access to it. Discussing the art community as though it were some criminal or decadent group peculiarly separate from the tax-paying body politic, they engage in a strategy with a long history as an instrument of social control: the kind of exclusion they also direct against groups they deem “marginal” to American life—women, people of color, the poor and homeless, lesbians and gays. Control, in fact, over a range of practices and ways of life far wider than the making of art, is the central issue here. In trying to limit what we see—and that would be the effect of this legislation—the government is trying to limit what we think and are.

Shoddy as the censors’ arguments are, they must be addressed, and there are many possible responses to them. Congress is obliged to defend the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution’s free-speech guarantee. The tax money that supports the NEA—about 68 cents per American per year—is raised from all of us, whatever our attitudes to the government’s policies, and we are all entitled to the representation of our ideas. Quality is not some Platonic ideal but is and must be constantly debated and revaluated. Different artworks have different constituencies. Perhaps such reasoning will prevail—will have prevailed by the time you read this issue. But whether the NEA’s spending powers are reduced or preserved, we recognize Congress’s virulent attack on them as one more reflection of an impulse toward social conformity and the intolerance of difference.

Ida Panicelli, Anthony Korner, and the editors of Artforum