PRINT September 1990


Trying Times

LAST APRIL IN Tupelo, Mississippi, the Reverend Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association got his hands on a copy of David Wojnarowicz’s exhibition catalogue Tongues of Flame. Here was something the preacher could use: raw material to further the Lord’s work of killing the National Endowment for the Arts. He would testify later that the catalogue made him “kind of sick at [his] stomach.” Still, Wildmon doggedly went on looking for the naughty bits. These assorted homo- and heterosexual images were fragments of much larger pieces, but the heck with the larger pieces; the heck with what the work meant. Tax dollars had paid for a catalogue with 14 depictions of sex! And the artist was an admitted homosexual! Now Wildmon had proof of an NEA transgression to mail to Congress, and the media, and 100 Christian television stations/1,000 Christian radio stations/3,200 Christian leaders/178,000 pastors. Carefully he labeled the envelope “Warning! Extremely Offensive Material Enclosed.”

On June 25, in a U.S. District Court, Reverend Wildmon and his American Family Association stood accused of deliberately misrepresenting the work of David Wojnarowicz and defaming his character.

Well, to be precise, the reverend first stood accused out in the hallway or somewhere, because he wasn’t present as the artist began to testify. It must have galled him to be there: his lawyers had filed several motions to dismiss the case and a couple more for change of venue (to Mississippi), and it hadn’t worked and he’d had to come all the way to New York to face “Mr. Wojnarowicz, a homosexual.” (So Wildmon had referred to him in a follow-up letter to those “Christian leaders.”)

Donald Wildmon is a major player these days in cultural politics, the guy fanning the flames of hellfire right behind Jesse Helms. He’s a master of direct-mail pressure. For years, the AFA’s major targets have been television networks. Each issue of the AFA Journal lists offending programs, from Golden Girls (an “illicit sex show with anti-Christian humor”) to Alf (“complete with child sex and incest”) to L.A. Law (“pro-homosexual”). Comments conclude with a hit list of advertisers’ names and addresses. In 1988, Wildmon and the AFA helped lead the attack on Martin Scorsese’s movie The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1989, they frightened Pepsi into dropping its Madonna commercials. The whole NEA controversy started when an AFA member last year alerted Wildmon to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1987, an “NEA-funded blasphemy.” Wildmon organized a massive letter-writing campaign directed at Congress. And recent issues of the Journal concentrate almost exclusively on the Endowment.

Wildmon is a moral terrorist of legendary proportions. Before him, mighty Congressmen cower. Yet he rarely leaves Mississippi and no longer gives interviews. So some in the courtroom crowd had come just to hear him testify, just to see what it would feel like to be in the presence of his tunnelvision.

Well, he’s. . . Fudd with a hank o’ hair. As extremists go, he’s a banal one. His lawyers even tried to keep him off the stand. First they announced that they’d call him as a witness, so Wojnarowicz’s lawyers declared that they’d wait to question him until cross-examination. Then, as soon as the artist’s side rested, Wildmon’s lawyers announced that they would call no witnesses at all. Theoretically, the plaintiff couldn’t call the reverend now either. “They did not list him as a witness,” argued Benjamin Bull, who presented most of Wildmon’s case that day. Judge William C. Conner didn’t buy it. The gray-suited preacher walked to the stand.

Perhaps an anticlimax was appropriate, even inevitable—all this material was well chewed, the issues clear. David Cole of the Center for Constitutional Rights, representing the artist, asked the reverend why he’d chosen particular images to excise. The judge interrupted, “Isn’t that obvious? He picked what he thought was offensive.” As Cole questioned the reverend further—on a falsehood in his letter, on whether he’d published anything to correct a misleading statement, on whether he had ever said that the images were details—the judge interrupted again: “You know, this is all very obvious.” But then the whole one-day trial was rather cut ’n’ dried. Wildmon never denied that he had taken the images out of context. Or that he’d chosen what was most likely to offend. Basically, his lawyers argued that the preacher had merely been exercising his First Amendment rights, and that Wojnarowicz was trying to censor him. Wojnarowicz’s lawyers replied that they were not challenging Wildmon’s right to criticize but his right to distort, “falsely representing that [the artist’s] work consists of nothing but banal sexual images.” Wildmon had nowhere indicated that the bits he’d excised were details of Wojnarowicz’s densely layered and very political pictures.

When Bull questioned Wildmon, he tried to make the point that the preacher was no art critic but a concerned citizen. “Would you know the difference between a collage and a portrait?” he asked Wildmon. The reverend said “No.” Would he object—as a taxpayer—to any sexually explicit images, even if done by, say, Rembrandt? Said the reverend: “Sure.” And why had he excised these images and mailed them to key leaders? “One of the problems you have with pornography,” declared Wildmon, “is that in some cases you cannot adequately describe it. Sometimes you have to do what John Frohnmayer said: confront the art.”

Wojnarowicz first became a far-right target last fall, when he wrote a catalogue essay for an NEA-funded show about AIDS at Artists Space in New York. The artist’s angry and almost surreal denunciations of assorted right-wingers prompted NEA chairman John Frohnmayer to order that no grant money be designated for the catalogue. Wojnarowicz then drew the attention of another anti-NEA zealot, Representative Dana Rohrbacher. Last February, Rohrbacher sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every member of the House of Representatives, describing the artist’s retrospective at Illinois State University as “sickeningly violent, sexually explicit, homoerotic, anti-religious and nihilistic.”

Given this history, argued Wildmon’s lawyers, the artist was a public figure in the NEA controversy. (A public figure has restricted redress under current libel law.) A rage leaked through their legalese. One pretrial brief even compared the artist to Hitler, by way of arguing that not all of a work need be shown: “One may criticize Hitler for the gas chambers without being required to compliment him on the trains running on time, even if it is argued that the failure to so compliment him gives a distorted view of his regime. So one may criticize an artistic creation for the moral repugnance of a part of it without being required to evaluate the rest as to its artistic merit.” They also argued that the artist’s reputation had not been damaged but enhanced. That the artwork itself had not been mutilated, only the reproductions. That Reverend Wildmon’s description of the pictures as “part of” the exhibition catalogue had indicated that they were details. That criticism of art can’t be defamation, and that this in any case was not art criticism but political criticism and therefore “protected” speech. And the most startling assertion of all, considering the source: “even assuming arguendo that the defendants really intended to label the plaintiff as a pornographer, this is not defamatory. . . . pornography can in many instances exist as a protected art form.”

Again, Judge Conner didn’t seem to be buying it. At the trial’s end, in a move that surprised even Wojnarowicz’s lawyers, he enjoined the AFA from any further publication of the pamphlet, saying “the balance of potential injury weighs strongly in favor of the plaintiff.” (He had not made a final ruling by deadline.) As the judge finished, Bull leaped to the podium to state that the injunction violated First Amendment rights and would have a “chilling effect” on the American Family Association. Judge Conner, who characterized himself as “not entirely unacquainted with the First Amendment,” assured Bull that the AFA could publish whatever it wanted about Mr. Wojnarowicz’s work—as long as it was true.

The religious right is so post-Modern. They’ve appropriated all the arguments used against them: First Amendment rights, the specter of fascism, even the dread “chilling effect.” But whose interpretation will prevail? Whose voice will be heard? As evidenced in this courtroom skirmish, the battle over the NEA is really a battle between two irreconcilable ways of looking at the world. And compromise is out of the question because these twain just ain’t gonna meet.

C. Carr is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York.