PRINT November 1991

Editor’s Letter

Ida Panicelli

As I write, the U.S. Senate, by a large majority, has just passed another Jesse Helms spending-bill amendment, this one worded to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from funding work that depicts “sexual or excretory activities or organs” in an “offensive way.” The amendment isn’t law yet—the House of Representatives has still to vote on it, and may revise or reject it. But in the Senate, clearly, conservatives have scored another point in their campaign to impose their own fixed ethical codes on art.

Racial, moral, and religious issues are always open to cynical exploitation by politicians, but never more so than in times of economic uncertainty. The agenda is large: both control of open social dissent, and a smoke screen to conceal the real causes of the problems we face from those who have not yet figured them out. We have learned from past and recent history that free creativity is an easy victim whenever one group forces its political or esthetic ideas on another. The restriction of freedom of expression, whether imposed from the left or from the right, has already caused profound social injuries in many countries around the world. To perpetuate such mistakes denies the lessons of history.

Each in its own way, a number of the articles in this issue of Artforum, as well as the magazine’s cover, relate to the issues that bother Helms and his ilk. Most explicitly, Connie Samaras talks about censorship within the left, and about the opportunity it offers to censors on the right. Simon Watney explores sexual epistemology and the politics of “outing,” Carlos Fuentes and Brian Nissen celebrate sexuality through verbal and visual puns, and Allan Sekula analyzes the shifting, erotics of military power. “Who’s Bad,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s discussion of “bad taste,” asks who sets the standards of taste, and why. Similarly, Thomas McEvilley’s “Critical Reflections” argues for the relativity of any and all criteria in the judgment of art.

Art and articles like these are part of a growing body of thought with enormous promise for the future. As much as the erotic image, it is this kind of thinking that troubles the censors—but they should know that they can’t put the lid back on the box.