TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 1991

LOOK WHO'S TALKING

IN 1964 I WAS 13, and spent a lot of classroom time sneaking conversations with similarly disengaged students about sex. In Algebra, the most boring of all classes, the new girl from Amarillo tried to explain to those of us girls in earshot what an orgasm was. After several days of unsuccessful explanations, I changed the subject: what was homosexuality? The boy in front of me, whose closely buzzed hair had both fascinated and repelled me for months, piped up with a partially correct and disappointingly minimal answer: it means when boys do it. For me, this was a revelation. But how did he come by his information? He met my stare and informed me that he himself was not a homosexual. But this I had already figured—it had something to do with the haircut.

In that same year of 1964 I also finally felt freed, courtesy of the British Invasion, from the fashion fascism of the ’50s. I bought tight corduroy pants and the sexy pride I took in my body was distortedly reflected back in my favorite uncle’s angry comments to my mother that you could see the outline of my crotch. It was the first year I remember pregnant girls having to leave school in shame and the first time I remember being terrified and sickened by stories about botched abortions. It was the year I forbade my parents from speaking anything but English to me in public because being Greek embarrassed me. It was the year I decided to become an artist, after one of many summer trips to a big-city museum, because I wanted to be different.

Also in 1964, Sol LeWitt made Muybridge I, the piece that Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C., removed this past summer from a traveling exhibition on the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge and on contemporary art related to him. In the catalogue for the exhibition—“Motion and Document—Sequence and Time,” curated by Jock Reynolds and James Sheldon of the Addison Gallery of American Art, in Andover, Mass.—Reynolds describes LeWitt’s piece as ten identical boxes lit from within, each with its own aperture. Inside each box is an image that the viewer sees by peering “voyeur-like” through the “peep holes”—a photograph of a young nude white woman advancing from box to box toward the viewer so that “only her navel is visible at the center of the [last] photograph.”1 When Broun saw the work during installation, she experienced it as “degrading and offensive to women” and ordered it removed. In a letter to Reynolds she explained, “For me peering through successive peepholes and focusing increasingly on the pubic region invokes unequivocal references to a degrading pornographic experience.”2 The organizers responded that unless LeWitt’s work was reinstated they would close the show entirely. A few days later, after discussions with friends and colleagues, Broun had the piece reinstalled, but with the provisions that it be framed by warning signs and that a blank book be placed nearby for viewer comments—terms to which the curators eventually agreed.3

Interestingly, at no point did Broun allow that her removal of Muybridge I was censorship.4 Rather, given that 51 other works originally in the exhibition had been excluded because of space limitations, she described the removal as part of an editing process in which the criterion was whether the piece enhanced or detracted from the focus of the show.5

But Broun’s decision was an act of censorship, and it was ideologically rooted in the decade-old rhetoric of antipornography feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. MacKinnon, a legal scholar who was one of the early architects of sexual-harassment law, and Dworkin, author of several books on pornography and feminism, have built on Robin Morgan’s assertion that “pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” Positing an essentialist dichotomy between male sexuality (characterized as violent and genitally oriented) and female sexuality (supposedly nurturant and nongenitally centered), they argue that a solution to the ubiquitous threat of violence in women’s lives would be to limit pornography by law. In 1983, legislation proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin, the Civil Rights Anti-Pornography Ordinance, was passed twice by the Minneapolis City Council and was vetoed twice by the city’s mayor. In an attempt to deflect civil-libertarian arguments against obscenity laws, the MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance recasts the issue as one of sex discrimination rather than censorship: if pornographic images, like those that depict the “sexual subordination of women,” cause harm to women, they constitute a violation of women’s civil rights.6

It seems to be this kind of thinking that allowed Broun to perceive herself not as censoring art but as protecting women. Yet the various feminist responses against censorship since the early-to-mid ’80s have demonstrated clearly that censoring pornography is more likely to compound women’s problems than solve them. Pointing, for example, to the historical uses of obscenity laws to prevent the dissemination of literature on abortion and reproductive rights, some feminists have questioned the political viability of appealing to the state, which already institutionalizes sexism, homophobia, and racism, to legislate images of women’s sexuality. Moreover, women like the members of f.a.c.t. (the feminist anticensorship task force) have warned that the vagueness of the MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance’s wording could result in right-wing groups championing versions of the same legislation as a way to further entrench antifeminist agendas.7 Indeed, the year after the Minneapolis ordinance failed, MacKinnon was recruited by conservative Republicans in Indianapolis to consult on similar legislation there. (This time the ordinance was signed into law by Indianapolis Mayor Richard Hudnut III, a Republican and Presbyterian minister, but a group of publishers and booksellers subsequently challenged the law, and in February 1986 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.) As it turned out, one of the legacies of the feminist antiporn campaigns was the appropriation of its language by the Reagan-appointed Meese Commission on Pornography. In an incisive study, anthropologist Carole Vance analyzes how the Meese Commission report of 1986 used the language of feminism in place of traditional terms like “immorality” and “sin” as a means of garnering greater public legitimacy for its “findings.”8

What was most disturbing about the discourse surrounding the Muybridge exhibition was that almost all vestiges of the feminist anticensorship stances were neatly swept from the field. Absent were not only the feminist sex debates of the ’80s but also any recognition of the fact that the antiporn line has dramatically lost credibility among feminist and queer activists, artists, and scholars engaged with battling issues like the Supreme Court gag rule on abortion, the AIDS health-care crisis, and the right-wing assaults on culture and academia. Despite academic and activist talk about “feminisms,” we are left with a monolithic shell of antiporn feminism representing all feminists. Standing in place of complexity and conflict is a stripped-down sound byte in which middle-class white women are represented as the moral guardians of society. This construction of maternal womanhood is as much a product of industrialization as Muybridge’s camera bodies.

This comfortably familiar, mainstream media image of a maternalist feminism is more than a decade old. What’s new is the electronic trash bin that manifestations of progressive politics, whether as reductivist as this one or more flexible and complex, are tossed into before our eyes: the political correctness dumpster. The term “politically correct” originated with progressives as a means of parodying and critiquing the lure and trap of political purity. Recently it’s been appropriated by the right as a way to foreclose any and all discussion of progressive agendas. Updating its McCarthyite tactics for a more sophisticated media generation, the right is substituting terms like “political correctness” and “radical homosexuals” for retro verbal bludgeons like “communism” and “homosexuality.” This silencing is accomplished by denying the complexity and depth of contemporary debates on sexism, racism, and homophobia. Thus when a critic like Camille Paglia stands up to “defend” pornography and to inform feminists, as if they didn’t know, that power is a factor in sex (the simplicity of her arguments left intact by her flippant refusal to grapple with feminist and queer scholarship), Rolling Stone magazine votes her hot critic of 1991. When I look at Paglia’s writing, which lately seems to stare back at me from every journal I come across, I see instead the ready-to-go look of someone just woken up from a 20-year experiment in cryonics.

Because Broun reversed her decision so quickly, the charges of political correctness were only just beginning to appear. According to the Washington Post, for example, Reynolds charged that Broun’s decision “was a ‘very dangerous’ imposition of political correctness.”9 In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman quite properly asked “why shouldn’t a work of art that perhaps raises the subject of pornography be appropriate for a museum?”10 But having raised the point (without, of course, acknowledging feminist anticensorship arguments) that public debates about sexual images cannot be constructive unless people can see what’s being talked about, he then leaped into the pit of political correctness with a swipe at the outgoing show at the museum, a show curated by Broun.

“Interpretive bullying,” wrote Kimmelman, “also characterizes the strategy of the ‘West as America’ exhibition at Ms. Broun’s institution, for which simplistic, preachy wall texts narrowly interpret, as racist and imperialistic, images of the westward expansion of the United States.” Kimmelman’s charge in effect conflates two separate kinds of political act on Broun’s part. The LeWitt incident was a closing off of dialogue, prohibiting consideration of the kinds of questions about sexuality to which the work gives rise. The exhibition “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier 1820–90,” however, reflected a curatorial attempt to open up dialogue by incorporating revisionist histories of the American expansion as it was seen from perspectives other than those of the conquerors. One could argue, as David Deitcher has, that “The West as America” would have been more politically sophisticated had it relied on the interpretative means of a “reflexive social history” rather than the “scientific pretensions of traditional art history.”11 But as Deitcher also points out, this should not diminish our appreciation of Broun’s courage in incurring the wrath of the Republican right (gearing up for a quincentennial celebration of the “discovery” of America) by arguing that the American history housed at the Smithsonian is not an ideologically neutral but a contested terrain.

Portraying Broun as a dupe of political correctness effectively eliminates consideration of how issues of gender and sexuality were actually handled in the Muybridge exhibition. This is unfortunate, since Sheldon’s and Reynolds’ catalogue essays indicate no attempt to go beyond a neutral patina of formalist description and biographical anecdote. For example, there are no references to poststructural feminist critiques of representation, despite the immense impact these ideas have had on recent photographic production. Also missing are references to the influential writings on documentary photography of Martha Rosier and Allan Sekula, which contest the notion of an ideologically neutral photographic practice. Glaringly absent is any sizable showing of work by women artists or artists of color—out of 46 artists, only 8 are women. Another significant absence is work by contemporary artists dealing specifically with the social construction of gender, sexuality, and race, despite the perfect forum provided by work like Muybridge’s, which is explicitly engaged in the construction of scientific “truth.” Here many artists come to mind whose work would have provided a much richer context for looking at Muybridge’s images than the determinedly deadpan environment fashioned by Reynolds and Sheldon. A few diverse suggestions: Connie Hatch, Kaucyila Brooke, Pat Ward Williams, Roster, Catherine Opie, Kerr + Malley, Millie Wilson, and Carolee Schneeman.

Sheldon gives a detailed account of Muybridge’s technical accomplishment but never contextualizes his work in the larger historical scheme of things. A number of scholars, including Sekula and John Tagg, have written on the development of photography as a tool of social control during the period in which Muybridge worked. Like modern medicine, photography was both a product of industrialization and a means to control and contain one of industrialization’s by-products—social unrest. Given the nature of intellectual discourse today, it’s hard to imagine looking at the “animals in locomotion,” many of them human, that Muybridge photographed without wondering about things like physiognomy, Taylorism, who these people are, why all of them are white, why a man may run or wrestle and a woman may “flirt” with a fan, or even why a Victorian would take off her or his clothes and be photographed in the first place.12

Reynolds’ essay similarly lacks political analysis and self-reflexiveness, which is all the more disappointing in light of the risks he has taken as a curator. When the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., refused to show the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition “The Perfect Moment” in 1989, it was Reynolds who arranged for it to appear at the Washington Project for the Arts, which he then ran. As director of the Addison Gallery, which is part of the Phillips Academy, a boys’ prep school, Reynolds has refused to back down from exhibitions with gay content or graphic sexual images—an important stance given the right’s rhetoric around the protection of young people’s sexuality. Yet it seems from Reynolds’ catalogue essay that he chose none of the contemporary art for its potential to address the political, sexual, or racial questions Muybridge’s work raises—all pertinent questions given the current political climate and Muybridge’s historical circumstance. Instead, most of the work is discussed in the blandest of terms, without any questioning of photography as something other than the neutral tracings of visual perception.

The problem with LeWitt’s work is not that it’s in the show, it’s that it’s anomalous there. Muybridge I in one respect, is a witty acknowledgment of the potential of any image of nudity to be subjected to an erotic gaze regardless of the conscious intentions of its makers. (Muybridge may have rendered the nakedness of his Victorian models asexual in the name of truth and science, but the foreshortened angle he takes on a woman getting into a hammock suggests other possibilities besides a neutral investigation of animal locomotion.) In another respect, LeWitt’s work also symbolizes the frustrating reality that women’s nudity is rarely read in any way other than sexually. Yet whenever there is an opportunity to discuss gender or sexuality, as with LeWitt’s work, Reynolds betrays his utter inability and lack of interest in thinking in feminist terms. Of the last image in LeWitt’s sequence, for example, he concludes, “The woman’s body has become centered on her womb, there behind her navel, the human mechanism for bringing life into time.” Belly buttons and apertures, fetuses and latent images, women’s bodies and camera bodies—empty vessels waiting to house the glint in the male photographer’s eye.

AFTER THE WAR in the Persian Gulf “ended” in early spring, President Bush filled in some of the media time between “victory” parades by giving a speech on political correctness to the University of Michigan’s 1991 graduating class. Bush cautioned the assembled students to beware of “political extremists [who] roam the land, abusing the privilege of free speech, setting citizens against one another on the basis of their class or race. . . . Such bullying is outrageous.” It is quite a linguistic feat to silence dialogue in the name of political correctness while at the same time justifying government censorship in the name of patriotism, protecting children, and safeguarding taxpayer dollars.13

An essay published in The Wall Street Journal at the height of the Gulf War epitomizes the tactics of the media as they support the government in its domestic war against dissent. The subject is Aperture magazine’s Fall 1990 issue on photography and censorship, “The Body in Question,” which includes a number of photographs that have been the targets of attack from the right, and in general represents a diversity of approaches to sexuality, nudity, and the production of art. Wall Street Journal writer Raymond Sokolov comfortably slips on the mantle of moral authority, first advocating censorship in certain instances, then, by assuming an illusory consensus of opinion, declaring that this isn’t censorship after all but simply the right thing to do.14 For visual illustration, Sokolov takes the cover image from “The Body in Question”—a photograph by Sally Mann of her nude young daughter—and obscenifies it with censoring black bars. Assuming that the only proper public response to young people’s nudity is shame, he chides artists to “stop crying censorship” when the government refuses to fund their “degenerate” work. Curiously, he seems to find it more urgent to protect children from artists than to probe, say, the media blackout in the Gulf War. Perhaps the deaths of Iraqi children constitute an obscenity that should be kept “private” as well.

Sokolov’s transparent universalizing of conservative rhetoric is, in many ways, easier to identify than the issues raised by the Muybridge controversy. One reason is that the complexities of progressive stances have rarely been fare for the mainstream media, even before the right struck gold with its political-correctness media blitz. Another reason, rooted, in part, in the romantic construct of the alienated artist, is the misconception that people who work in art share some sort of liberal consensus. Yet at the trial of Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center director Dennis Barrie for his exhibition of the Mapplethorpe show, the first prosecution of an art museum on obscenity charges in American history, a defense lawyer turned over moral high ground to the right by gratuitously remarking of practitioners of sadomasochism, “[theirs is] a world that existed in a period of American history that we may never, never have again and perhaps should never have again.”15 Not only is this remark inaccurate, it is appalling in its homophobic, albeit veiled, references to AIDS and in its complete dismissal and silencing of a sexual minority. It also plays directly into conservative designs: as anthropologist Gayle Rubin warned more than a decade ago, it is on the sexual margins that the right most easily begins its assault, since those are the areas of greatest invisibility.16

The myth of the politically unified, liberal art world is a dangerous one: by not acknowledging difference, whether out of ignorance or to avoid conflict, it plays directly into the right’s agenda of silencing dissent. We do not all speak for each other, and since the right-wing attacks on culture give no evidence of subsiding, we must be careful that the right does not end up doing the talking for everyone.

Connie Samaras is an artist who lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Studio Art Department at the University of California, Irvine.

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NOTES

1. Jock Reynolds, “Framing Time,” Motion and Document—Sequence and Time: Eadweard Muybridge and Contemporary American Photography, Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 1991, pp. 29–30.
2. Elizabeth Broun, quoted in Barbara Gamarekian, “Show Closing Demanded at Washington Museum,” The New York Times, 13 July 1991, p. 11.
3. See Allan Parachini, “Photo Show Is Back in Focus,” The Los Angeles Times, 16 July 1991, p. F1.
4. See Kim Masters, “‘Peep Show’ Artwork Back on View,” The Washington Post, 16 July 1991, p. B1.
5. Broun, news release, Washington, D.C.: the National Museum of American Art, 15 July 1991.
6. For a detailed analysis of this legislation, see Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter, and Carole S. Vance, “False Promises: Feminist Antipornography Legislation,” Caught Looking, New York: Caught Looking Inc, 1986.
7. f.a.c.t. was formed in 1984 in response to hearings in Suffolk County, New York, where legislators were debating a version of the MacKinnon/Dworkin ordinance. The group disbanded a year or so after publishing Caught Looking.
8. Vance, “Porn in the U.S.A.: The Meese Commission on the Road,” The Nation 243 no. 3, 2/9 August 1986, pp. 78, 77, 79.
9. Masters, p. B1.
10. Michael Kimmelman, “Peering into Peepholes and Finding Politic,” The New York Times, 21 July 1991, p. 29.
11. David Deitcher, “A Newer Frontier: The Smithsonian Revises the Old West,” The Village Voice, 25 June 1991, p. 39.
12. In The Muybridge Work at the University of Pennsylvania: The Method and The Result, 1888, the university’s provost refers to his college as an ideal setting for Muybridge’s studies since it was able to supply the photographer with “typical animals of many kinds.” Discussing Muybridge’s study of “some Normal and Abnormal Movements,” Francis Dercum, a doctor of nervous diseases, describes some of the subjects as victims of industrial accidents. The subject of the studies in “artificially induced convulsions” was a professional artist’s model—a 35-year-old woman “of indifferent and phlegmatic temperament.”
13. On the subject of child-pornography legislation and its implications for artists, see Laura U. Marks, “Minor Infractions: Child Pornography and the Legislation of Morality,” Afterimage 18 no. 4, November 1990, pp. 12-14. For an analysis of the censoring of art in the name of taxpayer dollars, see Vance, “The War on Culture,” Art in America 77 no. 9, September 1989, pp. 39-45.
14. Raymond Sokolov, “Critique: Censoring Virginia,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 February 1991, p. A10.
15. H. Lewis Sirkin, quoted in Eric Harrison, “Banish Pornography, Mapplethorpe Jury Told,” The Los Angeles Times, 29 September 1990, p. A2.
16. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes from Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: exploring female sexuality, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp. 267–319.

I’d like to thank Joy Silverman, former executive director of the National Campaign for the Freedom of Expression, for sharing her files and numerous “back-fence” discussions on censorship; Nora Faires for historical references; and Alice Echols for productive discussion and suggestions.