PRINT January 1993


Richard Bolton's Culture Wars

Culture Wars: Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts, edited by Richard Bolton. New York: The New Press, 1992.

WHEN PATRICK BUCHANAN proclaimed at the Republican National Convention this summer that America was in the midst of a “cultural war,” it became clear that he had gone too far in allowing the venomous bigotry of the far right to slip out in full view of America. As with the crazed Joseph McCarthy at the end of his reign of terror, one could detect desperation in Buchanan’s sneering tone. After all, he was speaking to a nation that has grown increasingly weary of manipulation in the service of economic plundering.

This pivotal test of the “family values” ethos serves as an apt backdrop for the publication of Culture Wars, an anthology on the recent public debate around cultural repression and censorship in America. The book’s editor, artist and writer Richard Bolton, has gathered a hundred readings by artists, critics, lobbyists, and political figures concerning issues related to government censorship, particularly the congressional battle over NEA reauthorization during the crucial period 1989–91. The book contains a broad political spectrum of commentary, including congressional testimony and speeches, mass mailings, letters, op-ed pieces, extended critical, political, and juridical analyses, as well as illustrations of controversial art.

Bolton’s sophisticated introduction covers enormous social and cultural issues. Exploring the dominant assumptions about the dialectic between First Amendment rights (the rallying cry of liberals) and sponsorship (the code word for right-wing protectors of government money), he refuses to essentialize the public debate around the NEA. Fundamentalists such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Association are seen as homophobic advocates of Christian purity, who also willfully manipulate the public into rechanneling its fears of the communist menace “beyond our shores” toward a deviant gay monster who threatens our children and our moral standing. Some commentators are merely crackpots—disturbed souls who, like Washington Times writer Richard Grenier, yearn for the moment when they might “set fire to . . . Mapplethorpe[’s body], and not just as self-expression, but as performance art.” Still others, like New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer, struggle to shore up the white, heterosexual, male cultural hegemony against the tide of multiculturalism.

Looking beyond such differences, Bolton exposes the bedrock of the right-wing cultural agenda: money and greed. Examining the importance of a repressive culture that discourages individual freedom and empowerment in providing a complacent and obedient public to service a free-market economy, he draws a somber picture of a nation manipulated by carefully orchestrated public representations, the suppression of conflicting images, and the squelching of the opposition through such actions as resuscitating the draconian McCarran-Walter immigration act and instituting government “spying” programs.

Bolton, in cooperation with the Washington Project for the Arts, from whose archive he freely draws, has collected a broad range of texts that proffer extraordinary insight: a series of editorials by Buchanan, for example, reveals the sophisticated workings of the neoconservative attack on gay men and lesbians; anthropologist Carole S. Vance, in a ground-breaking essay, examines the highly effective right-wing campaign to manipulate and distort public symbols and representations; and lawyer Stephen F. Rohde argues for the inherent unconstitutionality of content restrictions on the NEA, centering on the infamous Helms Amendment, which, he suggests, violates obscenity standards decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Miller v. California.

The only problem with Bolton’s selection is that texts are limited to the period of the NEA reauthorization debate, and hence sidestep material—for example, Supreme Court opinions on First Amendment interpretation, and the original 1965 NEA authorization law—that might help us better understand the dilemmas of the present. (A chronology, covering the period 1962–90, does at least mention a handful of court rulings relevant to the NEA debate and the fight against censorship.) Despite this, however, the book is outstanding, not only for its insightful introduction and selections, but for its refusal to let any of us off the hook. Indeed, its most important message is that an art world limited by its own insularity and elitism must begin to examine its relative ineffectiveness in confronting the high-pressure, mass-media tactics of our enemies.

Maurice Berger is a cultural historian and art critic who lives in New York. His book How Art Becomes History was published this year by HarperCollins, New York.