“High & Low”

High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, catalogue of an exhibition curated by Adam Gopnik and Kirk Varnedoe, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990.

October 7 isn’t just the day, in 1990, that the long-awaited exhibition “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” opened at the Museum of Modern Art; it is also the date, one year earlier, that the US Congress finally resolved to keep the really low out of the high, at least where federal funds were concerned. The legislation passed that afternoon in 1989, with the aim of blunting Senator Jesse Helms’s attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts by a compromise agreement that prohibited funding of “obscene” art, was—of course—a mess. If the courtroom definition of obscenity excluded work of “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” then how could anything deemed worthy of NEA funding be targeted by the new ruling? Nearly a year later, on the very same weekend of MoMA’s blockbuster opening, this contradiction finally collapsed under its own weight. In

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