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S teven C . D u b in Art’s Demise Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me March 1994 The impulse to censor art is not the exclusive domain of either the political Right or the Left. We all share the inclination to quash expression when our own buttons are pushed. During the past few years a great deal of attention has been focused on a loose alliance of religious fundamentalists, conservative politicians, and neoconservative cultural critics who have assailed the cultural expressions of disenfranchised groups: African Americans, women, and gays and lesbians in particular. This is a symbolic attempt to blunt the social change of the past 35 to 40 years and roll society back to the standards of an earlier, considerably more oppressive time. But those very same marginalized groups are pushing back robustly, with a two-fold strategy. On the one hand, they hope to eradicate what they perceive to be residual signs of racism, sexism, and homophobia. On the other, they wish to substitute these with more acceptable images of themselves. In the process some of them, too, use a heavy hand in a somber crusade to make the world conform to their own vision. There is an element of magical thinking on both sides. Conservatives believe they can wipe out significant social advances by destroying cultural traces of them. Progressives believe that if they expunge symbols of oppression they will somehow eliminate oppression itself, even though they do not actually touch its structural causes. Each quest is chimeric. The acceptability of art—high and low, contemporary and classical—is socially constructed, its reception contingent upon social time and place. 222   T h e E s s e n t i a l N ew A rt E xaminer What is tolerated at one moment may become verboten the next. Controversies over art serve as markers of larger cultural crises, and their proliferation signals a society seeking to accommodate a great deal of change. The same conflicts that have erupted in the art world since the late ’80s have now flared up in many other domains. In fact, a line can be drawn from the arguments over what is good art, decent art, fundable art, or even art at all, to related debates in additional sites: the Republican (“family values”) convention in August 1992; the anti-gay referendums in Oregon and Colorado in November 1992; and the ongoing conflict over public-school curriculums. Art battles, it turns out, have been simply the opening salvos in a much broader cultural war over what it means to be an American, and who is welcome within the scope of that vision. While the frequency of these art controversies may have slowed somewhat from the frenzied events of 1988 to 1992, the conditions which incite them continue to smolder and ignite new blazes. In July 1993, for example, the House of Representatives approved a five-percent reduction in funding to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a punishment imposed after the Christian Action Network sent congressmen and women distorted information. Barely a month later, Cobb County commissioners (in suburban Atlanta, Georgia) passed a resolution condemning homosexuality, and subsequently considered another which would require arts groups receiving county funds to meet “community, family-oriented standards.” The Christian Crusade, angered by local productions of Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart and David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, launched this morality campaign. On August 23, 1993, after intense public debate, officials decided to sidestep the issue by prohibiting any county funds from underwriting the arts (see “Newsbriefs,” October 1993). My goal here is to examine the mindset and tactics of the ideologue, whichever end s/he occupies on the political spectrum. When ideas are deemed threatening—whether they be expressed through the written word, pop music, movies, theater, traditional painting and sculpture, performance art, or even fashion—a multiplicity of opponents is likely to dip into a common arsenal of counter-offensive weaponry. Ideologues are absolutists. Confident of their reasoning, self-assured in their public manner, they are determined adversaries of whatever social evils they perceive. It would be a mistake to dismiss them as misguided or unpredictable zealots, however. Everything they do springs from an integrated world view. S T E V E N C . D U B I N    Art’s Demise   223 Ideologues Insist on a Single Interpretation of Works of Art or Popular Culture For ideologues, there is only one correct reading...


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