While poets and writers may wonder if anyone pays attention to their words, nobody can deny the power of images.
Just ask the religious right. They are, after all, the ones who object the loudest, push the hardest, punish the harshest, and pray the loudest. More than anyone, they know the value of symbols, signs and metaphors. Lest we forget – the modern religious right are also the cultural descendants of the plantation-owning South whose greatest fear for hundreds of years was that their slaves would revolt. In fact there are few greater fears in the American psyche than that of African-Americans attaining positions of real power.
The enactment of Jim Crow laws in the South is a testament to that. Right after the Civil War the former Confederate states sought to neutralize any potential power the newly freed slaves might attain. They discouraged African Americans from voting, often violently. They sought to prevent African Americans from getting an education and finally in the 1950’s and 1960’s the South threw a fit when the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations wanted to integrate public schools and public places. Even jazz singers like Billie Holiday were obligated to drink from “Blacks Only” water fountains. People were murdered, lynched, shot, stabbed, kidnapped, etc. in the name of preserving White Supremacy in the South and in American culture in general. But then in 1963 the Klux Klan bombed a church full of children in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls died and 22 other children were wounded.
The symbolic act that was designed to create fear and punish people who fought against social injustice instead caused revulsion and ironically helped gain national political support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Incidents like the bombing led to the formation of groups like the Black Panthers (formed in 1966), who believed in non-violence but paradoxically carried weapons for self-defense. To some paranoid eyes, the deep-rooted fear of a slave revolt seemed to be finally materializing. For registering people to vote and standing up for their rights black activists from coast to coast were imprisoned, murdered or assassinated. Then FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover famously declared the Panthers to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” I know it sounds crazy but there is a huge photographic record of all of this stuff! I’m not making it up! To the religious right in the South, seeing African Americans marching must have seemed like something from the Book of Revelations! Yet it is the same religious right that once justified slavery as God’s law.
(I know this all seems very implausible, but don’t take my word for it – look it up – there are many eye-opening books like the Autobiography of Malcolm X (published 1965) or Angela Davis’s An Autobiography (published 1974) – that describe in graphic detail what I’m talking about. In fact I would also recommend Leigh Raiford’s new book Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare that details how photography was used in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She shows how images helped gain political recognition and to build a visual vocabulary that was authentic and not motivated by stereotypes.)
Yet, in the middle of all of the social chaos of the 1960’s the National Endowment for the Arts was created. It was 1965 and the idea of a government agency dedicated to culture instead of war must have seemed like a beautiful thing. According to the NEA website, it was “dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.” Because of its timing, the Endowment was seen by many as an outgrowth of the liberalism and idealism of the 1960’s. It’s premise though was a good one – that the arts should be available to all Americans and that exposing people to art was something that made sense and was good for society. The arts, after all teach things like tolerance and critical thinking skills, which we can all use more of.
Symbolically Destroying the Left Wing Movement in the United States
A Birmingham, Alabama Church was bombed in 1963 killing four little girls. The same year NAACP worker Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Mississippi. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. In 1964 Mississippi Klan members murdered the three Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goldman, Michael Schwerner. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated later the same year. In 1969, Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his own bed. Among other things, Hampton was known for saying, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”
Yet during all this social upheaval the arts flourished. Bill Graham’s silk screened concert posters. Underground comics. Jimi Hendrix became the most famous guitar player in the world when he interpreted the Star Spangled Banner with his whiny, droning, abstract solo at Woodstock festival in 1969. Also – ’69 the Stonewall riots helped spark the Gay Rights movement – another nightmare for the religious right, whose gay members often remained in the closet for fear of retaliation. The Catholic Church, likewise concealed gays among their ranks while publicly denouncing homosexuality. But for the Churches that used shame and fear of the unknown other as political weapons, the arts seemed a palpable threat.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit
What appears to just be a photograph of a black man’s penis flopped out of his pants by Robert Mapplethorpe, was seen by some to represent gay culture, left wing cultural production, black power, subversion, a challenge to the status quo and of course the fear of all fears – slave revolt and black empowerment. Such images are not pornography and never were. But it is pretty clear just how much meaning can be condensed into a photograph, silent as it is. As such, a photograph has the power of being seen and thought about. A photograph can also document events or ideas that others wish never happened or didn’t exist. Yet in a democratic society if everyone should be allowed to own a gun and a high capacity ammo clip, then shouldn’t we have the right to take pictures of whatever we want?
Andres Serranno’s Piss Christ
In the 1990’s the NEA was attacked by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who in 1984, launched a Senate filibuster against making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. He singled out Mapplethorpe and Serrano as the most obscene of the artists who got NEA grants. Or, more precisely, Serrano’s Piss Christ was called profane and Mapplethorpe’s photographs were called obscene. Yet as the issue of cutting off funding for the NEA arose, it was pretty clear even then that it wasn’t about money. Putting a symbol of Jesus in a jar of urine seemed to touch a nerve among many of the religious in America. At its worst it is an adolescent gesture, poking fun at authority. At it’s best, Piss Christ was a social critique of a hypocritical Church that made its own rules and build a vast empire based on shame, guilt and abuse. But few saw the image as an attack on a Church that lost its way, rather, many took it personally. The irony of course, is that few outside of the art world would ever have seen it had it not been for the controversy. But the real issue was never about money or funding or budgets or obscenity or profanity.
The real issue is about how our American history is told and who gets to tell it.
Tax money paid the salaries of the torturers at Abu Ghraib, but nobody said let’s end funding for the army. In fact they tried to suppress their obscene images and pretend it never happened. When the Catholic Church was exposed hiding and even promoting child molesters among its ranks nobody took away their tax subsidies. When members of Congress routinely ask for earmarks worth hundreds of millions or in the billions of dollars, it’s business as usual. So I ask you – what really is more obscene?