From the Archives: Helms, Censorship, and the Serpent


In light of January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, freedom of speech has become a front-of-mind issue once more. Yet, for all the grimness of ongoing external threats, artists in the land of the Patriot Act and National Security Agency phone surveillance might do well to guard, too, against powerful domestic threats to the First Amendment—a point reinforced by director Laura Poitras’s Oscar win last Sunday for Citizenfour.

A Congressional gag-rule mentality was the menace that prompted artist and writer Douglas Davis to inveigh, in our May 1990 issue, against neoconservative critics (Hilton Kramer, Samuel Lipman), puritanical politicians (Jesse Helms, John E. Frohnmayer), wrong-headed Church Fathers (St. Augustine) and—not least—woefully diffident fellow artists. Ultimately, he warns, the greatest danger is not debasement of the NEA but rather self-censorship and the failure to take control of our own cultural destiny. —Eds.


At last arts supporters are recognizing that the censorship imbroglio is not an issue of mortality but of political power: who controls the NEA?

This last decade of our century is ripe with paradoxes, each boding extremes of good fortune or disaster for the arts and for the life of the mind. The Bush administration’s belated decision to recommend that the National Endowment for the Arts not be crippled with restrictions on the content of its grants places a conservative president on the side of free speech, pitted against powerful conservatives in his own party. One of these Republicans, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, had already succeeded last fall in gaining full Senate approval for a one-year curb on the NEA forbidding art which “may be considered obscene, including, but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts and which, when taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” This provision, a compromise version of the notorious Helms amendment, clamps the heavy weight of governmental restriction onto the process of making art or literature. It is eerily reminiscent of the cultural regulations cherished by the lately deposed bureaucrats of the USSR and Eastern Europe. But now, astonishingly, it is American artists who must pledge (in a promissory letter recently mailed out to thousands of new NEA grantees) that they subscribe to these moral and esthetic rules dictated from on high by politicians.

In Moscow not long ago, I tried to explain the Helms arts legislation to artists and writers I have been working with there; I also tried to explain the bipartisan committee that

Helms insisted on setting up prior to monitor the peer-panel method of grantmaking. Incredulity greeted my remarks. I simply could not bring my Russian friends to believe that the land of the free was not free—or at least potentially not free. They didn’t want to hear it.

These are contradictory times. The Evil Empire moves toward democratization and professionalism in cultural policy, away from the authoritarian control and for censorship, while the land of the free retreats. On the recently established 12-member congressional commission charged with monitoring the NEA, you will look in vain for a single creator or active arts professional—not one artist, not one writer, not one critic, curator or functioning museum director. While, if you cast your eyes toward Eastern Europe, you see not only the demise of state-imposed controls on culture, but a series of recent elections that awarded seats in various parliaments, several ministries and even one presidency to artists, writers, actors and architects.

The closing decade of this century may well rank as one of those moments in history when the supposedly fixed nature of life and art changed forever. What passes for the cultural intelligentsia in the U.S. is only beginning to sense the larger meaning of what is occurring in much of the rest of the world and to lament our own distance from the social and political passions attending those events. When Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president of Czechoslovakia, spoke to Congress in Washington this winter, he did so with an eloquence and a concern for larger issues long missing not only from our political rhetoric but also from our cultural discourse. In an equally compelling speech in Prague on New Year’s day, he raised questions supremely relevant to our own situation, though addressed to his own:

Everywhere in the world, people were surprised how these malleable, humiliated, cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia, who seemingly believed in nothing, found a tremendous strength within a few weeks to cast off the totalitarian system, in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner. We are ourselves surprised by it…And we ask: Where did…people who had never known another system get their longing for truth, their love of freedom, their political imagination their civic courage and civic responsibility?…How is it possible that so many people immediately understood what to do, and that none of them needed any advice or instructions?

These are questions that could be asked in reverse about us, about our loosely allied community of artists, writers, curators, critics, educators, filmmakers, museum directors and more. Why have we, raised in the lap of freedom, nourished by laws that protect us and incentives to speak out, largely remained silent in the face of the neoconservative attack on cultural freedoms?

This paradox seems particularly acute to me, given my recent travels in Eastern Europe. Throughout much of the world, artists, writers and cultural leaders have been taking their lives in their hands for some years now. Yet here, where there is nothing to fear, there is fear—or worse, indifference. I hardly need to tell you how singularly devoid of social concern or political interest American art has become since the early 1970s, how difficult it is to rouse American art students even to discuss politics, how infrequently in conversation with artists and writers here any serious topic is broached other than the vicissitudes of the market or the infamy of collectors and dealers. This past summer, when a group of us attempted to get our colleagues in Los Angeles to sign a letter of protest against the Helms amendment, I witnessed with my own eyes this fear to stand up and be counted.

Why? Why are we, whose constitutional freedoms remain intact, so afraid? I have no answer to this questions, I plainly confess. My hope here, rather, is to confront and clarify the real issue at stake before us—who will control the NEA, if not the culture itself—as opposed to the false opposition, and to urge that we take our gloves off before it is too late. I see us facing the death of our cultural soul through a prolonged period of self-censorship that could dilute the brashness and irreverence that still characterize the best contemporary American art—an art that has always been precisely the opposite of that sort of artistic production associated with virtually all those periods in which a central political or religious authority has dictated the terms of artistic production.

Let me quote a few statements heard in the U.S. Senate on Oct. 7, 1989, the day after the vote “modifying” the language of the Helms amendment, a vote widely interpreted in the media and in the arts community as a victory for anti-censorship forces. Here is Warren Rudman (R.-N.H.), hardly a fire-eating, right-wing fundamentalist, in the midst of a long congratulatory human of praise to Jesse Helms. The Senator from North Carolina,…has won his case, and it was a good case….The language that is in here [in the restriction on NEA funding] specifically says to them, you better watch what you fund if it gets across the bounds of ordinary decent judgment of the average American.

Or here is Sen. Dale Bumpers, a liberal Democrat from Arkansas: “I promise you, we are going to revisit this proposition next year or the following year.” Or Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat and former majority leader of the Senate: “This is not the last act in this play.” And finally, Sen. Rudman again: “Let us recognize that we have fired a warning shot across their bow.”

It wasn’t long after this instructive session that the newly appointment chairman for the NEA, John E. Frohnmayer, proved these senatorial prophets accurate. Jesse Helms had already told us on Oct. 7, according to the Congressional Record, that Frohnmayer pledged in a private meeting that no more Mapplethorpe-style grants would occur “on my watch.” In his apparent zeal to prove himself morally trustworthy to the Senate’s extreme right wing, the new chairman soon canceled an earlier grant given to the New York institution Artists Space for the exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing,” a show on the theme of AIDS [see A.i.A., Jan. & Apr. ’90]. In his early defense of this action, before he later reversed himself and reinstated the grant, Frohnmayer indirectly confirmed the point I am trying to make: he admitted to a New York Times reporter that he was offended by statements made in the catalogue for reasons that were not “moral” but “political.”

Now of course we have been led to believe the reverse: that morality is what impels the pro-censorship forces to crash down on “bad judgment” in federal arts funding, to protect the “decency” and “family values” nourished by what seems (in their rhetorical projection) to be every single American citizen and voter. “Good, decent taxpaying citizens are up in arms,” says Helms, “over blasphemous works of art…If that’s chilling censorship…make the most of it.” This statement is bolstered, Helms’s allies tell us, by “50,000 letters” mailed to Congress. And, again under the rubric of morality, the black flag of homophobia has been waved incessantly on the floor of both the Senate and the House for almost a year now.

But I protest that the moralist issue is a smoke screen, raised on the highbrow level by Hilton Kramer, former art critic of the New York Times and now editor of the New Criterion, and Samuel Lipman, New Criterion’spublisher, and on the lowbrow level by Jesse Helms and associates. The briefest reading through any of the writings or speeches of these men—rarely quoted or studied by the press—reveals a quite consistent obsession with grant making power. What galls the neoconservatives more than anything else is the spectacle of peer panels dominated by “unruly” artists and critics who do not agree with them on either politics or esthetics. If we do not recognize the real issue here—control over the endowments—and act on its implications rather than wasting our time defending Mapplethorpe and Serrano, we will continue to lose in the public arena, precisely as the pro-choice majority lost, at first, by defending abortion rather than the circle issue of choice—or political control.

I must point out that the opposition’s obsession with moral conduct is highly selective. Helms and his allies did not flinch an inch over reports in the Washington Times of a flourishing call-boy ring patronized by officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Nor do we see them attacking the escapades of certain congressmen, on both sides of the aisle, or making spirited speeches denouncing the rental, as reported by Time of 100 million X-rated videocassettes by men and women in the U.S. last year.

No, the history of neoconservative opposition to the NEA goes back beyond Mapplethorpe and Serrano, at least to the late 1970’s, when Kramer in the Times regularly assailed chairman Livingston Biddle and his colleagues for their support of “avant-garde” and “populist” art, and this opposition was well entrenched by 1980 when Lipman, in a paper commissioned by the Heritage Foundation, called on the new Reagan administration to eliminate grants for contemporary work.

The battle was in full cry last summer when by chance I found myself reading Elaine Pagels’s delightful polemic, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Random House, New York, 1988). That it fell into my hands at this time was surely a fortunate accident of timing. For it is a brilliant, concise study of a debate not unlike the one I am bidding you to join. The book centers upon the nature and meaning of freedom itself, setting the issue in the grand context of Western metaphysical thought. Pagels’s focus is upon the lively ideological debate attending the evolution of the early Christian church out of it its radical, persecuted beginnings into its status as the one holy church, handmaiden to the Roman empire. Pagels sees the dispute over the interpretation of the Book of Genesis—of Adam, Eve, and the serpent—as the turning point in this evolution, the moment when a liberating cause that stood at first for free will adopted an entirely different world view, due primarily to the impassioned rhetoric of St. Augustine, who had powerful political connections in Rome. Now Augustine saw sexual desire, embodied in Eve, as the final proof of Adam’s sin. The Judeo-Christian ambivalence about sex finds here its central critical expression and rationale. As you read through Pagels’s restaging of this debate between the forces of control on the one hand and of freedom on the other, you will surely detect the sources of certain voices haranguing on the Senate floor against “homoeroticism.”

But Pagels’s book is equally relevant at this moment because she reminds us of the historic legacy of those who took the other side. She shows us that Augustine’s opponents were eloquent—and, according to the findings of present-day scholarship, closer to textual truth in arguing that Genesis blesses humans as free agents, casting them as masters of their own destiny. When you listen now to Julian in one of the passages that infuriated Augustine in the fifth century (and might well itch Senator Helms even today), ask yourself if this idea, and the vision behind it, was in fact the final loser in that historic debate:

God made bodies, distinguished the sexes, made genitals, bestowed affection throughout which bodies would be joined, gave power to the semen and operates in the secret nature of the semen—and God made nothing evil.

Yet there is a final, equally fascinating point about Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: though there is no doubt which side Pagels prefers, she concludes that Julian’s sympathetic defense of freedom failed simply because Augustine delivered a sermon that warms and soothes the rest of us: “The doctrine of original sin…has tended to appeal…to those who…suspect human motives…and the human capacity for self-government” [my italics].I am fascinated because like many of her colleagues in the arts and in the media—who also side, in effect with Julian, not Augustine, in the Helms controversy—Pagels is determined to cede victory to the other side. She ignores the attraction of her own position—just as her colleagues persist in believing that Helms and his allies represent the deep preferences and prejudices of “the people” against anything at all controversial in the way of free expression. Yet both Pagels and her libertarian but cowed colleagues overlook considerable contrary evidence.

If Augustinian theory is so compelling, if it responds to needs so profoundly based in the human psyche, what are we to make of the Protestant Reformation, of the American or the French Revolution, or, come to that, of virtually all the massive demonstrations and shifts that have occurred in the past several years in Eastern Europe, China, Latin America and South Africa? When Pagels concludes that “only the most optimistic among us” can hope the Jeffersonian ideal will achieve “political reality,” she reminds me of a congressman (whose name I cannot give you) shaking his fist in my face when I dared suggest that his constituents might one day thank him for defending Mapplethorpe on First Amendment grounds—as the Czechs now thank those who released Vaclav Havel from prison.

The alarming fact is that a variety of political and artistic elements, theories and ideas, all of them, it seems to me, interconnected, have distorted our perception of the fluid social and economic structures around us, isolating the American intelligentsia not only from the truth but from advanced thinking elsewhere in the world. When Hilton Kramer and his allies invoke the specter of “the people” demanding a mechanism for second-guessing NEA grantmaking decisions, they assume that the majority out there will side with them and a small right-wing cabal of senators on a broad spectrum of complex, politico/esthetic issues.

But is this true? I remind you how often in recent decades we have misjudged the sophistication of the audience/the electorate/the world. You have only to read the endless reams of paper authored by our Sovietologists when Gorbachev came to power, prophesying more of Brezhnev, if not Stalin; or the endless articles written by American journalists and foreign policy experts in 1988 assuring us that the incurably servile Soviet people would never bestir themselves to demand democracy or vote against the party (“The proletariat will never revolt,” you may recall O’Brien telling Winston at the end of Orwell’s 1984, “not in a thousand years, not in a million years”); or the countless media theories forecasting the primitive destiny of television—one network, one image, one global village; or the pounds of McLuhanite predictions that buried me in my youth, promising that TV meant the end of jogging, traveling, going out of the house to restaurants, movies, theaters or museums, not to say the end of books and reading (a myth still alive in the face of the fact that we buy twice as many books per capita now as we did before the advent of television). Last, I remind you that not long ago we were being told that the Reagan victories and the surging popularity of fundamentalist preachers, particularly on television, argued a return to old family patterns and mores and the likely repeal of Wade v. Roe on political if not judicial grounds.

I don’t have to refute all of these Augustinian prophecies because you are refuting them in your mind as you read. What each of the Augustinian theories overlooks, what Elaine Pagels, our well-paid Sovietologists and media analysts overlook, is the obdurate human itch on the part of nearly every person to resist doing what he or she is expected to do. When Helms and Kramer assume the public will support their position, they make the same mistake made by those who were certain the public would eventually oppose the right to choice in regard to childbirth. Here, as always, the key to any debate is how to frame the question. Ask us if we favor murdering unborn infants and you will get one answer. Ask who ought to make the decision about bearing the child and you will get another. Ask for a vote on the suite of controversial Mapplethorpe photographs and the censors will triumph. Ask whether politicians, preachers or arts professionals should make funding decisions—as artists and arts organizations are finally beginning to ask—and you will very likely get a different decision. Indeed, the Bush administration’s flip-flip on the Helms amendment may indicate an awareness that public opinion may yet shift as decisively in this issue as it did on abortion.

I want to say a word about “the family.” Permit me a moment on a subject that is considered home turf by the opposition: the phrase “family values” is as common on the Senate floor during these debates as “homoeroticism.” However, according to USA Today, roughly one-fourth of all American families, no more, behaved in 1988 in a manner that might loosely be called “traditional”—that is, kids, mother and breadwinning father living together in their original, unshaken state. Everyone else, an overwhelming majority, is indulging in a wide variety of structures, from single parenthood to unmarried couples with and without kids to twice- or thrice-divorced partners with conflicting generations of children. We are also seeing more of gay couples, some of them raising children, whose rights, in the face of the AIDS epidemic, are slowly gaining legal recognition. “There is a trend,” says the California State Task Force on the Changing Family, “toward defining ‘family’ by function rather than structure.”

It is further obvious that in a period when people are marrying later, separating more frequently and postponing children, that the Augustinian code of sexual abstinence is hardly in favor—despite the AIDS threat. The role of women as an independent force is of course cruel in all of these social developments. Blessed with a freshly won economic independence (women now hold more “professional” jobs in the U.S than men), women are active agents, hardly the passive victims of centuries gone (even in the purchase of those X-rated videocassettes I mentioned before, nearly half of which women rent, according again to Time). The change in the family structure, which connotes a far less rigid view of life (and by extension of art) than Senator Helms imagines, is Eve’s decision as well as Adam’s. And I end by reminding you that it is Eve, as well as Adam in his enlightened moments, who overwhelmingly supports federal funding for the arts and art education. For those endless Louis Harris polls confirm the existence of anti-censorship majorities many times in excess of the tiny, highly organized percentages spewing out letters in support of the Helms position: his “50,000 letters” represents, 0.001 percent of our citizens.

Yes, these times are spiced by paradox and contradiction as well as political drama. In the midst of the recent decade supposedly devoted to nostalgia and recall (if not the return to the “free market”), our family structure, the relations between the sexes and the means by which most of us earn our living decisively reversed traditional patterns. The arts flourished on a public level of attendance as never before in our history. Yet the cultural prospect is still imperiled, despite the recent and welcome shift by our president. The bipartisan oversight committee is sure to be besieged by the same flood of right-wing telegrams and phone calls that moved the Senate last year. Pessimistic colleagues in Washington predict that the NEA can be preserved only by engraving the Helms amendment in stone—at least for the next five years.

This act of cultural retracing, analogous to our increasingly flaccid performance in product innovation, patent applications and scientific research, not only occurs in the face of all the extraordinary social and political changes we have noted, here and abroad, which defy Augustine and the homogeneity of totalitarian order. It even signals a retreat from our own past. Remember James Madison in The Federalist Papers reassuring Alexander Hamilton that the rowdiness of intellectual anarchy, or as it is known today, pluralism, is worth the price:

It could never be more truly said that this [remedy] is worse than the disease…it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imports to fire its destructive agency.

Yet the revised Helms amendment, supported by our Congress, clearly contradicts Madison. Those who protest that its scope and impact are limited ignore the wider warning from Helms and his allies, not to say the testimony offered by the freshly liberated writers and artists in Eastern Europe, who recall similar “limited” declarations by Stalin and his colleagues. This is why the president of Czechoslovakia offered another ringing statement against censorship “in support of American artists” in late March, on “Arts Advocacy Day” in the nation’s capital. And this is why we, too, must make our case—now.


Author: Douglas Davis is an artist, writer and critic who has published and lectured often on issues involving censorship, most recently in a speech at the annual meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors in Sarasota, Fla., on which this essay is based.