A.i.A.‘s February 1990 issue included a talk that artist and theorist Allan Sekula had delivered at a conference in Britain. Titled “Independent Photography in the Context of Enterprise Culture,” it addressed the gutting of public support for the art in the US and its connections to trends in art-world morality, including the increasing faith in the market as an arbiter of artistic importance, as well as the divisions that pitted “art photography” and “commercial photography” against each other while elevating Conceptual artists who work “with” photography. The late Robert Mapplethorpe and the controversy surrounding him provided Sekula with a stark example of art that troubled both critical and political values. His critique censures the “art world” as strongly as the “philistines” that they would like to imagine themselves as unified against; referring to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Sekula imagined critic Hilton Kramer as Batman and Mapplethorpe as the Joker, threatening the powers-that-be but ultimately suffering defeat.
Complementary Mapplethorpe retrospectives opened this month in Los Angeles, at the Getty Center and the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art. We published Robert Reid-Pharr’s intervention in the critical and curatorial reception of Mapplethorpe that emphasizes the aesthetic properties of his work while playing down the documentary, pornographic ones. Reid-Pharr’s position is aligned with that of Sekula, who identified “the problem with Mapplethorpe” as his status as both observer and participant. Sekula’s talk is presented below. While A.i.A. editors in 1990 kept his references to the context of the conference, those lines have been removed in this slightly abridged version. – Eds.
“Enterprise culture”? This phrase has a curious ring to my—and presumably to other—American ears. My hunch is that Americans—bourgeois Americans, that is, as well as most of the professional and managerial class—hear the phrase “enterprise culture” with a certain low-level bewilderment. The phrase is both redundant (for Americans, what other culture could there be than one rooted in the free soil of enterprise?) and oxymoronic (culture in the honorific sense should somehow be free of venal entanglements). This response is partly the effect of the differences between culture defined in the broad, mass or popular senses and culture defined in a more narrow, elite sense. But it is also a result of the fact that these very differences—between a popular and an elitist definition of culture—have themselves become con-fused, particularly with the incorporation of traditional high culture and elements of the contemporary artistic “vanguard” into the institutionalized flux of mass culture.
The phrase “enterprise culture” assumes an existing apparatus of state-funded cultural programs and activities and assumes further that this apparatus must be dismantled. Culture must be won away from the state and “liberated” by the spirit of capitalism. This “privatization” of culture is a more drastic prescription for Britain than it is for the United States. The Arts Council of Great Britain’s annual budget is $720 million and that of the National Endowment for the Arts, the equivalent American agency, is about $172 million. (The French government allots $1.6 billion to the arts, while West Germany spends $4.5 billion. In the United States, it is often remarked that the Pentagon spends more on military bands than the government allocates to the entire NEA budget.)
Despite the relatively small stakes, and rather in the elephant-gun spirit of the invasion of Grenada, American conservatives have been maneuvering to restrict arts funding since the very beginning of the Reagan presidency in 1981. Certainly, this effort is part of the larger right-wing agenda that has succeeded in gutting the welfare function of the state, often through the installation of hostile and even criminally corrupt officials in federal agencies and in cabinet-level positions. But like the Grenada invasion, the attack on state support for the arts is strongly motivated by ideological concerns, by the need to make an example in a small corner of a symbolically charged arena. In this case, the arena is culture rather than the Caribbean.
While Thatcherites learn from the American spirit of untrammeled enterprise, Reaganites learn from the British spirit of reactionary milltance in dismantling a comparatively larger state cultural sector (much as they learned Grenada press-muzzling from the British example in the Malvinas/Falklands). Differences exist, however, between conservative tactics in Britain and the US. The cultural policy of American conservatives advances under the banner of elitism and antipopulism. The 1981 Heritage Foundation report that provided Reagan with a blueprint for the dismantling of the liberal state complained specifically about the “ever greater employment [by National Endowment-funded organizations] of advertising techniques which cheapen when they do not actually compromise artistic content.” 1 In Britain, the Tory rallying cry is a pseudopopulist call to market: “We like to be considered a mainstream leisure product,” asserts the new “marketing manager” of the Victoria & Albert Museum. 2
Since this past summer we’ve seen a very 110 serious flare-up in the American defunding war. The fire this time burns around photography. I’ll attempt a brief arson investigation in the latter part of this talk. I hope to say something useful about the tactics and the psychopathology of the conservative agenda. One reason for focusing on the situation in Britain as well as the US is to seek, in a necessary internationalist extension of the words of Jesse Jackson, “common ground.” The practical internationalism of the transnational bourgeoisie and their neoconservative lieutenants—the “policy intellectuals”—can only be countered by a new internationalism of the left.
For the moment, I want to turn to the specific question of the survival, in an environment of free enterprise, of something that in Britain is called “independent photography.” Independent photography? Independent from what?[pq]American conservatives have been trying to slash arts funding. Since last summer we’ve seen a very serious flare-up in the American defunding war. The fire this time burns around photography.[/pq]This label has no particular currency in the United States. It was possible until quite recently to speak with a reasonably straight face of something roughly equivalent called “art photography.” But that term seeks a more emphatic ideological resolution of the problem of photography’s position within the modern—and “post-modern”—systems of culture. The label “art photography” is inherently conservative; it ignores Roland Barthes’s remark that “photography displaces, shifts the notion of art, and that is why it takes part in a certain progress in the world.” 3 The American equivalent for the term used in Britain is found in other, closely related media: in the US, we speak of independent film and video—meaning independence from Hollywood production. (Increasingly, however, with the atrophy of experimental/vanguard film culture, “the independents” refers to smaller producers within Hollywood.)
So again, independence from what? From commerce, certainly. Or perhaps not so certainly, since the commercial exchange of art photographs has been a significant aspect of the American art market since the early 1970s. What we are talking about is independence from photography’s instrumental applications, the large field that encompasses everything from fashion to forensics. This distinction is manifested even in the rather anarchic “system” of photographic education in the United States. Some schools train “art photographers”; others train “commercial photographers.” Those that attempt to encompass both are often balkanized, riven by resentment and contempt, and are generally quite crazy.
Historically, the dialectical tension between commercial instrumentalism and independent modernism has been more pronounced in the United States than in Europe or Britain. Ungrateful wreckers, like myself, probably need to be reminded that the institutional basis for an independent art of photography has been stronger in the US than elsewhere, at least since the late 1930s. If this brought us a discourse that was—by the 1950s and the advent of Minor White’s journal Aperture—depoliticized, romantic and prone to cornball mysticism, at least there was a sense that photography could be practiced in ways that didn’t mesh with the machineries of corporate journalism and advertising.
It has become a commonplace on the cultural left to disparage American photographic modernism, to assert its inferiority to and domestication of the more radical modernisms practiced in the Germany and Soviet Union of the 1920s. There is certainly truth to this argument, but we must also recognize how pressing the weight of commerce was for American photographers who wanted to assert their “independence.” Although (and also because) American commerce sought to absorb the lessons and devices of modernism, the anticommercial spirit is especially strong and assertive in the work and pronouncements of many modernists. One has only to read Alfred Stieglitz’s short memoir fragment entitled “How I Got Out of Business,” or to read the young Walker Evans’s scornful remarks on the “note of money” in the 1920s fashion photographs and celebrity portraits by Edward Steichen.
This hostility toward the commercial photographer is still voiced. I recall Larry Clark, the documentary photographer and author of Tulsa and Teenage Lust, referring in an interview to commercial photographers as “squirrels,” a crude and unflattering animal metaphor that aptly describes the endless cycle of gathering and hoarding that is the Sisyphean fate of the commercial hack. The persistence of this hostility—which is not matched in any other medium—suggests that the photographer’s position as an artist is inherently unstable, and that this instability translates subjectively into professional status anxiety. I think that status anxiety also partly explains why many teacher-practitioners of art photography in the United States have been uncomfortable with and even hostile to challenges from below—from women, African-Americans, gays and lesbians—and challenges posed by new theoretical paradigms that call romantic notions of authorship and the established canon of photographic history into question.
If the idea of “independent photography” contains the hope that photography can be practiced in relative freedom from commercial demands, it also contains a more limited notion of autonomy, one that is specifically modernist in its drawing of boundaries. The notion is this: photography as an art is independent of other arts, subject to its own ontological conditions and historical lineages. This argument was first articulated by Paul Strand in 1917, and it continues to be voiced today in an Eliotic version—derived originally from T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” but more recently from the art criticism of Clement Greenberg—in the writing and curatorial decisions of John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art.
The breakup of modernism has brought both the first and second senses of “independent photography” into crisis. The boundary between art practice and the general flux of commodity culture is now recognized as extremely porous if not nonexistent. Boundaries between genres and media are dissolved or accorded a variety of exaggerated mock respect. After a period of heightened prestige in the 1970s, no one wants to be labeled a mere photographer anymore. What has returned from earlier periods, supplanting romantic optimism, is the more negative idea of the photographer as a subservient being, a stupefied detail worker, a “naive realist.” What is missing is the dialectical insight into contested relations of cultural production found in Bernard Edelman’s description of the photographer as the “proletarian of creation” or in Walter Benjamin’s earlier but subsuming notion of the “author as producer.” The terms have shifted into a more passive and fatalistic mode: for “proletarian of creation” and “author as producer” we might now substitute “intelligent consumer of the (always) already created.”
Photographers are reinventing themselves in various ways: as neo-pictorialist pompiers, as quasicuratorial impresarios, as melancholy archivists, as the antiquarian restorationists of obsolete instrumental practices such as the composite photograph and the motion study. In short, they seek to join the company of “real artists” who work “with” photographs. I’m not discounting the fact that interesting and compelling work has resulted from these shifts, nor am I nostalgic for the pursuit of some “pure” essence of photography. What disturbs me is the ambition implicit in much of this work, the ambition to “transcend,” to “gain higher ground,” in an art world in which semiotic status and market value are closely correlated. To my mind the very inferiority and “slavishness” of photography’s position affords the cunning practitioner a critical advantage. This advantage is lost when one moves up in the art world.
Photographs are the perverse currency of a culture of simulations. The key theoretical source for this widely accepted proposition is Jean Baudrillard, whose enthusiastic reception by American artists and critics was prepared on the bedrock of a more native (that is, Canadian) McLuhanism. This theory argues that the circulation of images in the media now precedes and supplants any substantial worldly referent. To provide an example of simulation which parallels those offered by Baudrillard, I would cite the probable massive Southern California earthquake of the near future. This event already exists as a media simulation: a stage set for tourists at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. A real earthquake would merely be the “imaginary” echo of this prior representation; in effect, it would be condemned to conform to the logic of that representation. A materialist might argue that we’ll have to see how things shake out. The simulationist theory of disaster strikes me as whistling in the dark, an idealist ritual in which the claim for discursive predictability stands in—fatalistically, but with a reassuring intellectual certitude—for the real-world absence of scientific predictability. 4
The simulationist argument is enormously flattering to artists, even as it dispenses with traditional notions of originality in artistic production. As the art historian Thomas Crow has argued, the simulationist project turns on the claim that the economy of artistic signs is indistinct from the larger sign economy, although the artists involved know full well that art works are privileged signs in late-capitalist consumer culture. This willful blindness to the “difference that makes all the difference” 5 can be construed as bad faith, as a kind of involuted media fatalism or as a form of “cynical reason,” this last being the attitude of knowing-better-but-proceeding-to-do-one’s-business characteristic of educated professionals and intellectuals in bureaucratic societies. 6
Contemporary American artists’ fascination with consumerism, with the deadpan replication of commodity relations frozen in that luminous moment just prior to the realization of exchange value, is curiously anachronistic. To the extent that this fascination is manifested in works designed to be purchased in commercial art galleries, it is also curiously narcissistic. It is a fascination that shows little understanding of the relationship between speculation-fueled acquisitiveness and the sharp increase in poverty and homelessness in the United States of the 1980s. The work of the sculptor Haim Steinbach, for example, with his Artschwageresque laminated shelves of goods, seems to assume that we continue to live in Galbraith’s “affluent society” of the 1950s, or in a “Fordist” world of enforced high productivity, high wages and a generalized capacity to purchase “consumer durables.” In a Fordist world, working-class consumerism was crucial to avoiding crises of overproduction. Leisure became a kind of work, the work of consumption crucial to the health of the economy. With a new crisis of profitability, dating from the late 1960s, a “post-Fordist” world emerged, characterized by a new international division of labor and an aggressive management assault on the unionized, high-wage proletariat employed in the basic productive industries of the advanced capitalist world. For a large sector of the working class, the full leisure of Fordism has now disappeared into the thinner, meaner leisure of unemployment, or the desperate nonleisure of low-wage employment. Of course an art that is content to thematize economics as a species of indeterminate but global semiosis needn’t be bothered with these trifling technical details. 7
If Baudrillard is the theoretical bishop of simulationism, the spiritual avatar and rediscovered prophet is the American modernist photographer Man Ray. Man Ray is enlisted as the perfect antidote to the austerity and intellectualism of the Duchampian rejection of the retina, Man Ray has been comforting to the American art scene in several respects: his protean energies stand as a good example for the engines of fashion, he effected the domestication of Surrealist tropes in his fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar in the late 1930s and he prefigured the “conspicuous fraudulence” of Yves Klein, who can be regarded as a key postwar source for Pop art and the current simulationism. 8 By harmonizing the avant-garde and commerce, the figure of Man Ray does for the cynical but status-anxious photographic art world of the late ’80s what the figure of Steichen did for the more sentimental scene of the middle ’70s.
The notion of the artist as a photomonteur, as a faker, as a jokester working cynically within the flow of the media is also increasingly prevalent within American mass culture. I think this turn is evident in the recent film Batman, in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a malevolent photomonteur, completely outstyling the prosthetics-assisted, forensic-minded “realist” Batman. The figure of the evil artist replaces that of the mad scientist. The Joker is a criminalized and popularized version of Man Ray or Yves Klein or even John Baldessari, who also defaces, and who, like the Joker, seems at times to profess a rather Hobbesian view of desire. Like most recent Hollywood films, Batman speaks from both sides of its mouth (or mouths—the garish cosmetic leer of the Joker and the pursed lips of Michael Keaton). If the film celebrates a kind of anarchic, estheticized and spendthrift criminality, it also closes its narrative with the victory of a repressed and repressive forensic spirit, the spirit of upper-class connoisseurship and filial respect for parental memory. In effect, it is at least two films, an “actorly” film in which Nicholson wins and a narrative film in which Batman wins.
The ideological contradictions of Batman are those of the current moment in American cultural politics. However, with a nod to Baudrillard, I would like to propose, for the sake of further argument, that we consider the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as the Joker and the critic Hilton Kramer as Batman, with the journal New Criterion serving as a well-equipped Batcave.
American conservatives have cooked up a grimly Malthusian policy for the arts, motivated partly by free-market economic dogma and partly by an ideological (and public-relations) need to indulge in conspicuous displays of moral outrage. Both mainstream and art-world press accounts have concentrated on the fulminations of Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, whose courtly but philistine ways make him an easy target for art-world scorn. Less attention has been paid to the workings of a standing political alliance between neoconservative New York intellectuals and the politicians and activists of the New Right. 9
The controversy of last spring and summer over government funding for “blasphemous” and “obscene” art works by photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe was fueled from both sides of this alliance, which was marked by a curious tactical fusion of elitist and populist cultural agendas. Despite the fragility of any such coalition and the reciprocal opportunism necessary for its survival, for the moment it has been remarkably successful. Congress has now passed “compromise” legislation that specifically stigmatizes the expression of a fairly wide range of sexual themes, including art characterized as “homoerotic” in its content. Suspect works will from now on be called out of the funding lineup for further obscenity tests. Even if these tests prove negative—and given the liberal Supreme Court obscenity guidelines incorporated into the legislation, they almost always will—the process will serve to inhibit artists, curators and funding bureaucrats. The system of “peer review,” one of the guiding principles of professionalism in modern democratic societies, has been badly damaged. The NEA may not survive as a viable funding agency for practicing artists. In any event, the new restrictions on the NEA will undoubtedly occasion an even more market-oriented art world, eliminating or severely inhibiting genres such as video, performance and mural painting, which only thrive with some form of government support. For young artists, class privilege will become a larger factor in success.
These developments fulfill a battle plan mapped out over the past eight years by Kramer, former art critic for the New York Times and now editor of the New Criterion, and the New Criterion‘s publisher, the music critic Samuel Lipman. As the title of their journal suggests, these men are committed to a vision of late-modernist culture derived from the earlier modernism of T.S. Eliot. They seek to erect a stable, authoritative canon and to defend a contemporary art practice that has an intelligent and polite dialogue with that canon. Artists with an impolite, aggressive or debunking attitude to the art of the past don’t rank very high with Lipman and Kramer: for example, they don’t like the Dadaists. 10
Lipman in particular would like to see the NEA become a ministry of dead art, funding only the historical endeavors of museums.[pq]As the prudish response to Mapplethorpe shows, what scares conservatives is a truly popular, open homosexual culture, a culture capable of making alliances with dissident and mainstream groups.[/pq]This position makes sense in conservative terms, since recent American tax-law changes have removed incentives for private art collectors to donate art to museums, and escalating art prices have made it difficult for museums to compete with these same private collectors. A real institutional crisis is brewing, precisely because of the speculative hypertrophy of the free market. You might say that Lipman favors a modest “museum bailout program” based on shifting money away from living art to dead art. Contemporary art would have to succeed or fail in the marketplace.
Kramer strikes an Eliotic pose but plays a role that Eliot would have shunned, that of a bare-knuckled polemicist. Kramer is the only American art critic to aspire to and succeed in the role of “policy intellectual.” His political attacks on individuals and institutions are usually well-timed and explicitly addressed to advertisers, trustees and politicians. In this respect, he writes instrumentally, for a public defined in the narrowest class terms, rather than for artists or for the larger art world. In other words, he knows how to go for the purse strings. Kramer’s attacks on leftism, cronyism and immoralism among American art critics began in 1975 with the charge that “muddled Marxism” had replaced serious art criticism at Artforum. This charge contributed to the resignation of that journal’s editors, the liberal critics John Coplans and Max Kozloff, and thus led indirectly to the shift in the character of that magazine to its current unreadable, market-happy delirium. Later, in 1984, by successfully calling for the elimination of NEA art critics’ fellowships, Kramer succeeded in driving art criticism further into the flux of market forces. As we will see shortly, the New Criterion is the art-critical equivalent of a corporation-funded blockbuster exhibition. And like a blockbuster, it seeks to level the opposing terrain.
Kramer shares his vision of American cultural malaise with a number of other conservative intellectuals—for example, Daniel Bell. But unlike Bell, Kramer does not attribute this malaise to the acquisitive and individualistic values of capitalism itself. Rather, he prefers to seek the causes of moral crisis in marginal social groups and in renegade artists and intellectuals. 11
In several respects, Robert Mapplethorpe constitutes a perfect, if somewhat complicated, target for Kramer and Lipman. Mapplethorpe isn’t around to defend himself, and his defenders are divided in their priorities and their knowledge of the political terrain. Kramer can profess to approve of Mapplethorpe’s estheticism, while finding in the sheer indexicality of the sadomasochistic pictures of the “X Portfolio” the direct evidence of a pathological and dangerous sexuality. His moral outrage is a response to the documentary status of these pictures. Kramer voiced no objection to the Whitney Museum’s recent exhibition of Charles Demuth’s explicit watercolors of carousing dandies and sailors. On the other hand, perhaps Kramer would also be less appalled by Larry Clark’s documentary photographs of the boy hustlers of Times Square showing off their penises, precisely because Clark maintains a careful, if rather nervous, heterosexual distance. The problem with Mapplethorpe is his own double role as both observer and participant.
Since Mapplethorpe fully implicated himself in the subculture of sadomasochism, it has not been difficult for critics to regard his visual description of sadomasochistic acts as a form of “advocacy.” But “advocacy” is an ambiguous term, one that probably exaggerates Mapplethorpe’s intentions in the “X Portfolio,” which were, I think, quite simply descriptive rather than either titillating or hortatory. To say this is not to ignore the fact that Mapplethorpe clearly understood the charged archival relation between these “simply descriptive” pictures and the more cloying, glamourized and openly derivative eroticism of his portraits (the “Y Portfolio”) and flower pictures (the “Z Portfolio”). Mapplethorpe is neither a pornographer nor a Sadeian ideologue of sex, rather he is an esthete who deliberately made a mockery of “closeted” discretion by politely compartmentalizing his desire and then alphabetizing the compartments. This allegorization of gay existence within the very archival structure of his work is perhaps one unacknowledged source of his enormous popularity, which is usually attributed to his pictorialism.
Where a liberal might see in Mapplethorpe’s supposed “advocacy” a call for the tolerance of sexual difference, a conservative might see a recruiting campaign.[pq]The contradictions of the movie “Batman” are those of the current moment in American cultural politics. I propose that we consider Robert Mapplethorpe as the Joker and the critic Hilton Kramer as Batman.[/pq]Thus Kramer charges that the public exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic pictures constitutes an attempt to “aggrandize and abet erotic rituals involving coercion, degradation, bloodshed and the infliction of pain.” 12 Since Mapplethorpe’s work has been commercially very successful, Kramer can stress that he has no problem with a private culture of homosexual eroticism. What bothers him is the implied moral imprimatur of the government in funding the exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work.
Liberals are suffering from a failure of nerve in this crisis, allowing the right wing to hold both the moral and the economic high ground. We should be aggressive in exposing both the homophobia and the economic inconsistencies of the conservative argument. Kramer is happy as long as homosexual culture remains within the closet, and he’s even willing to accept a small homosexual aristocracy of taste within the art world. How generous.
Kramer’s homophobia differs from the more prudish revulsion of Jesse Helms. It is useful to compare Kramer’s celebration (in 1960) of the sculptor Gaston Lachaise with his recent complaints about Mapplethorpe. Borrowing a page from what is already a rather outdated feminist critique of “objectification,” Kramer writes that many of Mapplethorpe’s photographs provide “so absolute and extreme a concentration on male sexual endowments that every other attribute of the human subject is reduced to insignificance.” 13 We can find a similar reduction of the female subject to breasts and vagina in the work of Lachaise (Breasts with Female Organ Between, 1930-32). Kramer argued, however, that “even at his most extreme moments of expressiveness in dealing with the female figure, Lachaise conveys a sense of complete and unstrained mastery in realizing his sensations.” 14 Kramer’s notions of subjectivity seem to be quite gender-specific. Lachaise, of course, can be claimed for a “vitalist ideal” while Mapplethorpe stands condemned for “social pathology.”
What terrifies conservatives like Kramer and Lipman is a truly popular, open homosexual culture, a culture capable of forging alliances and bonds with dissident and mainstream groups in American society. They fear the sort of politicized gay and lesbian culture that emerged with the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 and gathers force now in response to the AIDS crisis.
Furthermore, Robert Mapplethorpe and gays in general are being stigmatized for taking seriously one of the utopian promises of a late-capitalist market economy: the promise of liberated desire. Given the collapse of Fordism, conservatives worry about the continued popularization of hedonic impulses; this concern is especially evident in the new “war” on drugs. Gays and lesbians pose another economic problem for conservatives, a problem that turns on the metaphorical association of biological reproduction with capital accumulation. For conservatives, gays and lesbians are suspect because they allegedly don’t reproduce “normal” family life. They supposedly don’t have children, and they are especially visible working in “frivolous” fields on the fringes of the Gross National Product. In other words, conservatives project their own fears of unfettered desire and an impotent economy onto gay and lesbian people, who are easily scapegoated in a society obsessed with productivity.
The language of the attack is often economically revealing: Samuel Lipman speaks of Mapplethorpe’s “gross images of sexual profligacy” and complains about a “rampant media culture [that] profits hugely from the pleasing, and the lowering, of every taste.” 15 Here again, a critique of capitalist consumer culture, akin to that voiced by Daniel Bell, turns back onto a specific homosexual subculture, as if the leather bars of the 1970s could be understood simply as mere extensions of shopping malls and television (or vice versa) and not as space both colonized by and resistant to the dominant economy of desire.
Another conservative intellectual, Gertrude Himmelfarb, has recently suggested a connection between the supposed profligacy of Keynesian economics and the personal homosexuality of John Maynard Keynes. Echoing the counterrevolutionary sentiments of Edmund Burke, Himmelfarb seeks both the resurrection of Victorian morality and the discrediting of its most outspoken post-Victorian critics: “Today more than ever, we have reason to be wary of the kind of `civilization’ celebrated by Bloomsbury, which dismissed conventional morality as ‘a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.'” 16 Turning to Keynes, Himmelfarb argues that
something of the “soul” of Bloomsbury penetrated even into Keynes’s economic theories. There is a discernible affinity between the Bloomsbury ethos, which put a premium on immediate and present satisfactions, and Keynesian economics, which is based entirely on the short run and precludes any long term judgments. (Keynes’s famous remark, “In the long run we are all dead,” also has an obvious connection with his homosexuality—what Schumpeter delicately referred to as his “childless vision.”) The same ethos is reflected in the Keynesian doctrine that consumption rather than saving is the source of economic growth—indeed that thrift is economically and socially harmful. 17
The notion that Keynesianism is “based entirely on the short run” is certainly peculiar. Keynes wanted to prevent the disastrous consequences of a falsely optimistic reliance on the Neo-Classical economic doctrine of the self-regulating market. He was committed to nothing less than the preservation of the capitalist system. Despite this strained effort to discover a permissive welfare-state “bottom line” in Keynes’s self-described “immoralism,” Himmelfarb is also worried about other political and cultural aspects of the Bloomsbury ethos: opposition to militarism and imperialist war, sympathy for the working class and sexual libertarianism. In short, Bloomsbury is the elitist precursor of the counterculture of the ’60s. Now, at the end of the ’80s, the “Victorian morality” that Himmelfarb seeks to restore is being retooled for an age of AIDS, austerity and antiterrorist adventure. 18
The conservative conflation of economics and sexuality remains puzzling. Is there something else at stake in Himmelfarb’s association of homosexuality and welfare-statism, in Lipman’s anger over Mapplethorpe’s “sexual profligacy”? Consider the fact that despite their differences, Serrano and Mapplethorpe have both committed specifically scatological offenses: Serrano with his crucifix dunked in urine, Mapplethorpe with his wet-suited masochists and his own self-portrait as Martin Luther’s devil, with a whip inserted in his anus. A politically conservative reading of Freud would justify the horrified response to these pictures as the exercise of a more mature and sublimated sexuality. But a more generous reading might find this revulsion the workings of a definite reaction formation, that is, the attempt to control a repressed wish through the exertion of a countervailing force.
We should also note the well-known connection between sublimated anal-eroticism and the “more mature” interest in money. 19 In other words, in the conservative attack on Mapplethorpe, Serrano and the NEA, we are witnessing a particular conjunction of moralism and public parsimony. This attempt to control the sphincters of government spending may well be a cover for the spendthrift impulses of conservatives themselves. Maybe they are all closet Keynesians, secret believers in government deficit spending, notably of the military variety.
Samuel Lipman’s New Criterion began publication in 1982 with a half million dollars in support from a number of conservative foundations, including the John M. Olin Foundation, which provides an annual $100,000. (This funding is very comfortable indeed for a journal that also receives advertising income from commercial galleries and does not run editorial illustrations.) The Olin Foundation describes itself as committed to the support of “undertakings which encourage the preservation of political and economic liberty.” Over the past decade, this commitment has rewarded the free-market Heritage Foundation, the anticommunist Hoover Institution, the antifeminist Eagle Forum (for a study critical of wage parity between men and women) and a number of prominent neoconservative intellectuals, including Michael Novack, Peter L. Berger, Irving Kristol and Allan Bloom. 20 The Olin Foundation’s executive director, Michael S. Joyce, wrote the initial criticism of the NEA included in the Heritage Foundation blueprint for the Reagan administration.
The connection of this enterprise to military-Keynesian policies is quite direct. Olin money comes not from some abstract patronage pool in the sky, but from the Olin Corporation, a major chemical and munitions manufacturer, with government contracts ranging from rocket propellants to 50-caliber ammunition. And, turning to the populist side of the attack on the NEA, where would Jesse Helms be without his two causes—military aid to brutal Central American rightists and tobacco subsidies? As threats to public health, Robert Mapplethorpe’s deadpan documentary pictures from the late ’70s of unwittingly unsafe sex between consenting adult men hardly compare.
It has been too easy for the “art world”—a label that suggests both cosmopolitanism and parochialism—to see itself as a unified body under attack by philistines. The art world is perfectly capable of dividing against itself under pressure from within and without. Some American arts administrators have stated their willingness to “live with” a congressional compromise that will specifically stigmatize “homoerotic” expression. But this restriction will create a zone of moral quarantine. Why should gay and lesbian artists have to live and work under this shadow? Why should any artist who wishes to speak about the complicated vicissitudes of sexuality have to endure the special scrutiny of the government? And why should any other artist accept this stigmatization of his or her fellows?
The artists’ boycott of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the institution which volunteered to serve as the laboratory for conservative cultural policy by canceling Robert Mapplethorpe’s scheduled exhibition this past summer, is an appropriate and justified response, a kind of strike. The most hopeful aspect of this fight has been artists’ newfound and unexpected capacity for solidarity and self-organization. The issue now is to develop common ground with other groups seeking to defend civil rights and liberties in an increasingly authoritarian society.