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In the late 1990s Angels in America,Tony Kushner’s epic play about homosexuality and AIDS in the Reagan era, toured the country, inspiring protests in a handful of cities while others received it warmly. Why do people fight over some works of art but not others? Not Here, Not Now, Not That! examines a wide range of controversies over films, books, paintings, sculptures, clothing, music, and television in dozens of cities across the country to ...
In the late 1990s Angels in America,Tony Kushner’s epic play about homosexuality and AIDS in the Reagan era, toured the country, inspiring protests in a handful of cities while others received it warmly. Why do people fight over some works of art but not others? Not Here, Not Now, Not That! examines a wide range of controversies over films, books, paintings, sculptures, clothing, music, and television in dozens of cities across the country to find out what turns personal offense into public protest.
What Steven J. Tepper discovers is that these protests are always deeply rooted in local concerns. Furthermore, they are essential to the process of working out our differences in a civil society. To explore the local nature of public protests in detail, Tepper analyzes cases in seventy-one cities, including an in-depth look at Atlanta in the late 1990s, finding that debates there over memorials, public artworks, books, and parades served as a way for Atlantans to develop a vision of the future at a time of rapid growth and change.
Eschewing simplistic narratives that reduce public protests to political maneuvering, Not Here, Not Now, Not That! at last provides the social context necessary to fully understand this fascinating phenomenon.
A Cautionary Tale
In 1925, when reporters descended on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to cover the infamous Scopes trial, they arrived with a set of assumptions about the ideological divide separating small-town southern life from the more liberal, progressive, secular, and cosmopolitan America residing in its bigger cities in the north. The trial, the jurors, the speeches, the testimony, and the town itself became national news with journalists portraying the conflict as a clash between fundamentalism, bigotry, and religion, on the one hand, and free speech, enlightenment, and science, on the other. The protagonists in the story were well-known figures—the flamboyant prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan; the most famous lawyer of the time, Clarence Darrow; and the acerbic and controversial journalist H. L. Mencken. The trial of John Scopes, accused of breaking state law by teaching evolution, was caught in the eddies of larger, national debates and ideological currents. Yet the reality of life in Dayton—the character of religious faith and fundamentalism, the extent of disagreement among neighbors, local reaction and sentiment toward the defendant—differed considerably from the hyperbolic coverage in the national press. Dayton residents were concerned about local control over school curricula and were worried about proselytizing "unproven" scientific ideas in the schools. Most were not stridently anti-evolution, nor did they see the trial as principally about free expression, the insertion of religion into the schools, or other "hot-button" national issues (Olasky 1986).
The Scopes trial is a cautionary tale for understanding the nature of cultural conflict in contemporary America. It reminds us of the importance of stepping outside of national discourse and taking the character of local conflict seriously. Today's accounts of conflict—whether over National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding or Hollywood films—are reported by the national press using familiar narratives about competing worldviews not unlike the stories told about the trial in 1925. Even local conflicts—once they get entwined in national debates and become fodder for national actors—lose their distinctiveness and come to represent yet another theater of engagement for the larger culture wars. However, if we hope to understand what is at stake for citizens and communities when they disagree over art, we must look more broadly and examine the full range of stories, the nature of grievances, the variety of actors, and the ways in which conflicts are instigated and resolved. In this chapter I move beyond today's Scopes trials in order to take account of both small and large conflicts occurring daily in cities across the country. This chapter focuses on one overarching question: Do typical conflicts over art and entertainment in America resemble visible national conflicts? In the process I explore the role of religion and politics and highlight differences between small and large conflicts and between local conflicts and those that involve national actors.
In 1989, having graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I began working for my alma mater in the office of public affairs and development. Among my first duties was to work with graduates from the senior class of 1987 on their class gift—a commissioned sculpture that was to be installed on campus in front of the main library. The sculptor, Julia Balk, produced a set of bronze figures intended to represent the diversity of student life. My office reviewed several preliminary sketches, made suggestions to the artist, and eagerly awaited the delivery of the final piece. When it arrived the construction crew had barely finished laying the bricks around the base of the sculpture when controversy erupted. To our surprise the sculpture was greeted with hostility and outrage from many students, especially African American students. Titled The Student Body, the sculpture originally featured seven bronze figures, including two African American students, one twirling a basketball on his finger and the other balancing books on her head like a basket of fruit; a white couple walking arm in arm; and a young man reading a book while his girlfriend rests her head on his shoulder. In retrospect the offense seems obvious. The sculpture reinforced blatant gender and racial stereotypes, but the artist offered a reasonable defense—the basketball player was meant as a tribute to the school's most famous alumnus, Michael Jordan; the balanced books were intended to suggest the challenges today's students face as they balance the demands of school, athletics, volunteering, and work; the couple walking arm in arm were reading and learning together, even though the position of the figures suggested a studious male student and a wistful and dreamy female companion.
The controversy lasted more than two months and eventually led to the relocation of the artwork to a less visible spot on campus. Every day dozens of students crowded around the sculpture—shouting, chanting, debating, and even vandalizing the piece (taking a hacksaw to the finger of the basketball player and removing the ball). At that time Chapel Hill was not otherwise a seedbed of activism. In fact, this was the first sustained protest I had witnessed since arriving on campus six years earlier. Why did this particular artwork raise such ire? There were other potentially racist symbols that had long been part of the campus topography, like a nearby one-hundred-yearold statue of a confederate soldier—Silent Sam. Sam stood tall with musket at his side without incident. So why this artwork—The Student Body—at this time?
Not yet trained in sociology, the episode, nonetheless, invoked embryonic sociological instincts. I concluded that the controversy was not simply the result of an insensitive New York artist who misread the culture of a large southern university, failing to see how her work might offend minorities and women. Nor was it the result of some political group on campus opportunistically seeking publicity and support for their cause. Instead the conflict seemed to grow naturally out of existing racial tensions on campus. Prior to the sculpture controversy the campus had been embroiled in a debate over whether it should build a freestanding black cultural center, the choice of black students, or a multicultural center, which was favored by white administrators, many of whom were civil rights liberals who believed strongly in integration and rejected policies that promoted racial exclusivity. The controversy over the sculpture was a lightning rod for these deeper struggles over race relations and notions of equality.
I began to notice other controversies over art and culture that were gaining prominence in the press, such as the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. The endowment was under fire for supporting several exhibitions that included works that many found offensive. One included the infamous photo by artist Andres Serrano, "Piss Christ," featuring a crucifix submerged in urine; the other was an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, including such homoerotic images as a man urinating in another man's mouth and a self-portrait of the artist with a bullwhip inserted in his anus. Politicians and national religious leaders were at the forefront of these attacks. Pat Robertson repeatedly admonished the NEA on his Christian Broadcasting Network; Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association began a highly visible letter-writing campaign; U.S. senators Jesse Helms and Alphonse D'Amato gave rhetorically charged speeches and pushed for the elimination of the endowment. Conservative groups like the Eagle Forum announced their opposition to the reauthorization of the NEA. Arts leaders, including the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, who was indicted on obscenity charges for displaying the Mapplethorpe exhibit, reacted by claiming the right to free expression, promoting the benefit of "art for art's sake," and pointing out the humiliation America would suffer internationally if it allowed religion to run roughshod over great art (Bolton 1992).
Years after the NEA controversies there was a national uproar over an exhibition of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum. On September 17, 1999, staff at the museum were busy preparing for the public opening of Sensation—an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by young British artists that featured, among other works, mutilated animals suspended in formaldehyde, a bust of a man made from his own frozen blood, and a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with clumps of elephant dung. That afternoon the director of the museum received a phone call from New York's cultural affairs commissioner saying that if the show was not stopped, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani planned to cut city funding to the museum. At a press conference the following day, the mayor reaffirmed his opposition, saying that he was offended by the art and that the museum had no "right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion" (Barry and Vogel 1999, A5). In addition to withdrawing funding, the mayor threatened to seize control of the museum and terminate its lease, which was held by the city. When the museum refused to cancel the show, the mayor immediately cut off funding and began eviction proceedings. The cultural community, somewhat belatedly, rallied behind the museum. The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote an opinion editorial in the New York Times, and leaders of twenty-two major cultural institutions in New York signed a letter stating their opposition to the mayor's actions (Stewart 1999, 3).
With the help of prominent free expression lawyers and civil liberties groups, the museum sued the city for violating its First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, with the court case pending, some religious leaders went on the offensive, attacking the museum for denigrating the Christian faith, referring in particular to the painting by Chris Ofili of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. Cardinal John O'Connor denounced the painting and said he was "saddened by what appears to be an attack not only on our Blessed Mother" but also on "religion itself and on the Catholic Church" (Niebuhr 1999, A38). William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, also publicly denounced the exhibition and organized his members to carry picket signs and hand out "vomit bags" outside the museum (Hu 1999, B5). Finally, in a move to rally his political troops, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan visited the show and issued a public statement saying it was "dispirited, degrading, disgusting, sacrilegious, and blasphemous" (Roane 1999, B5). Ultimately, after more than one hundred articles in the New York Times and hundreds of pages of legal briefs, the mayor and the city lost the court challenge and public funds were restored to the museum six months after the controversy erupted.
In another highly visible national case, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize–winning play Angels in America arrived in Clearwater, Florida, at Ruth Eckerd Hall in the wake of heated debate. The play chronicles the breakup of a heterosexual couple and a gay male couple. When reading through a brochure describing the coming performance, city commissioner Bill Justice learned that the show contained nudity, profanity, and sexual situations. Justice compared the play, which he had not seen, to entertainment available at local strip clubs and called upon the city to uphold family values. He declared, "My feeling is that you can tell a good story with your clothes on. If we say that we have family values, we should not be showing things that you can't take your family to" (Waldrip 1995a, A1). Having failed to get the city attorney to stop the show on the grounds that it violated a local anti-nudity ordinance, Justice demanded that the city withdraw its $400,000 subsidy to the presenting hall. Preachers, residents, and activist groups, such as Citizens Opposing Pornography and the local branch of the Christian Coalition, showed up at a city commission meeting to speak out against the play, calling it "filth" and "anti-family." The director of Eckerd Hall defended the play, saying that it was an important artistic work that dealt with a wide range of issues such as AIDS, religion, politics, and sexuality. Ultimately, the commission did not cut funding, although it did pass a sternly worded resolution warning that future subsidy would depend on whether or not the performance hall was "sensitive to and aware of community standards" (Waldrip 1995b, A1). In spite of this initial outcry, the show was performed without further incident.
During the 1990s, contemporary fine art and avant-garde theater were not the only targets of opposition and outcry. Rev. Wildmon, who had vociferously attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for funding Mapplethorpe and Serrano, turned his guns on the national media, including network television and Hollywood. In 1995 Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA), a religious right organization based in Tupelo, Mississippi, launched a national campaign against the NC-17-rated film Showgirls. The film chronicles the story of an ambitious young woman who dances her way from sleazy nightclubs to an elite Las Vegas hotel. Wildmon, president of AFA, urged members of his organization across the United States to boycott the film, which he claimed was pornographic. He proclaimed, "Widespread distribution of a film like Showgirls is going to change all of society" (People for the American Way and Artsave 1996). Local activists took up the cause in dozens of American cities. In Topeka, Kansas, the manager of a Christian radio station threatened to announce on air the name and home address of the local theater manager and encouraged listeners to write and call until the film was canceled. After a demonstration, protest, and hundreds of local calls, the theater company pulled the film from both its cinemas in Topeka and other theaters throughout Kansas. Christian activists also picketed the film in Riverside, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Overall the protest over Showgirls was highly successful, leading dozens of theaters throughout the country either to refuse to show the film or to cancel it in the face of local protest.
Soon after, Christian groups took aim against the Walt Disney Company. Concern first arose less from the content of Disney programming and more over the policies of Disney. The South Florida chapter of the American Family Association announced a boycott of Disney products in response to what they called Disney's anti-family culture, including the hosting of Gay and Lesbian Day at the theme park in Orlando and Disney's decision to extend health benefits to the partners of gay employees. Yet even beloved animated family films came under fire for alleged anti-family messages. The Virginia-based American Life League mailed almost one million postcards to supporters urging a boycott because of subliminal messages found in Aladdin. The league claimed that just before the princess is whisked away on the flying carpet, the hero murmurs, "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." Disney claims the barely audible passage is actually, "Scat, good tiger, take off and go." The league also pointed to other subliminal messages—the word sex written in a dust cloud in The Lion King, and an erection that protrudes from the gown of a minister during a wedding ceremony in The Little Mermaid. The last is described in a lawsuit against Disney filed by an Arkansas woman in the Washington County Circuit Court. The suit claimed that "during a scene in the movie [The Little Mermaid] where two of the characters are to be married by a clergyman dressed as a priest, the movement of the priest's garments in the area of his crotch suggests that the priest is getting an erection as the bride and groom approach the alter [sic]. The depiction of this event is visible at regular speed on the home video, but is even more noticeable when viewed in slow motion or frame-by-frame." The lawsuit was eventually dropped (Bannon 1995, A1; Svetkey 1995, 42).
Excerpted from Not Here, Not Now, Not That! by STEVEN J. TEPPER Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction: The Social Nature of Offense and Public Protest over Art and Culture
1. A Bird’s-Eye View of Cultural Conflict in America
2. Social Change and Cultural Conflict: Uncertainty, Control, and Symbolic Politics
3. Some Like It Hot: Why Some Cities are More Contentious than Others
4. Fast Times in Atlanta: Change, Identity, and Protest
5. From Words to Action: The Political and Institutional Context for Protest
Introduction to Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight: Profiles of Contention
6. Cities of Cultural Regulation: Cincinnati, Dayton, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City
7. Cities of Contention: Dallas, Fort Worth, Charlotte, and Denver
8. Cities of Recognition: San Francisco, Albuquerque, San Jose, and Cleveland
9. On Air, Our Air: Fighting for Decency on the Airwaves
Conclusion: Art and Cultural Expression in America: Symbols of Community, Sources of Conflict, and Sites of Democracy
Epilogue: Reflections on Cultural Policy, Democracy, and Protest