A Review of the Culture Wars

by James F. Cooper

A quarter-century has passed since the raging inferno of the American culture wars peaked, during the 1980s—although its embers still glow white hot in the dystopian darkness of today’s arts, civic projects, public education and academia, museums, media and popular culture. A well-chronicled defense of the negative fallout of that period is the subject of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars1, a recent book by Andrew Hartman, associate professor of History at Illinois State University. Unfortunately, the book proves to be misleading in a profound way. It ignores or fails to address the central issue. Hartman chronicles the dark side of the culture war, which shocked America and resulted in the largest mass-mailing in congressional history. It was an era marked by no-nothing rants from much of the political left and right. Congressional sub-committee hearings, firings of directors, curators, defunding of federal and state agencies, foundations, museums, universities and a hostile reaction from the print and electronic media—all of this reached its apogee when President George H.W. Bush fired John Frohnmayer, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

2 Phidias, Parthenon (447–32), Athens, GreeceBut the author’s examination is limited to a vast history of questionable grants and exhibitions for works—including Piss Christ (1987), Annie Sprinkles’ performance-art “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic “The Perfect Moment” and David Wojnarowicz’s Tongues of Flame (1990)—rather than the dereliction of quality and gravitas in fine art, public works, popular culture and humanities under examination. As I later testified—for media outlets PBS, CNN, WOR and WABC, congressmen, universities, conferences and police and trial inquiries (related to pornography in government funding)—the real problem is not what was commissioned and funded (however indecent, ugly, anti-American or pornographic) by government, civic agencies, academia, media and cultural institutions. Rather, the real issue is what was not funded (spiritual, traditional, classical, realist art), because of the pervasive policy of censorship, cronyism and nepotism employed by many of these institutions—which embraced the new relativist, politicized, postmodernist “values” (sic).

Hartman quotes Allan Bloom’s introduction in The Closing of the American Mind: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”2 The students Bloom referred to in 1987 are now professors and leaders of American society. Hartman opines that the culture wars are “ancient history”: “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.”3 This is nonsense. The so-called culture wars were only the first skirmish in an ongoing, evolving paradigm shift in American culture. Hartman characterizes the “jeremiads” of scholars such as Allen Bloom, Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) and Gertrude Himmelfarb (One Nation, Two Cultures) as the rants of “right-wing conservatives…who fail to recognize that the world they cherished was evaporating.”4 More important, although focusing on arts and culture, Hartman ignores the creative artists and writers of that time, such as sculptor Frederick Hart (Three Soldiers, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Mall and the Creation Sculptures, Washington National Cathedral), professor Frederick Turner (Beauty: The Value of Values) and poet Dana Gioia (“The Value of Beauty” and “Can Poetry Matter?”). Nor does Hartman mention art critic Hilton Kramer (The New York Times and co-founder of The New Criterion), although Hartman does cite John Frohnmayer’s book Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior, in which Frohnmayer admits he was instructed to avoid at all costs any contact with Kramer.

Frohnmayer was not an artist, scholar, poet or professor. He is a lawyer. Thus, to base his defense of questionable government grants to Mapplethorpe, Sprinkles, Andreas Serrano, etc., he followed the lead of constitutional scholar and lawyer Floyd Abrams to the grounds of the First Amendment, freedom-of-expression rights. When I was invited by CNN in 1989 to debate Frohnmayer on the issue of government funding to the arts, I was confronted instead by rough-and-tough Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (and former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson), who confessed he knew “nothing about the arts” but knew a “tin-pot Savonarola” when he saw one—me). Valenti also employed the Floyd Abrams freedom-of-speech argument, as did several op-ed pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post. As I wrote earlier, freedom of expression is no substitute for artistic excellence. The idea of excellence is not addressed in The History of the Culture Wars, although the original criterion for the NEA charter (1964) was “to seek excellence in the arts.”

Like Frohnmayer, Hartman is not an artist, filmmaker, museum curator or an art professor. He does not see or think like an artist. Seven years of considerable research has led him to the conclusion that the culture wars were, and still are, essentially, a political argument waged between the ideological right and left for the “soul” of America. It does not occur to the professor that both sides might have been wrong on this issue. Nevertheless, he has shaped his account to lend support to the “progressive” post-modern, “elitists” (from the New York Times, media and academia) who vigorously defended the questionable funding of Piss Christ and sadomasochistic pornography. When we factor in that President Bush initially excluded arts education from his Commission on National Standards for Education K-12—which includes mathematics, science, history and English—we can appreciate why arts education, especially the visual arts, does not get the respect it deserves. And why art and music education are the first to be cut from school budgets. Under considerable pressure exerted by the vast community of artists, scholars, architects, musicians, writers, arts educators, filmmakers, etc., Bush finally agreed to create an additional committee for arts education (which led to my appointment to the visuals arts committee), composed of congressmen, university chairmen, professors, artists, professionals from all disciplines, and representatives from teachers and parents unions, as well as state, local and federal agencies.

Those who challenged the cultural establishment were labeled prudes and “right-wing declensions.” Hartman opines: “Bloom’s jeremiad….believed relativistic thought had spread through American culture like a cancer.”5 Ditto for conservatives, such as Gertrude Himmelfarb (“The beasts of postmodernism, relativism, nihilism, and insanity have mutated into polymorphous perversity”6) and George Will (“rock and roll music—a plague of Satanism, drugs, promiscuity, and misogyny”7), who warned that “a public incapable of shame and embarrassment about public vulgarity is unsuited to self-government.”8

Hartman appears too young to have personally experienced or examined the hundreds of controversial art exhibitions, books, sculpture, civic monuments, memorials and architecture, protest demonstrations, poetry, music, motion pictures, lectures, manifestos, text books and exhibition catalogues that constituted the so-called culture war. Hartman’s seven years of research for his book, however, have provided a much needed general resource, which I find invaluable. Missing, though, from this vast historical labyrinth—which includes several mentions of my own involvement—are important core issues, such as the canon, aesthetics, beauty, traditional standards, philosophy, mythology and religion: what William James called the timeless, universal values of Western civilization.

Hartman contends that art and literature (music, architecture, poetry, etc.) should be judged by criteria that does not “transcend specific historical contexts.” He rejects the notion that timeless works of art and literature should be “judged beyond the chain of time and place.” He does not address the counter-argument raised by Prof. James Elkins: “art history is largely disconnected from aesthetics.”9 Rather, Hartman agrees with Arthur Danto’s assertion that “aesthetic considerations have no essential application to…art produced from the late 1960s on.”10

According to Hartman’s premise, there are no universal truths. Everything is relative. Anything can be labeled “art.” Artwork, therefore, is art only “when framed as an artwork.”11 This explains the tsunami of political and moral opinions that flooded the culture wars. He rejects the contention that “the human condition is anchored in ineluctable essentials that transcend specific historical contexts”12 (i.e. Danto’s “historical” era of the 1960s on). Using this “time and place” equation places Phidias’ Parthenon (447–32) and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–12) on the same playing field as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) and Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (1994–2000).

That band of artists, poets, scholars and architects who initially fought to defend beauty and sacred gravitas in the 1960s has now swelled into the thousands—still ignored by the establishment. This cannot continue to be repressed or ignored by the major cultural institutions, universities, media and government agencies. I want to cite the enormous importance of the National Mall and Washington National Cathedral as major sites under attack by the mediocrity and disrespect from the prevailing hegemony that still dominates American culture. Excellence, I hope, will ultimately prevail. Indeed, American civilization is undergoing a cultural and spiritual change. We at American Arts Quarterly, published by the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center, hope we have moved things along.

 

NOTES 

1. Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

2. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25.

3. Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 285.

4. Ibid., 285.

5. Ibid., 231.

6. Ibid., 4.

7. Ibid., 176.

8. Ibid., 176.

9. James Elkins, Art History Versus Aesthetics (New York: Rutledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 8.

10. Ibid., 8.

11. Ibid., 8.

12. Hartman, 231.

 

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2016, Volume 33, Number 4