The Mapplethorpe Censorship Controversy

About Margaret Quigley

Chronology of Events: The 1989-1991 battles

The National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson said upon signing the enabling legislation for the NEA, “We fully recognize that no government can call artistic excellence into existence…Nor should any government seek to restrict the freedom of the artist to pursue his own goals in his own way.” When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980, he attempted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, but, lacking sufficient support in Congress, was unable to abolish or defund the agency, which had been established in 1965. The current uproar over National Endowment for the Arts funding of controversial artists began in 1989, when the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the conservative American Family Association of Tupelo, Missouri, held a press conference to denounce NEA funding of “anti-Christian bigotry,” referring to the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s work, which included a photograph, Piss Christ, of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. The controversy later expanded to include the work of other artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Sprinkle, and others. Shortly after the American Family Association’s press conference, Senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) denounced Serrano’s work; thirty-six senators signed a “letter to the NEA expressing outrage.” Rep. Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas and long-time opponent of federal arts support, “sends a letter signed by 107 representatives to the NEA and calls attention to a retrospective entitled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, scheduled to open at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in July.” He labels the works of both artists as “morally reprehensible trash.”

Most of the early opposition focused on the felt anti-Christian bigotry expressed in Serrano’s work. Sen. William Armstrong (R-Colo.) sent a letter to the members of the NEA’s National Council that began, “It has recently come to my attention that the National Endowment for the Arts supports, in the name of art, work by Mr. Andres Serrano that denigrates Christ. I’m appalled!” The conservative Arizona Republic called for the abolition of government funding for the arts and argued that “Only Christian and anti-Catholic bigotry could be bankrolled with such impunity.” The Arizona Republic argued that the NEA would have refused to fund Serrano if he had placed an image of Martin Luther King in a jar of urine.

Other conservative and radical right activists also became active in the opposition to the controversial NEA funding. “Pat Robertson devoted an entire telecast to an attack on Serrano’s work, which he labels ‘blasphemy paid for by the government.'” Patrick Buchanan, writing in the Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times, called for “a cultural revolution in the 90’s as sweeping as its political revolution in the 80’s” to counter the “openly anti-Christian, anti-American, nihilistic” art and culture now in evidence. Other critics also framed the debate as the conflict between core values. Samuel Lipman, publisher of the New Criterion, called for the NEA to champion “the great art of the past, its regeneration in the present and its transmission to the future. This would mean saying yes to civilization.”

Hugh Southern, acting chairman of the NEA, responded that the NEA “is expressly forbidden in its authorizing legislation from interfering with the artistic choices made by its grantees…The National Endowment for the Arts supports the right of grantee organizations to select, on artistic criteria, their artist-recipients and present their work, even though sometimes the work may be deemed controversial and offensive to some individuals.” At the beginning of July, President Bush nominated John E. Frohnmayer to head the National Endowment for the Arts, a nomination that was popular with arts advocates; Frohnmayer was confirmed in the post on September 29, 1989.

At the same time, a student artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Dread Scott Tyler, became the subject of controversy for his work, “What is the Proper Way to Display An American Flag?”, that displayed an American flag on the floor in a way that encouraged viewers to stand on it. The U.S. Senate voted 97-0 on March 17 to make it a federal crime to display an American flag on the floor or ground. Veterans marched on the museum; the school was rocked by bomb threats; and the Governor of Illinois, while expressing his disagreement, nevertheless signed a bill in July, 1989 that eliminated state grants to both the School and the Illinois Arts Alliance, a state advocacy group which had defended exhibit.

On June 12, 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art announced that it was canceling the Mapplethorpe exhibit because it did not want to “adversely affect the NEA’s congressional appropriations. The Washington Project for the Arts later hosted the Mapplethorpe show. This action was highly criticized and in September, 1989, the Director of the Gallery, Christina Orr-Cahall, issued a formal statement of apology, “The Corcoran Gallery of Art in attempting to defuse the NEA funding controversy by removing itself from the political spotlight, has instead found itself in the center of controversy. By withdrawing from the Mapplethorpe exhibition, we, the board of trustees and the director, have inadvertently offended many members of the arts community which we deeply regret. Our course in the future will be to support art, artists and freedom of expression.” Artists and gay and lesbian rights activists picketed the Corcoran, while ” slides of Mapplethorpe photographs are projected on the museum’s facade.” At the end of June, the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Yates, issues a bill recommending a $171.4 million 1990 appropriation, $2.4 more than the current year. The bill also includes an amendment that requires subgrantors to receive final approval from the NEA before awarding grants to subgranteees.

Throughout July, 1989, the NEA appropriations bill is debated by Congress. Proposals to abolish the NEA or cut its funding dramatically abound. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a freshman Republican from California, rose to urge Congress to eliminate the agency’s entire budget, “Mr. Chairman, my amendment would save the taxpayers $171 million in one year by striking funds for the National Endowment for the Arts,” he said. The House votes first, to approve the funding recommended by the subcommittee, less a cut of $45,000, which represents the amount of the grants to Serrano and Mapplethorpe. The Senate votes to accept the House’s NEA funding level, but also wants to adopt a number of punitive measures, including an outside study of how the NEA awards grants and a five year ban of grants to the organizations which made the Mapplethorpe and Serrano grants. Sen. Helms introduces a floor amendment that bans grants from being used to “promote, disseminate or produce obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion.” Also banned was art which “denigrates or debases or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age, or national origin.” The Senate passed the Helms amendment on a voice vote with only five Senators present. The bill was referred to a conference committee to reconcile differences between the two versions. The conference committees report asserts that although the National Endowment fort the Arts has had an excellent record over the years, works have been funded which are “without artistic value” and are “pornographic and shocking by any standards.” Nevertheless, the committee concluded, censorship “inhibits and stultifies the full expression of art” and therefore: “free inquiry and expression” are “reaffirmed.” The report further admonished the NEA to “find a better method to seek out those works that have artistic excellence and to exclude those works which are without any redeeming literary, scholarly, cultural or artistic value.”

In early October, 1989, Congress reached a compromise on the NEA’s 1990 Appropriations Bill which rejects the controversial Helms amendment but still contains restrictions affecting NEA grantmaking procedures.

The bill, approved by both the House and Senate, prohibits funding for projects that “promote, disseminate or produce materials which in the judgment of the National Endowment for the Arts or the National endowment for the Humanities may be considered obscene, including but not limited to, depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the sexual exploitation of children, of individuals engaged in sex acts and which, taken as a whole, do not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The final bill dropped the threatened five-year ban on grants to Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, and the proposed $400,000 cut from the Endowment’s Visual Arts Program. It authorized $250,000 to set up a 12-member commission to review NEA grantmaking policies and determine whether there should be a standard of difference between art that is federally funded and art that is not. The commission members will be appointed equally by Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley (D-WA), Senate president pro tempore Robert C. Byrd (D-W.V.), and President Bush. The final bill passed by a vote of 382 to 41 in the House on Oct. 4, and by 62-35 on Oct. 7, 1989 in the Senate. During the Senate debate over the bill, Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) called for a moderation of anti-NEA rhetoric, while Steve Symms (R-Idaho) proposed the abolition of the NEA. Jesse Helms stated, “The American people … are disgusted with the idea of giving the taxpayers’ money to artists who promote homosexuality insidiously and deliberately, who desecrate crucifixes by immersing them in urine, and others who will engage in whatever perversion it takes to win acclaim as an artist on the ‘offending edge’ and therefore entitled to taxpayer funding.”

President Bush’s 1991 budget request, submitted to Congress in late January, included $175 million for the NEA, a two percent increase over the 1990 appropriation of $171.3 million. While the proposed 1991 budget fails to keep pace with inflation, it nevertheless marks the first time in ten years that the Administration request has reflected a dollar increase. Reauthorization of the NEA, National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute of Museum Services occurs every five years under the jurisdiction of the House Education and Labor’s Postsecondary Education subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) and the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, chaired by Sen. Clairborne Pell (R-R.I.). It was originally thought that Congress might postpone the reauthorization process until 1991 and instead enact a one-year extension of the Endowments to absorb the recommendations of the Independent Commission established in the 1990 Interior Appropriations bill, thus avoiding the potential controversy in an election year. … Reauthorization hearings have already been held in Billings, Mont., Charleston, SC and Washington, D.C. Additional hearings have been scheduled for Malibu, California and Washington, D.C.

Helms continued to examine the grantees of the NEA and has questioned the agency about numerous grants–including the Theater Program’s support for New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the theater that first made headlines with a gender-crossing production of Camille, written, directed and starring the company’s founder, the late Charles Ludlam, an artist who like Robert Mapplethorpe fell victim to AIDS.

One Helms query focused on Artists Space, the New York Gallery that sponsored “Witness: Against Our Vanishing,” the controversial AIDS show that prompted newly appointed NEA chairman John Frohnmayer to withdraw, then reinstate a $10,000 grant last fall. The other targeted organizations included Project Artaud and Research Publications of San Francisco, Center on Contemporary Art and Allied Arts, both of Seattle, the List Visual Arts Center of MIT, Art Matters, Inc. of New York, and the Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

The prevailing law on obscenity is expressed in the 1973 Miller vs. California Supreme Court case. That ruling prescribes three tests for the definition of obscenity: and appeal to prurient interest, patently offensive portrayals of specific sexual conduct, and the lack of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Rhetoric on both the right and the left is extreme. The left makes continual comparisons to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Robert Brustein, critic and director of the American Repertory Theater, called for political action against the would-be censors, saying in American Theatre magazine, “Otherwise, I do not think it apocalyptic to say that all that will be left of American culture will be some conventionalized classics and the North Carolina landscape on the wall of Jesse Helms.” The left wing had imposed its own pressure on the NEA, beginning in the early years of the Carter presidency, said Brustein. “Gradually, the real enemy begins to take shape–not a few “dirty” pictures, but the whole corpus of modern avant-garde art,” Brustein claims.

Out of 85,000 grants during its 25 year history, fewer than two dozen (20) have even been questioned.

Many on the left have obscured the issues involved in the NEA funding controversy. Like Robert Brustein who said, “The distinction between censorship and dictating the distribution of taxpayers’ dollars on moral grounds is one that eludes me.”

Brustein–“It was never the function of the Endowment to subsidize popular taste, because the cultural demands of the democratic majority were thought to be adequately represented by the market–by Broadway shows, best-selling books, platinum records, Hollywood movies, by mass art and popular culture. No, the Endowment was designed as a counter-market strategy, in the hope that by subsidizing cultural offerings at affordable prices the works of serious art could become available to those normally excluded by income or education.”

In April, 1990, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (who led the opposition on the House Floor during last summer’s Serrano/Mapplethorpe debate) circulated another letter criticizing the NEA, which started, “The National Endowment for the Arts is at it again!” Rohrabacher’s letter was prompted by a show performed by Annie Sprinkle entitled Post Porn Modernist at New York’s avant garde presenting space, The Kitchen. In her live performance piece, Sprinkle, who is the star of some 150 pornographic videos, created the character of an X-rated sexpert and parodied everything from masturbation to a gynecological exam, not funded by NEA. Kitchen gets $60,000 in NEA funds and also receives support from the New York State Council on the Arts, which receives $500,000/year in NEA funding. Sprinkle controversy broken in conservative [founded by Rev. Moon followers] New York City Tribune which carried a report about it, then launched a four-part series on ‘obscene art’ that targeted performers Karen Finley, Johanna Went, Frank Moore and Cheri Gaulke. The Washington Times smugly predicted that the new controversy could “imperil the NEA’s status as it comes before Congress this year for reauthorization.” Wildmon’s AFA purchased a full-page ad in the Washington Times, which claimed that “The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal agency which provides taxpayer funded grants, many of which support pornographic, anti-Christian “works of art.” Listed beneath these inaccurate statements was a sampling of art projects purportedly funded by the Endowment, beginning with Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the recent Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibit and focusing on nearly a dozen NEA grants. The majority of the graphically described examples centered on art that embraces gay, religious, or political content. The ad culminated in a list of 262 congressmen who voted in favor of the motion offered last summer by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) that obviated a vote on Rohrabaher’s motion to adopt the Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) amendment.

Also in April, a coalition of booksellers, including Waldenbooks, publishers, magazine distributors, and writers launched an anti-censorship campaign, placing full page ads in newspapers in some 30 cities. Waldenbooks is also still in the midst of a legal battle with AFA, which has publicly condemned the chain for selling Playboy and Penthouse. Last October, Waldenbooks filed suit against the AFA, charging it with racketeering, that is, harassing store employees and patrons, and trying to prevent them from conducting business. The AFA defended its actions. Also in April the Supreme Court made a major incursion into the right of the individual to view obscene materials in private, ruling 6-3 that states can outlaw the possession of pornographic photos of children. The Court differentiated child porn from other types, which may still be viewed in the privacy of one’s home in accordance with a 1969 ruling.

In May, the recording industry announced a ‘lyric warning label’ which alerts consumers to sexually explicit, violent, or drug-related lyrics. This will be used by 92 major recording companies in an attempt to standardize the system of voluntary labeling that has been in place since 1985. Currently, mandatory labeling bills are under consideration in at least 11 states, according to the Washington Post.

On April 26, the Emergency Committee for the Arts, composed of 30 prominent citizens, took out full page ads in the Washington Post and the New York Times urging Congress to support the arts. The House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sidney R. Yates, held a hearing on 1991 funding for the NEA at which Frohnmayer submits the Administration’s request for $175 million. Yates is opposed to restrictive language, but Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, tells Frohnmayer he wants to “continue this language, perhaps make it even a little bit stronger.”

On April 27, the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, chaired by Sen. Pell, held a hearing on reauthorization of the NEA. Washington attorneys Bruce Fein and Robert Showers are added to the original list of witnesses at the request of Helms, and testify alongside representatives of state and municipal arts agencies. Schlafly, another witness, states, “Having proved its irresponsibility in spending the taxpayers’ money, the National Endowment for the Arts should be completely defunded.”

On May 9, 1990, Rep. Pat Williams confirms that House Republicans are entertaining several legislative options for radical restructuring of the NEA. One option would divide the agency into two parts–a federally funded agency restricted to education and subsidizing admission fees and a privately funded organization to support the creation of new art. Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) introduces his Privatization of Art Act, a bill to abolish the Endowment, while Rep. Rohrabacher leads a separate initiative that would leave the agency’s authorizing legislation on the books but would eliminate its funding in the federal budget. The various proposals reflect the growing fragmentation within the Republican Party.

On May 10, The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies chair Mary Hays (also NY State Council of the Arts Executive Director) issues a memo to NASAA’s membership detailing a proposal to restructure the NEA, which would have 60 percent of NEA’s budget channeled through state and local arts agencies, 20 % for Challenge and Advancement grants, leaving only 20 % for program disciplines, research and development, individual artists and international arts activities.

On May 11, on the eve of a scheduled quarterly meeting of the National Council on the Arts, the presidential-appointed advisory board of the NEA, syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak publish a column in the Washington Post, claiming that several grants to be presented for approval at the meeting are of questionable artistic merit. The article singles out the provocative solo performance artist Karen Finley and suggests that Frohnmayer should veto her grant.

On May 11-13, the National Council on the Arts meets in Winston-Salem, NC and votes in a closed session to deny two of three $40,000 grants to the University of Pennsylvania’s ICA. In a separate action, the Council deferred 18 fellowship grants under the Theater Program’s Solo Performers category until its scheduled August meeting by a vote of 8 to 4, with 3 abstentions. Four of the 18 grants, including one to Finley, are considered controversial by the Council, which has requested more information about the artists and their works.

On May 14, the reaction to NASAA’s proposal from the arts community is overwhelmingly negative. An editorial in the New York Times says that NASAA smelled ‘blood in the water’ and that its proposal “would truly plunge national arts policy, and funds, into just the political pressures that Congress has worked so carefully to avoid.”

On May 15, a host of nationally known artist and business leaders testify before the HAIS. Williams introduces an Administration-backed bill that contains Bush’s proposed 5 year reauthorization of the National Found on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. The bill contains no content restrictions. A rally sponsored by the NY theatre community draws 2,000 NEA supporters.

On May 16, Rep. E. Thomas Coleman (R-Mo.) and Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wisc.) announce a bill to restructure the NEA, that would channel 60% to state arts agencies and the remaining 40% would support “art of national and international significance,” with minimum $50,000 grant that would effective disenfranchise smaller organizationss and individual artists. Rep. Williams responds that he will block any Republican effort to restructure the NEA. Two hours after the Coleman-Gunderson press conference, the White House announces that it has completed security clearance procedures for the 12 members of the long-delayed independent commission charged by Congress last year to review NEA’s granting procedures.

On May 17, Rep. Williams calls for an arts summit meeting to convene the following week, claiming that the escalated political controversy over the NEA makes it impossible for him to continue his strategy of pushing through the Administration-backed bill for reauthorization. The summit will include the American Arts Alliance, American Council for the Arts, National Assemblies of State and Local Arts Agencies, American Associations of Museums and other organizations as well as two individual artists and two members of the public. Wildmon threatens to send copies of works by Mapplethorpe to voters in Williams’s district.

On May 21, visual artist David Wojnarowicz, whose photographs from an exhibit titled ‘Tongues of Flame’ were distributed in an incendiary anti-NEA pamphlet to members of Congress, religious leaders and members of the news media by the AFA files suit in federal district court in Manhattan against the AFA. Wojnarowicz, who also wrote the controversial catalogue for last year’s Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing exhibit at New York’s Artists Space, is pressing five charges, alleging that the AFA cropped his photographs, took them out of context and otherwise distorted them, thereby violating several provisions of copyright law, libel law, state and federal law.

On May 22, Rep. Williams withdraws his five-year reauthorization bill and cancels a scheduled a subcommittee vote on the legislation because the arts community itself is divided. Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Arts Caucus, indicated his desire to put off NEA authorization for one year to remove the NEA from the heat of an election year and give the independent commission time to fulfill its original charge.

On May 23, Arts Day U.S.A. is announced for June 7, 1990. The New School for Social Research, which had refused a $45,000 grant for the redesign of a sculpture courtyard on its New York City campus, files suit against Frohnmayer in federal district court in New York, asking for an injunction against the NEA requirement that grant recipients sign an anti-obscenity pledge and a ruling that the ban violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.

On May 25, after four days of deliberation, the arts summit group submits a unanimous statement in support of a five year reauth with no content restrictions and only minor procedural changes for the agency. Although Williams says, “I believe that Congress will embrace these suggestions,” the proposal is rejected by more moderate legislators. Rep. Coleman claims that the plan “continues to represent an extreme which is not going to get a majority in the House. Williams announce hearings for June 6 to examine the existing proposals. Congress goes on recess until June 4, 1990.

At the May meeting of the NEA’s National Council on the Arts the Council rejected two of three grants recommended by NEA panels for Philadelphia’s ICA (originator of the Mapplethorpe show) and deferred 18 grants to solo performers recommended by the Theater Panel.

National Endowment for the Arts chairman John Frohnmayer has revealed that despite continuing pressure from the Republican right wing, President George Bush will not seek content restrictions of federal arts grants. The Administration’s bill calling for a five year reauthorization of the agency was unveiled at a March 21 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, which oversees the NEA reauthorization process. Sen. Jesse Helms announced that he is demanding a General Accounting Office audit of the agency, because he is “deeply concerned about the NEA’s apparent indifference to enforcing the congressional ban.”

Frohnmayer assaulted inaccurate charges against the Endowment, specifically from the AFA and Robertson’s 700 Club, which he cited as the primary sources of contention. According to the NEA, a list of at least 15 falsehoods, misstatements and factual errors was compiled from allegations included in a recent AFA ad run in the Washington Times. Frohnmayer charged that the AFA is seeking to “raise funds at the expense of the NEA” by using allegations that are “simply not true.” Indeed, Wildmon unleashed another congressional blitz on March 9 (“It is a disgrace that our tax dollars are being used to support the National Endowment for the Arts in their pornographic, anti-Christian ‘art works,'” he wrote.), urging AFA members to do the same and providing them with postcards urging congressmen to “vote to cut out all funding of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Rep. Pat Williams says that we spend $0.64 per person on the NEA, “compared to $34 person in Canada, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and an ununified Germany.”

March 20, 1990 was Arts Advocay Day. While hundreds of arts activists demonstrated and lobbied Congress, Rep. Rohrabacher and Rep. Mel Hancock (R-Mo.) held a press conference with a coalition of lobbying groups called Taxpayers for Accountability, which called for the elimination of the NEA entirely, calling it an abuse of taxpayer dollars. The message delivered by the coalition, which includes such conservative organizations as Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America and the Traditional Values coalition echoed the group’s statements at a similar press conference held outside a congressional hearing on reauthorization on March 5 in Malibu, California.


  • American Arts Alliance
  • Creative Coalition, formed in Jan. 1990 by actor Ron Silver. Includes actress Susan Sarandon.
  • Coalition of Writers’ Organizations, spokesman novelist Larry McMurty, president of the prestigious PEN American Center.
  • American Association of Museums
  • American Council for the Arts
  • National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies
  • National Assembly of State Arts Agencies
  • Arts Coalition for Freedom of Expression

Other Player:
Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.)–chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, which sets the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, and a longtime champion of federal funding for the arts, the 20 term congressman us widely considered the most powerful arts advocate in Washington.

The late Margaret Quigley was, until her untimely death in 1993, an analyst at Political Research Associates.