Thursday, March 23, 2017

In the age of the Neo-Cultural Wars

As a highschooler, too young to yet vote, but the right age to be very attentive to things political, I was in a rage about the PMRC and the attack on NEA funding by the Regan administration and congress.
Maplethorpe's Two Men Dancing, 1984
Andres Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987


As I remember it, politicians (not a panel of artists, critics, and art historians, or the public) felt they were qualified to sensor the kinds of projects that received federal money. Or, more accurately, some politicians felt they had been dealt a winning hand to play with their constituents that helped prove the point that the Regan revolution embodied: Government can't solve the problem, Government is the problem. 
     Though Maplethorpe was an established portrait artist and was interested in the exploration of beauty in all its forms, his homoerotic photographs (of which this is a tame example) was considered by various conservative religious lobbying groups, the people they represented, and the politicians they supported, to be pornographic and a celebration of deviant behavior. Similarly the sacrilegious tone of Andres Serrano's Immersion, a powerful image that was captured by dropping a crucifix in a container of urine, was an easy target for attack. 
Jello Biafra
     Two other things were happening simultaneously. 1) The Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) emerged. This lobbying group was concerned that violent, racist, and vile language in music was destroying the morals of American youth. It was fronted, notably, by Tipper Gore. The wife of (then) Democratic Senator Al Gore. Politically speaking, it was an effort for the left to grab some moral outrage and claim the government could be a solution to social degradation. The PMRC brought us the warning labels about explicit lyrics. At least if one is buying an actual object one can hold in the hands rather than streaming. 

2LiveCrew was definitely misogynistic and offensive to many. But as so much was in that era, wanting to put labels on music was a code for saying these violent, overly sexual black, urban, (likely gang affiliated) musicians are going to spread their tainted values into our precious white-flight, gated communities. It is this period of American politics when the term Dog-Whistle politics was made popular, a way of using coded doublespeak to be racist/not racist.
Twisted Sister
I skipped school to watch Jello Biafra on Donhue directly confront Tipper Gore. And the congress held ridiculous hearing in which Dee Snider, front man for evil Twisted Sister, was asked to testify as a representative of Rock and Roll. 

 2) At my high school, the art department had it's budget cut while the football stadium was being expanded. Clutching the tiny nub of an old Cray Pas I plotted my snarky zine, others printed an alternative newspaper. While skateboarding badly and listening to punk music on my Jam Box I ranted to friends who already agreed with me. They ranted back. And we felt smug in our mutually supportive counter cultural perspective. It accomplished nothing. But we were secretly superior. 
     Which brings us to now. The Neo-Cultural war in the age of Trump. To make my position clear, Trump is a cunt. 

What's a writer and artist to do? What can we do other than feel wronged, and be right about how wronged we have been? For me, I am trying to use my current book promotion as an opportunity to make a virtuous circle of support. Here is how that works: I want to support a local arts organization by donating some time, books, profits. . .with help from that organization, we find a Chicago independent bookstore willing to host an event. We sell tickets that include an original limited edition poster by a print maker who is donating his time and talents. We put together a panel discussion of community groups and artists. Perhaps we have a postcard and petitions ready to be signed by those who attend. In other words a local artist, local author, local arts organization, local bookstore come together to raise needed capital, support one another, promote one another, and turn the moment into a discussion and an action. 
     It's only one little thing. But it is a thing. And if the NEA goes unfunded, larger arts organizations and individual artists will either give-up or seek funding elsewhere. Those elsewhere's may be the places where smaller arts organizations currently depend on funding. There will be a tightening, and there will be lack of funding at the bottom. 

Help nationally. 
Help locally. 
That's the working theory. In a time when the press is "the enemy of the people," and the arts and schools are being unfunded, our individual voices and efforts matter much more. 

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