Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

bring me the head
of bruce nauman
america's culture wars 
by Jack Rosenberger

As everyone knows, the culture war in the 
U.S. is alive and well. In fact, it's 
getting so you can't even draw from the 
model any more without some bluenose making 
a fuss! Take the case of Isabel Zamora in 
Fort Worth, who sketched a reclining male 
nude in an anatomy and life-drawing class 
at Texas Wesleyan, a private Methodist 
college. She put it in an exhibition, 
assembled on the occasion of Hispanic 
History Month, at the University of North 
Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, 
Texas. But one week after the show opened, 
an anonymous university staff member 
complained that the drawing was obscene, 
sexually harassing and potentially 
offensive to women and children. The 
complainer demanded that the art be 
removed. Out it went. 
The censorship of Isabel Zamora is just one 
of 137 challenges to artistic freedom in 
1995 documented by People for the American 
Way (PFAW) in Artistic Freedom Under 
Attack, its latest, and fourth, report. The 
challenges occurred in 41 states and the 
District of Columbia last year, says PFAW, 
a constitutional liberties organization 
based in Washington, D.C. 
"The Religious Right and their political 
allies are the driving forces behind the 
systematic attacks on artistic expression," 
says PFAW chairperson Carole Shields, who 
notes that challenges to artistic freedom 
come from the left as well. Favorite right-
wing targets include artists whose work 
involves feminism, homosexuality, nudity 
and religious imagery. "Too often," the 
report notes, "art is a scapegoat for 
public apprehension about the moral 
condition of American society and the fear 
of a perceived erosion of moral values."
Most times, the censors prevail. PFAW found 
that in 73 percent of last year's 
challenges, targeted artwork was removed or 
restricted in some way. This success rate 
is consistent with the 1994 success rate of 
78 percent. 
The most high-profile fine-arts challenge 
was a carefully orchestrated onslaught by 
the religious right against a 30-year Bruce 
Nauman retrospective mounted by the Museum 
of Modern Art. Martin Mawyer's Christian 
Action Network in Forest, Va., and the 
Coral Ridge Ministries launched a 
nationwide letter-writing campaign 
attacking the National Endowment for the 
Arts (NEA) for funding the exhibition. The 
Christian Action Network accused the NEA of 
promoting pornography and the Coral Ridge 
Ministries accused it of funding obscene 
artwork. Both feverishly urged their 
members to write Congress and demand the 
elimination of the arts agency. Partly due 
to this letter-writing campaign, Congress 
slashed the NEA budget by one-third.
Other right-wing attacks are more humorous. 
Brooklyn artists Mora Ligorano and Marshall 
Reese ran afoul of the Republican National 
Committee (RNC) for their Contract With 
America Underwear, an edition of 120 pairs 
of cotton briefs featuring a silkscreened 
portrait of Newt Gingrich on the front and 
the text of the contract on the rear. After 
the artists mailed briefs to President 
Clinton and other politicians, they 
received a letter from the RNC ordering 
them to "discontinue" their unauthorized 
use of the contract logo and text. An ACLU 
attorney fired off a response, asserting 
that the Contract With America briefs are 
"a classic example of political satire." 
The RNC did not pursue the matter.  
Occasionally efforts to censor are 
accompanied by physical threats. In 
Kirkland, Wash., a local resident 
threatened to punch the local library 
director in the nose when he refused to 
remove a bronze by artist Ann Morris on 
view in an outdoor sculpture show on 
library grounds. Morris's sculpture, titled 
Her Cry, depicts a nude, pregnant woman 
whose head is a buffalo skull, holding a 
set of elk antlers. According to the 
artist, the work represents a goddess of 
natural cycles. According to opponents of 
the work, its combination of female and 
animal anatomy is obscene and demeaning to 
women. The exhibition caused a furor in the 
press but in the end was not removed.
The PFAW's latest roundup on assaults 
against artistic freedom marks the first 
time the group has included challenges to 
television, film, music and other forms of 
popular culture. Twenty-six percent of the 
total challenges were in the pop category. 
For instance, Donald Wildmon's American 
Family Association protested the airing of 
an episode on the TV program Friends that 
depicted the marriage of two women, and the 
American Life League, an anti-abortion 
lobby, said the word "sex" appeared in a 
dust cloud in Disney's The Lion King and 
demanded that the tape be removed from 
The Emmy Award-winning television drama 
Serving in Silence: The Margarethe 
Cammermeyer Story, which depicts 
Cammermeyer's discharge from the U.S. Army 
for being a lesbian, was censored by 
television station WAFF-TV in Huntsville, 
Alabama. The station deleted a scene in which 
two lesbians kiss, saying it was too
controversial. In Loomis, California, a 
scheduled performance of Neil Simon's comedy 
The Good Doctor was canceled after a parent 
claimed the play promotes adultery. And the 
American Family Association launched a 
national campaign against Showgirls, 
claiming the movie was pornographic and 
causing several theaters to cancel their 
bookings of the film (to the theater 
owners' probable good fortune, since movie-
goers seemed to find the movie silly and 
offensive on their own, despite its attempt 
to pander to pornographic appetites, and 
stayed away in droves.)
The future is likely to contain further 
challenges for artists. PFAW says local 
politicians are emulating national 
politicians and using the arts as a 
convenient target to gain popular appeal. 
Eleven of the censorship cases were 
instances in which the content of specific 
artworks was used to challenge public 
funding of the arts. "Too many political 
leaders have jumped onto the arts-bashing 
bandwagon," says PFAW chairperson Carole 
Shields. "It's frightening that so many 
people are willing to sell out the First 
Amendment for a little short-term political 
However, some censorship attempts backfire. 
Gigi Kaeser, Peggy Gillespie and Pam Brown 
created "Love Makes a Family: Living in 
Lesbian and Gay Families," a text-and-photo 
exhibition, as a sympathetic depiction of 
families with homosexual children and 
adults. After plans to install the show at 
a local Cambridge, Mass., elementary school 
aroused protests, the school district held 
a public hearing on the exhibition, found 
widespread support from parents and 
teachers, and reaffirmed its support for 
the show. "Love Makes a Family" was 
exhibited as planned and proved to be very 
A high school principal in Chehalis, Wash., 
canceled a production of Shakespeare's A 
Midsummer's Night's Dream on the grounds 
that it contained "adult themes" that might 
prompt controversy. 
A gallery owner in Acton, Mass., removed a 
collaged wood construction of an airplane, 
containing images of underwear and female 
limbs clipped from magazines, because it 
portrayed "foreplay." 
The North Carolina Arts Council denied 
funding to the Charlotte Gay and Lesbian 
Film Festival, saying that the name was too 
political and patently offensive because it 
included the words "gay" and "lesbian."
Wal-Mart and other stores removed copies of 
Guitar magazine from their newsstands 
because its cover portrayed two (male) 
members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers band 
Washington Times photographer Kenneth 
Lambert's award-winning photograph, 
Everything Old Is Nude Again, was too 
embarrassing for the White House News 
Photographers Association to present to 
President Clinton. The photo depicts a 
fully dressed young woman and a nude man 
during the 1994 Woodstock Music Festival.
San Antonio, Tex., artist Robert Tatum 
painted out his mural The Virgin of 
Guadeloupe after a Catholic archbishop 
called it anti-religious. Tatum's mural, 
admittedly highly stylized, was painted on 
the outside wall of a screen-printing 
business in an effort to discourage 
graffiti; it was removed after being 
called "insulting" and "horribly distorted." 
It should be noted that the PFAW report 
contains a special appendix devoted to 
defending public support for the arts, with 
sample materials and suggested techniques 
for responding to attacks on free 
expression. The report is available for 
$15.95 from PFAW, 2000 M St. N.W., Suite 
400, Washington, D.C. 20036; the appendix 
"action pack" can be obtained separately, 
for free. For more information, check out
the People for the American Way Web site at
Jack Rosenberger is a New York writer.