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Dangerous images? Art and censorship, a decade later.

In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts had an annual budget of $170 million; in 2004, the NEA budget stood at a less impressive $114 million. Federal funding for the arts via the NEA became both a major battlefield and one of the initial casualties of the so-called culture wars of the early 1990s. Even the disturbingly smaller budgets were the subject of considerable debate, compromise and focus-shifting on the part of members of Congress on all sides of the issue.

The right-wing attacks on the Endowment led by former Senator Jesse Helms were only one aspect of a broader agenda to use the power of images to further a program of suspicion and denigration toward otherness. Today, with former Senator Helms "out of the picture" and traditional art historian Bruce Cole as the immediate past director of the NEA, the Endowment has simply blended into the cultural background. However, attacks on visual art both iconoclastic and censorial have become less sensational, but no less widespread.

Richard Meyer, author of "Outlaw Representation, Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth Century American Art," has pointed out that censorship might be most powerful when virtually no one knows it has occurred. Included in the obscure February 2001 exhibition, "Cyber Arte: Where Tradition Meets Technology," at Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art was "Our Lady," a digital collage by Alma Lopez. The Lopez piece reworks the traditional iconography of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Shortly after the opening, the local Catholic Church publicly reviled the piece. Curator Tey Marianna Nunn received death threats and state lawmakers threatened to pull government funding from the museum unless it removed the offending work.

While teaching photography as an adjunct faculty member at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2003, John Trobaugh was invited by the department chair to exhibit his recent work at the college. Trobaugh exhibited his series entitled "Double Duty." Shelton State's president Rick Rogers insisted that the photographs be removed. Even after letters of protest to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the president would not back down. Not having the protection of tenure, Trobaugh felt forced to resign over the episode.

Some recent examples of censorship have garnered far more visibility. In late June 2005, New York Governor George Pataki attacked the Drawing Center, one of the four cultural institutions chosen for the World Trade Center site, for an exhibit at their gallery in Soho that seemed to criticize the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Pataki announced, "We will not tolerate anything on that site that denigrates America" or "denigrates New York or freedom." The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation responded to threat of censorship by stating on Aug. 11 that the Drawing Center would not be allowed to build a new exhibition space at Ground Zero.

Another of the chosen groups, The International Freedom Center, was to have three primary components: a museum dedicated to exploring "crucial themes in the history of freedom," an educational and cultural center meant to encourage conversation and debate on freedom and a civic engagement network to provide resources for individuals working for freedom in their local communities.

The IFC became subject to a new round of inquiry to determine if its plans were politically acceptable to Pataki's dictates. Finally on Sept. 28, 2005 Pataki unilaterally decided to bar the IFC, specifically created as part of a 9/11 memorial, from the World Trade Center site.

Jeffrey Hughes, professor of art history, criticism
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Author:Hughes, Jeffrey
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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