Arts Commentary: Remembering the Culture Wars of the ’90s

By John R. Killacky

Freedom of expression is a more precious commodity than taste. Conservative critics were very clear about their moral imperative; they confidently vilified artists and terrorized institutions. No one won the culture wars — we lost them.

John R . Killacky and Ron Athey in conversation at the Hammer Museum in 2014.

Because libraries and school curricula are currently under assault regarding the appropriateness of diverse representations and gender expression, it seems like a good time to look at the homophobia and Culture Wars of the ’90s, a time when conservative forces organized, successfully, to destabilize arts funding

I was curator of Performing Arts at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1988 through 1996. Our mission was to be “a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.” We presented 100 performances each season in theaters ranging from 100 to 4,800 seats. Given the mission, I at times produced identity-based performance work, some of which became entangled in the Culture Wars of the ’90s.

First some context: in 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded $8.4 million in artists’ fellowships. This represented the apex of these awards. It was also the year photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS and Senator Jesse Helms eliminated New York Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ grant of $600,000, objecting to queer content in sex education material.

In 1989, two NEA grants came under political fire. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania used a NEA grant to mount a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, entitled The Perfect Moment, that included homoerotic photographs that some in Congress deemed pornographic. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC canceled this exhibition, anticipating that the content would generate a political storm on Capitol Hill. Some politicians also objected to The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem re-granting NEA dollars to Andres Serrano because of his Piss Christ photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine.

Cultural Infidels

Holly Hughes. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.

To mark the start of the ‘90s, the Walker put together a multidisciplinary festival, Cultural Infidels. Historical films by iconoclasts Andy Warhol and Jack Smith were juxtaposed with John Greyson’s Urinal and Isaac Julien’s Looking for LangstonKathy Acker read from her latest writing, and we exhibited one of David Wojnarowicz’s lithographs. Art and culture were politicized; this is nothing new, and we were eager to support the present-day provocateurs.

Karen Finley performed her profoundly moving We Keep Our Victims Ready. The first night was sold out. Two plainclothes police officers introduced themselves, telling me they were sent to determine if the performance should be closed down. Since this was the first night, I wondered why someone had complained to the police without having seen the work. The vice squad left midway through; there was nothing pornographic.

Critical and audience reaction was rapturous. However, syndicated columnists Evans and Novak wrote about the vice squad visit in The Washington Post, which caught the attention of Senator Helms’ staff. No mention was made of the quality of the performance, only that the vice squad visited the museum in Minneapolis.

Two months later, Holly Hughes made her Walker debut reading an excerpt of Raw Meat as part of P.S. 122’s Field Trips. She returned twice more to perform World Without End and No Trace of the Blonde.

Later that year, still in 1990, choreographer Bill T. Jones spoke to me about a new dance he wanted to create. His partner Arnie Zane had given the piece its title on his deathbed: Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I invited Bill to be in residence in partnership with the University of Minnesota.

Still grieving Arnie’s death from AIDS, Jones wanted to find hope as a gay Black man in America. He envisioned a final resolving tableau of fifty-two nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders. Local dancers, including students from the University of Minnesota’s dance department, augmented his company.

Before the performance at Northrop Auditorium, word came down that the university did not want students to be nude. Despite the warning, they all danced nude.

Some months later, Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church crowd protested Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin when it was performed in their home state at the University of Kansas.

Also in 1990: Keith Haring, who designed Bill T. Jones’ Secret Pastures, died of AIDS, and Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center’s Dennis Barrie was charged with obscenity for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs — though after a ten-day trial, all charges were dropped.

Senator Helms pressured the NEA, and individual artist grants to Karen Finley, John Fleck, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were denied after being recommended by a peer panel. In a lawsuit, the defendants alleged that the NEA and its Chairperson John E. Frohnmayer violated their constitutional rights by wrongly turning down their applications for grants. (The Supreme Court eventually ruled against the artists in 1998.)

In 1990, “Decency Amendment” language was added to reauthorization language for the agency. All NEA recipients were required to sign a “decency” form. The Walker signed it. There was nothing “indecent” in what we presented.

Oregon Shakespeare FestivalNew York’s Public TheaterBella LewitzkyElisabeth Streb, and a few other artists refused. I spoke to Bella about it later. During the McCarthy hearings in the ‘50s, she was subpoenaed to appear before the committee, but slammed the door on the agent telling him, “My dear, I am a dancer, not an opera singer.” She was not going to capitulate forty years later.

The following year, 1991, on Easter Sunday, I presented Diamanda Galás’ Plague Mass at The Guthrie Theatre. The Goth kids loved their high priestess’ depiction of unbearable grief from the AIDS pandemic.

1992 saw Walker presentations of Ron Vawter’s brilliant Roy Cohn/Jack Smith juxtaposing the closet conservative lawyer with the flamboyant performance artist as well as Reza Abdoh’s visceral treatise on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, The Law of Remains. Abdoh’s piece was performed in an empty warehouse. The audiences followed deconstructed tableaus of violence, madness, and mayhem, moving through the building, and sitting on the raw floor.

Tim Miller performed My Queer Body that spring. On World AIDS Day, Will Parker sang from the AIDS Quilt Songbook; it was his last concert before he died of AIDS. Two years later, the Minnesota Composers Forum, Arts Over AIDS, and the Walker produced a Minnesota AIDS Quilt Songbook entitled Heartbeats.

Ben Cameron, then head of the NEA’s Theater Program, asked me to be on the Individual Artists panel that year. Given whom I had presented, I wondered if he knew who I was. “Of course, I do, that’s why I want you on the panel,” he assured me. Holly Hughes and Tim Miller received grants.

Tim Miller. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.

David Wojnarowicz died of AIDS at age thirty-seven in 1992, two years after he won a historic Supreme Court Case against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, who had distorted his visual art in a conservative fund-raising campaign.

In 1993, Huck Snyder, designer for Bill T. Jones’ Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, died of AIDS. The Walker showed Derek Jarman’s film Blue. The screen was filled with Yves Klein blue, devoid of moving images, with voice-over narration from Jarman’s diaries. This blue was the color Jarman experienced while being administered eye drops to fend off blindness from AIDS. A year later, Jarman was dead.

Actor Ron Vawter died of AIDS in 1994, as did the fierce Marlon Riggs, who became another flashpoint in the NEA funding controversy when his Tongues Untied was broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. His black queer ‘reel-ness’ became a lightning rod for malicious conservative outrage.

Bill T. Jones brought Still/Here to Northrop Auditorium in 1994. To develop the piece, he held workshops across the country with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it, but wrote about the performance in The New Yorker anyway, dismissing it as “victim art.”

Ron Athey
In 1994, I presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. The work opened with a campy burlesque dance by a Black man, Divinity Fudge, covered in balloons. Ron burst the balloons with a cigar. There was a transition to a scene in which he raised the tattoos on Divinity’s back by cutting stylized marks, patting with paper towels, and sending these blood-marked prints along pulleys toward the audience. Operative words to note: blood-marked prints and toward the audience.

In another section, Ron inserted needles into his own arm as he talked about overcoming addiction and suicide attempts. The iconography of Jesus’ Passion was then evoked with a crown of thorns pierced into Ron’s scalp with acupuncture-like needles. The evening culminated with two performers, Julie Tolentino and Pigpen, being pierced, and ecstatically dancing in a queer wedding ceremony officiated by Ron, now clothed in a business suit, exhorting in a booming revivalist voice, “There are so many ways to say ‘Hallelujah!”

The sold-out performance was well received by an audience of about 100. Post-show discussions with the artist, attended by eighty people, were thoughtful and engaging. Theater and dance critics had been invited — none chose to attend.

Three weeks after the event, a visual art critic from the Minneapolis StarTribune called, wanting to verify someone’s distorted, fantastical version of the performance. She did not want to meet in person and then warned me to look for her lead story on the front page the next morning. Here are some quotes from that initial article: “Knife-wielding performer is known to be HIV-positive” and that the audience “knocked over the chairs to get out from under the clotheslines.”

This was the first of more than twenty articles the newspaper published about a performance its critic had not seen. Vituperative arguments about Athey’s work escalated into fodder for that summer’s NEA’s reappropriation battle because the Walker had received a grant to subsidize the full season of performances, including Athey’s.

When Jane Alexander, the head of the NEA at that time, defended the Walker from the “erroneously reported” and “inaccurate coverage,” the disgruntled local critic fueled the fires by writing directly to Alexander and to Congress, “Your attempts to blame the press for criticism of your agency merely trivializes the issue and obscures the facts.” By advocating directly to Congress, she inserted herself into the narrative; still the newspaper let her continue her coverage.

That local critic also wrote an op-ed piece. While admitting “State health officials agreed there was little risk of audience members contracting the AIDS virus from the performance,” she fired off that presenting this work was “akin to adding blowfish to the buffet of a Japanese restaurant without warning the clientele…potentially poisonous fish whose flesh is said to deliver a peculiar high.”

Walker Director Kathy Halbreich was quoted, “I find the negative responses to this troubling, not because of the artistic issues, but because they’re suggestive of the fear we have of people with AIDS.” The critic’s response was, “Given the complexity of the issues that’s a disturbingly facile response. Somewhere in the background I hear an echo of Clarence Thomas accusing his critics of racism.” Even after this incendiary commentary, the writer continued her reporting for the Minneapolis StarTribune.

Senator Helms called Athey “a cockroach” on the Senate floor. Representative Bob Dornan termed him a “porno jerk” and Senator Clifford Stearns ranted about how Athey endangered the audience’s life by the “slopping around of AIDS-infected blood.”

Minnesota’s Senator Paul Wellstone supported the Walker, as did Congressman Martin Sabo in the House, and Senator David Durenberger criticized the “highly inflammatory reporting…less to do with the Walker — or any single performance — than with the fundamental differences over whether and how the Federal Government should be funding the arts.”

Karen Finley. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams.

Televangelist Pat Robertson went about tarnishing the Walker’s good name while the American Family Association raised funds by exploiting Athey’s performance. But the strangest solicitation came from the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. It asked for contributions to defend artists such as Athey. But, to my amazement, the organization used the same decontextualized and demonized descriptions of the artist’s work that the right was using — perpetuating lies and misrepresentations. Good intentions can have unintended consequences.

My mother telephoned after watching Rush Limbaugh. “Buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience,” he snidely commented and “the audience ran for their lives.” When I told my mother Limbaugh was a liar, she responded, “But it was on television.”

The amount of hate mail and hostile phone messages I received was astounding. Example: “We got the abortion doctor, you’re next.” Blood-red graffiti was painted on the glass doors of the Walker. The police included my house in their regular drive-bys. Any time I left my home, I would hesitate and look out the windows.

Through it all, Walker director Kathy Halbreich was extraordinary. Leaders do not always get to choose their battles. Halbreich was gracious and supportive under intense pressure, as were the Walker board and staff. Colleagues from the National Performance Network, Dance USA, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters defended the Walker and buoyed my resolve. Local artists, too, rallied. One, Malka Michelson, created a campaign button: “Safe Sex, Not Art — Be a John.”

In 1995, Reza Abdoh, the Artaud of our day, died of AIDS. This was the last year grants to individual artists were awarded by the NEA, except for literature fellowships and honorifics in jazz and folk arts. Art, love, and politics collapsed — an extraordinary epoch was over.

For many artists, validation had not come (at least initially) from the marketplace. The federal government, often leveraging other local and regional support, was crucial. Ending these fellowships had dire consequences, signaling artists were no longer valued on a national level. Many state agencies followed suit. We have been living with the detrimental impact ever since.

During the entire summer of the Athey media whirl, not one museum director called Kathy Halbreich to offer support. Peter Zeisler, then head of Theatre Communications Group, called me irresponsible for presenting Ron Athey, although he had never seen him perform.

Other arts organizations facing controversy experienced the same. Few museums supported each other against the vicious, dishonest polemics generated by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Chris Ofili. Directors and boards ran for cover when colleagues came under fire. They buried their heads in the sand until they, too, were challenged.

Regional theatres didn’t support performance artists under fire — Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller — until the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Corpus Christi firestorm or the various protests accompanying Angels in America and The Laramie Project sprung up across the country.

The art world failed to defend its own. The lesson: freedom of expression is a more precious commodity than taste. Conservative critics were very clear about their moral imperative; they confidently vilified artists and terrorized institutions. No one won the culture wars — we lost them.

John R. Killacky is the author of because art: commentary, critique, & conversation (Onion River Press). This essay will be included in an upcoming 50th anniversary book celebrating New York’s Franklin Furnace.


  1. Celia Hughes on December 9, 2022 at 10:56 am

    After reading this concise recollection on those turbulent times in the arts arena, I ask where do we go from here? Most of the political foes from the 90’s are gone, but they have been replaced by a new class of ill informed right wing conservatives who have spawned alternative facts, a concept that seems to have been so widely embraced back then, but that didn’t have a name. I think the most troubling information in this article is the lack of support called out by fellow museums and performance entities. If we can’t support and defend our own, then who are we really?

  2. Joel Snyder, PhD on December 10, 2022 at 8:53 am

    Thanks, John, for a thorough recounting of troubled times for the arts and arts support in this country. As a part of the Inter-Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts throughout the ’90s, I lived through many of the ordeals you enumerate.

    What I find to be most unsettling is that the NEA’s response to all of the misrepresentations was to cut support for individual fellowships and to restructure the agency so that discipline programs are now “buried” within functions, e.g., Education and Access. And, of course, accounting for inflation, the agency’s budget is far lower than it needs to be to most effectively spur creativity and individual ingenuity.

  3. Franklin on December 10, 2022 at 11:42 am

    When the Endowment was founded in 1965, reviewers came from a broad swath of art-making and funded a commensurately even-handed slate of artists. By the 1980s it was captured by a tiny group of bleeding-edge New Yorkers. Helen Frankenthaler noted in a 1989 New York Times letter of comment regarding Serrano and Mapplethorpe that “I, for one, would not want to support the two artists mentioned, but once supported, we must allow them to be shown.” Too: “Government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process.” She nevertheless observed that the germane council had fostered a “mediocre art enterprise” and progressives never forgave her for it. To this day they accuse her of all but single-handedly gutting the NEA.

    Those tasked with defending Mapplethorpe’s work to Helms resorted to an affirmation of the art’s formal quality, knowing full well that there was not a compelling reason to commandeer money from American taxpayers so they could witness the photographic record of the former pleasuring himself with the handle of a bullwhip. To this day, the progressive argument in support of public arts funding is schizophrenic: though the NEA provides only 9% of arts funding in the US, ending it would supposedly destroy the arts ecosystem; Its termination would signal to American citizens that the arts don’t matter, even though progressives would prefer to fund work that violates common mores; the art market is supposedly corrupted by the rich but even with all that money sloshing around, public funding levels are less than they should be, which is more than whatever it is currently.

    Progressives only lost the culture war in the sense that mere dominance of the institutions, which they achieved, wasn’t enough for them – many of them wanted the complete elimination of conservatives and libertarians from the nation’s cultural life, and access to public funds on an order comparable to military expenditures to pay for cultural projects amenable to progressive tastes.

    As for freedom of expression, I observed in these pages that the derailment of “Philip Guston Now” was the work of progressives, as the far majority of attacks on free expression are these days. There’s no point in complaining about conservative indifference to free expression if progressives, prompted similarly by disgust if not about the same supposed offenses, behave likewise.

  4. John Killacky on December 13, 2022 at 6:17 am

    While our historical perspectives are quite different, I agree that it was unfortunate that museums postponed the Guston exhibition, as art often provides a safe space for unsafe ideas.

  5. Erica H. Adams on December 27, 2022 at 11:53 pm

    We need this now in the midst of the great unraveling since the pandemic began.
    A great accounting of the shift (1989-95) during the Reagan era /rise of supply side economics and resulting economy of the arts—the effect of closing the National Endowment of the Arts, the stark shift from the art world to the art market, from authentic expression to corporately funded PC. I lived through this and few are alive to tell the tale. Thank you.

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