As Republicans continue to chip away at Americans’ rights and liberties through oppressive conservative legislation, it’s worth remembering that right-wing politicians and activists have consistently targeted artists who challenge their beliefs. Visual and performing artists who pushed boundaries through aesthetic and conceptual means have been stripped of funding opportunities, blacklisted from arts spheres, and threatened by religious fanatics, among myriad other attempts to stifle their visibility and suppress their voices.
Recently, artist Shellyne Rodriguez became the target of verbal harassment and threats after right-wing media circulated a video of her confrontation with anti-abortion activists on the Hunter College campus. Weeks later, when a New York Post reporter showed up at Rodriguez’s apartment unannounced, the artist was filmed threatening him with a machete, an incident that was further amplified by conservative outlets. Rodriguez was let go from adjunct roles at Hunter and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and faces charges of menacing and harassment.
Hundreds of artists and scholars expressed solidarity with Rodriguez, calling for Hunter and SVA to “support members of their faculty when under right wing attacks.” Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of the New York gallery PPOW that represents the artist, drew connections to the reactionary, conservative-backed attempts to block public funding for artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz’s 1990 exhibition Tongues of Flame. “Now I feel like nothing has changed and, in fact, the strategies of these organizations have gotten more sophisticated,” Olsoff said.
Below, read about six artists who faced right-wing attacks for creating work that fell outside of conservative agendas.
In 1989, artist Dread Scott showed his work “What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” (1988) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in an exhibition organized by the college’s Black Student Association. The installation comprised a 34-inch-by-57-inch United States flag on the floor below a photomontage depicting South Korean students burning the flag and flag-draped coffins. Viewers were invited to write in a book propped up on a shelf above the flag, allowing viewers to walk on it to get there.
Then-president George G.W. Bush called the exhibition “disgraceful” and Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas introduced a bill making it illegal to display the American flag on the ground. The legislation passed unanimously.
Scott’s exhibition became a touchpoint for conversations around the nature of patriotism and the limits of freedom of expression in the US. Tony Jones, then-president of the School of the Art Institute, said it was ”the responsibility of institutions like ours to protect art, no matter how controversial, charming or soporific.”
In 1990, the conservative American Family Association (AFA) attacked David Wojnarowicz and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which had given $15,000 in funding for his exhibition at the University Galleries of Illinois State University titled Tongues of Flame. The show largely addressed the AIDS epidemic. The AFA and its founder Reverend Donald Wildmon protested the exhibition and mailed a pamphlet titled “Your Tax Dollar Helped Pay For These ‘Works of art’” to 1,578 newspapers, 523 congressmen, 3,230 church leaders, and 947 Christian radio stations, slamming the NEA for funding an exhibition it called “obscene.” The pamphlet included 14 images by Wojnarowicz, mostly of gay men from his Sex Series (1988–1992).
Wojnarowicz sued for copyright infringement and $5 million in damages. The court dismissed his claim under federal copyright law and gave the artist only one dollar, but issued an injunction to the AFA for their pamphlet mailing. “Public monies are being used to fund covert wars, to buy instruments of death,” Wojnarowicz told the Washington Post at the time, pointing out the AFA’s hypocrisy in going after the NEA. “The few pennies that come out of people’s pockets to fund the NEA is nothing — and absolutely does not cause death.”
The American Family Association (AFA) took on the NEA once again in the early 1990s for its funding of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition titled The Perfect Moment. The Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) mounted the show in 1990, a year after Mapplethorpe died from complications of HIV/AIDS. The approximately 175-work exhibition included a wide range of photographs that explored the artist’s career, but the AFA took offense to show’s nude photographs of gay men. On the exhibition’s opening day, 20 police officers entered CAC and handed indictments to Director Dennis Barrie — Barrie and the museum were charged with obscenity for seven of the show’s works. In a highly publicized two-week trial, a jury sided with the museum and the charges were dropped. In his winning argument, CAC’s lawyer pointed to the vital importance of understanding the larger context of The Perfect Moment and made the landmark assertion that a work does not need to be beautiful or palatable in order to have intrinsic artistic value. “We geared the defense to the idea that art didn’t have to be pretty. It can be challenging,” lawyer H. Louis Sirkin later wrote. “We don’t like those images, but they are vital to telling the story.”
Performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes, known collectively as the “NEA Four,” were funded in part by the US government through the NEA up until 1990 when a Congressional amendment hinged federal funding for the arts on the premise of “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public.” Finley, Miller, Fleck, and Hughes individually tackled themes of homosexuality, feminism, sex positivity, and the AIDS crisis in graphic means through their performance work. Despite the peer review process approval of the artists’ independent proposal grants, Bush-era NEA chair John Frohnmayer vetoed them on the basis of subject matter. The artists filed a lawsuit against the NEA in 1993, alleging that the amendment to the endowment’s award process was an infringement of the First Amendment right to free speech. The District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the artists, awarding each of them the equivalent amount of the grant funding in damages. However, the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals’s decision, stating that the “decency clause” did not infringe on the right to free speech. Congress subsequently disallowed the NEA to fund individual artists as of 1994.
Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili raised hackles in 1996 with his atypical mixed media rendition of “The Holy Virgin Mary,” portraying Mother Mary as a Black woman surrounded by collaged images of female genitalia and smears of elephant dung. The painting also rests on two lumps of hardened elephant dung for support — a medium that Ofili employed regularly during this point in his practice in reference to his travels in Zimbabwe. Naturally, Ofili’s painting bristled many upon its debut and international circuit in the Sensation exhibition due to its blasphemous nature at first glance, but Ofili noted to the Tate in London that he wanted to “juxtapose the profanity of the porn clips with something that’s considered quite sacred.” When the exhibition landed in the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani was so affronted by the painting’s inclusion that he decried it as “sick stuff” and attempted to strip the museum of around $7M in annual city funding if it wasn’t removed, saying that it didn’t “have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion.” The Brooklyn Museum stood its ground despite threats of eviction and the show went on with Ofili’s painting still included, but an offended patron did splatter white paint under the display plexiglass and onto the painting in protest.
Performance artist and former Columbia University undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz’s “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” (2014–2015) was an endurance performance during which the artist set out to carry a standard twin XL college dormitory mattress everywhere they went on campus until their alleged rapist was expelled or otherwise removed from the university. Sulkowicz’s alleged rapist was found not responsible for sexual misconduct in 2013 after the university investigated the artist’s claims. The artist carried the mattress through their final day at Columbia. Defying the university’s request to not bring “large objects which could interfere with the proceedings,” Sulkowicz attended their 2015 graduation ceremony with the mattress in tow as they had promised earlier. Though Sulkowicz was met with an outpouring of public support for her performance and the experience that informed it, many publications, especially the conservative tabloid the New York Post, criticized the artist for “shaming without proof” and “destroying men’s lives with lies and innuendo.” Following the graduation ceremony, #RapeHoax posters went up around the Morningside Heights campus calling Sulkowicz a “pretty little liar.”