Now the Philadelphia Museum of Art has mounted an exhibition inspired by those events - Unsettled: Photography and Politics in Contemporary Art - that is on view through Aug. 21 in the Perelman Building. It reminds us that we've been in this territory before.
"I, personally, and the museum, as an institution, were disheartened by the National Portrait Gallery's quick response . . . to remove the film," said Peter Barberie, the museum's curator of photography and organizer of the show.
"Thinking about it, I realized that there are a lot of artists who made really compelling, politicized work in the '70s and '80s. They aren't always grouped together . . . yet they all shared a lot of concerns. And there was this politics going on [then] - not always about AIDS and gay identity, to be sure; there's racism and feminism as well. But I've always wanted to bring those things together rather than separate them out in looking at contemporary art."
The show features the large, billboardy feminist photo montages of Barbara Kruger; the tinted portraits of black people by Carrie Mae Weems; a Klansman portrait by Andres Serrano; the enigmatic imagery of Lorna Simpson; disturbing street scenes by Zoe Leonard, Peter Hujar, and Nan Goldin.
But the dramatic focal point of this small show is certainly a complete suite of Wojnarowicz's Sex Series (1988-89), a recent gift to the museum that has never been shown there.
Small images cut out from this epical, dark, and angry work, created shortly after the AIDS death of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz's lover and mentor, became a dramatic focal point of the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Donald Wildmon, head of what was then the obscure Mississippi-based American Family Association, clipped images of gay sex and religious iconography from the work and mailed them to congressmen, broadcasters, and thousands of pastors in a pamphlet emblazoned: "Warning! Extremely Offensive Material Enclosed."
Wojnarowicz, a member of the AIDS activist group Act Up! who died of AIDS complications in 1992, sued for defamation and misrepresentation, arguing that such radical editing distorted his work and defamed his purpose. The artist won in federal court.
Interestingly, the work presented at the National Portrait Gallery that sparked the recent controversy was a radically edited video remake of the artist's much longer film. That shortened version highlighted to an even greater degree the image of crucifix and ants attacked by the Catholic League and the now well-organized and funded right wing.
At the Art Museum show, the full Sex Series can be seen in all its anger and pathos. In the full work of photo montages, the images cherry-picked by Wildmon in his mailing 21 years ago are overwhelmed by the cold indifference of everyday life - just as AIDS victims at the time were overwhelmed by their disease, government lethargy, and social demonization.
It was this lethal environment that fueled Wojnarowicz's emotionally fiery work - one of his last shows was indeed titled "Tongues of Flame" - and undercut support for publicly funded or exhibited art.
A show of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs - some of them involving sadomasochistic and homosexual imagery - organized by Penn's ICA was canceled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989 after complaints by Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.). The show was then the subject of a much-publicized and ultimately unsuccessful obscenity trial in Cincinnati in 1990.
Photographs by Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS complications in 1989, are in the current exhibition.
What the Art Museum show does is make connections between the aggressively political imagery of Wojnarowicz, the cool formality of Mapplethorpe, and the understated, even snapshotlike street scenes of Leonard, Hujar, and Goldin. By doing so, it explores the censorious homophobia, racism and antifeminism that many argue drove the culture wars of 20 years ago and remain evident today.
"This was meant to be a small show, a provisional response to what happened" at the National Portrait Gallery, said Barberie. "But I did want to bring together art that dealt with feminism and race and sexual identity.
"For me, the gay-rights movement owed everything to the equal-rights movement and the feminist movement, both of which preceded it and really, in my view, made it possible. Those different groups of people are too often, at least in the media, factionalized and not brought together, and it seems to me that all of this work shares that common basis, although it's very different work."
While the Hide/Seek incident provoked anger from artists and conservatives, it did not produce the volcanic eruption that characterized the earlier culture wars. Following removal of the edited video, the rest of the show, which explores American sexual identity and homosexuality, remained on view until its scheduled closing Feb. 13.
There has been grousing on the right about government funding for the arts, but nothing that approaches the attack on the National Endowment for the Arts during the earlier era, which led to severe funding cuts, restrictions on federal grant-making, blacklisting, and all the rest.
"Putting this show together was very strange because it's hard to articulate, even to one's self, how it speaks to our moment now," said Barberie. "Things have shifted so radically with the Internet to begin with . . . and I think there were gains made by all of these movements, including the gay-rights movement.
". . . [O]ne effect of the AIDS crisis is greater tolerance and acceptance of gay people, and AIDS is not treated as some sort of social-pariah disease as it was then. You might say it's too forgotten - it's invisible except to the people who have HIV and are taking all of these horrible drugs."
Peter Barberie and staff lecturer Matthew Palcynski will discuss the culture wars and issues related to museum exhibition of controversial art work on April 29, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Perelman Cafe in the Perelman Building, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues.
Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.