[When Hilton Kramer, New York Times art critic from 1965 to 1982, died on 27 March 2012 at 84, he was nearly universally lionized as a perceptive and knowledgeable commentator on the art of the 20th century. He was also acknowledged as a fierce fighter for conservative views in the culture war of the 1980s and ’90s. William Grimes put it this way in the Times, a paper the critic spent decades denigrating as a bastion of liberalism in its rival New York Post: “Admired for his intellectual range and feared for his imperious judgments, Mr. Kramer . . . was a passionate defender of high art against the claims of popular culture and saw himself . . . as a warrior upholding the values that made civilized life worthwhile.” (In the New Criterion, the opinion journal Kramer started, editor Roger Kimball eulogized his mentor: “Hilton called things exactly as he saw them. He did not temper his disapprobation—nor his praise, come to that—to suit the politesse of any establishment.”) While the art critic championed the work of artists he liked (David Smith, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove), he had little tolerance for work or movements he thought were unworthy or which didn’t meet his standards. With only a few exceptions, the critic dismissed much art that came after, say, 1970 and even some of the more popular styles of the decades before such as Pop Art, which he called “a very great disaster”; Op Art; Conceptualism, labeled “scrapbook art”; and, especially, Postmodernism, described as “modernism with a sneer, a giggle, modernism without any animating faith in the nobility and pertinence of its cultural mandate.” He saw those movements as mere graphic design and interior décor or nonce fads which cheapened the appreciation of good art by both artists and viewers. Kramer accused Andy Warhol, for instance, of making spectators “less serious, less introspective, less willing or able to distinguish between achievement and its trashy simulacrum.”
[Kramer’s was the opinion that conservative politicians and activists cited to legitimize their disapproval of art they didn’t like. One example is the uproar against Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment in 1989, part of the battle that launched the modern culture war. When Revs. Donald Wildmon and Pat Robertson; Sens. Jesse Helms, William Armstrong, and Alphonse D’Amato; Reps. Dick Armey and Dana Rohrabacher; and columnist Pat Buchanan launched a campaign of opposition and condemnation against the National Endowment for the Arts; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati; and Mapplethorpe (eventually among other radical and controversial artists), Kramer labeled the artist “the most overrated photographer of our time.”
[The esteemed critic was an opponent of public funding and government support of art, which he declared had politicized and bureaucratized art by creating an “immense superstructure of art advisers, art consultants, art lobbyists, art activists, and other non-artist art professionals, working in close conjunction with a vast network of arts councils, offices of cultural affairs, public art projects, minority and ‘community’ arts groups, and other special-interest cultural organizations, both in and out of government,” to exert “enormous influence in determining public policy as well as private patronage in the art world.” Kramer asserted that “this bureaucratic leviathan” was “completely captive to the political Left,” intent on advancing “the radical Left’s agenda for the cultural revolution.” The theater and film fields had already been coopted, Kramer believed, and classical music and “serious literature” were under threat. He wasn’t above calling on the funding agencies, however, to deny sustenance to art of which he disapproved. He saw no contradiction in using the art support system for political purposes or allowing political considerations to invade the granting process—as long as it was his kind of politics that did the influencing. In the pages of The New Criterion, which he co-founded in 1982 and edited, he campaigned for not just high standards of art and art criticism but for conservative artistic values—art that reflected what he deemed to be “the highest achievement of our civilization.”
[Though it’s taken me longer than I planned to work this all out, Kramer’s death provoked me to write about the culture war that reached its height of vehemence in the 1980s and ’90s and which reappears, sometimes not so subtly, from time to time. The critic wasn’t alone, of course: he was among a cohort of public figures, including elected officials like Republican Congressmen Henry Hyde of Illinois and Rohrabacher of California, conservative clergy like Jerry Falwell and Robertson, other writers and commentators such as George Will and Buchanan, and even some curators and museum administrators who agreed with Kramer’s positions and views. Here’s a brief discussion, biased, I’ll admit, of some of what went on in those decades.]
In the cultural war, which encompasses many fields including art and theater—on which I’ll be focusing here—both the liberal and conservative viewpoints can be argued persuasively. Wikipedia innocuously defines “culture war” as “a struggle between two sets of conflicting cultural values,” while Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, James Davison Hunter’s 1991 exegesis of the struggle, more ominously defined the conflict “very simply as political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding.” Hunter predicted, “The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others.” Instead of calling the opponents “conservative” and “liberal” or “right” and “left,” the University of Virginia sociologist designated them “orthodox,” who are “adherents to an external, definable, and transcendent authority,” and “progressivists,” whose moral authority “tends to be defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism. . . . From this standpoint, truth tends to be viewed as a process, as a reality that is ever unfolding.”
The orthodox, Hunter explained, support art that “serves [a] high public purpose” and reinforces the values and tastes of the community at large. For the progressivists, art is “a statement of being,” for “[t]o express oneself is to declare one’s existence.” The stakes, Hunter asserted, are the very standards by which we “determine whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, accepted or unaccepted, and so on.” In other words, the struggle is over nothing less than “the power to define reality.” As stage director Leonardo Shapiro, a progressive, asked shortly before his 1997 death: “Who makes culture? Is it too late?” At the 1992 Republican National Convention, on the other side of the battlefield, conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan gave a primetime speech declaring, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” The problem, Hunter concluded, is that the two sides speak different languages. Since, as Hunter analyzed it, “the culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on,” the likelihood of compromise or accommodation is nonexistent:
The real significance of such sentiments is that they reaffirm the basic characteristic of the contemporary culture war, namely the nigh complete disjunction of moral understanding between the orthodox and progressivist communities—in this case, on what constitutes art.
As recently as February 2012, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that “the culture wars are still inevitably significant, for the very simple reason that there’s no common ground on which to call a truce.” Hunter concluded, “Our most fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans are now at odds,” and conservative art critic Hilton Kramer expounded in 1993 on his claim that it wasn’t the forces of totalitarianism who were mounting “the gravest assaults on art and its institutions” as they maneuvered “to impose an absolute and remorseless control over every aspect of life and thought.” His perceived threat was coming from the political left which was applying and enforcing political tests on “virtually every field of artistic and intellectual endeavor.” Kramer, who insisted that “the arts have been effectively strangled in the interest of a radical political agenda,” warned:
Artistic criteria of value and achievement are supplanted by claims to preferment made in the name of group rights, racial justice, sexual equality, minority empowerment, and other politically correct petitions for advancement on the basis of extra-artistic interests. Art that is not explicitly enlisted in the service of some approved social, sexual, racial, or similar political mission is now an interest that dare not speak its name in the councils of the new arts bureaucracy. Nor are distinctions between high art and popular culture permitted in the kind of bureaucratic discourse that is specifically formulated to eradicate such distinctions lest the dreaded demons of “elitism,” “excellence,” “quality,” and other challenges to a radical and leveling egalitarianism persist in reminding us that in art, as in life, some things are by their nature discernibly superior to others.
“While advocating greater public access to the arts so that more and more people may enjoy their pleasures and benefits,” argued Kramer, “the new cultural commissars carry on an unremitting campaign to strip high art of everything but its name in order to render it more appealing to larger numbers of people.” As this makes clear, his attack on progressivism reverses the arguments the left makes against the orthodox when they try to restrict funding and support for work outside “the traditional fine arts.”
The conservatives oppose support for art that’s a “symbolic presentation of behavior and ideas that test the limits of social acceptability.” The state, Living Theatre co-founder Julian Beck cautioned us, isn’t really interested in bringing art to its citizens, however; it wants “diamonds in its crown” and cultural propaganda for its causes and tenets. In the 1960s, for instance, when my father was with the agency responsible for cultural propaganda abroad, the State Department wouldn’t sponsor tours of West Side Story, arguably one of our greatest achievements in musical theater, because it showed our society in a violent and unflattering way. (Strictly speaking, this wasn’t censorship because privately-financed tours were free to travel abroad and there was no attempt to suppress productions at home. The rejection was purely a matter of officially sanctioned art that supported the authorized depiction of the establishment.)
The distinction is parallel to the one George Bernard Shaw described in his 1913 revision of the essay “The Quintessence of Ibsenism,” the contrast between the real and the ideal. In “Eric Bentley – An Appreciation,” a profile on this blog about the critic, essayist, and public intellectual (published on 4 December 2012), my friend Kirk Woodward characterized the dichotomy this way:
In “ideals” . . . Shaw sees generalities that take the place of understanding the real . . . nature of the world. What sort of ideals? Love . . . patriotism . . . nationalism . . . fatherhood . . . motherhood . . . any high-sounding, well-meaning generality can conceal an ideal that takes the place of serious analysis and comprehension.
The orthodox want art that depicts this ideal and don’t want to support art that explores what’s really happening in our society—what artists (and their subjects) really see, experience, think, and feel. The progressives see this exploration as not only the legitimate focus of art and artists, but an important benefit that art provides to society and one we can’t do without if we’re going to keep, much less advance, our democracy. Theater director Shapiro warned that “this seems to be a self-perpetuating cycle so that audiences are less and less able to deal with any kind of emotional complexity, relational content, in fact with any of the great themes and subjects of art and literature” rather than what he saw as “anti-relational propaganda,” his take on Shaw’s generalized “ideal.” Artist David Wojnarowicz, who declared, “People should witness things. They should, at the very bottom level, be witnessed,” explained that for him art
can produce images of authenticity that break down the walls of state-sanctioned ignorance in the forms of mass media/mass hypnosis and stir people to do what is considered taboo and that is to speak. Breaking silence about needs or experiences can break the chains of the code of silence. Describing the once indescribable can dismantle the power of taboo. Speaking about the once unspeakable can make the invisible familiar if repeated often enough in loud and clear tones and pictures.
“Images,” Wojnarowicz added, “can be used as tools of alert, or tools of organization. [An] image can be a disruption of previously unchallenged power.” In the view of the progressivists, this is a threat to the forces of orthodoxy.
Though Vincent van Gogh wrote that “officially recognized art [is] stagnant-minded and moldering,” art that reinforces accepted sentiments, celebratory art that “reflects the sublime,” is important, and some of it is good. (Oklahoma! is celebratory theater, as is South Pacific, two other great works of the musical stage.) A question to be asked, however, has to be, Who defines “sublime”? Who sets the standards for “high public purpose”? To many progressives, certainly, testing the limits of social acceptability is an American and democratic virtue—it’s how many expansions of social, artistic, and political boundaries have occurred. In a few cases, dissenting art has been instrumental in defeating, or at least spotlighting, systems of which even the most orthodox American establishmentarians disapproved: dramatists like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Janusz Glowacki of Poland constantly reminded the rest of the world what life was like under Soviet communism; Athol Fugard’s and Mbongeni Ngema’s pointed opposition to apartheid in South Africa helped isolate and ultimately bring down that regime. Artists like these, today recognized as important figures in world culture, were frequently harassed, oppressed, jailed, or exiled because they tested the limits of social acceptability in their countries. In fact, in the very days when Soviet communism was toppling, Havel declared: “An artist must challenge, must controvert the established order. To limit that creative spirit in the name of public sensibility is to deny society one of its most significant resources.”
The United States isn’t indemnified from such prodding and goading from its artists, either. Consider this passage from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209), the law that established the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities:
An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.
Avant-gardist Shapiro, who viewed the arts as oracular, echoed this sentiment: “The point of an oracle—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. It doesn’t always give you good news. When Oedipus went to the oracle and it gave him essentially his death sentence, he didn’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to fund you anymore.’”
Hunter asserted that what the orthodox activists support is art as a celebration of mainstream American patriotic and religious values and sentiments that make the viewer or listener feel good and cheer. (Consider Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware or Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull.) There’s art—even good and great art—that’s celebratory; a lot of the world’s classical art comes from that impulse, and most sacred art falls into that category. (In the latter category, consider Michelangelo’s Pietà, arguably the most sublime piece of marble ever carved, and Sistine Chapel frescoes, and Salvador Dalí’s Sacrament of the Last Supper.) In fact, the orthodox forces put an awful lot of their efforts into putting religious—mostly Christian, but not exclusively; conservative Jews occasionally get into the act, too—tenets and practices into particular fields at issue. One significant non-arts issue in the culture war is, of course, the place of prayer in the schools—along with the teaching of “values,” which almost always means, in this debate, religious values—or, put simply, God—in the classroom and schoolhouse, the courthouse, the public square, and so on. While I agree that the progressivists have often gone overboard banning religious expression in the public forum, even in schools, no amount of argument will ever make it seem all right to me for any public function to include religious observance for the very simple reason that it’s impossible to invent a form that doesn’t exclude someone’s faith (not to ignore those who have no faith). It can’t be inclusive, and therefore it’s exclusive—and, therefore, privileges some faiths over others. By the most basic interpretation, that’s un-Constitutional.
While the progressives want to make their definitions more inclusive and open, however, the orthodox want to restrict access and acceptability. What the progressives want to do allows everyone to choose what they see, hear, do, enjoy, and so on, but the orthodox want to deny everyone the right to see, hear, et cetera, anything that they decide is unacceptable. Short of that, they want to make it as difficult as they can to see, hear, et cetera, stuff of which they don’t approve by denying it funding, a venue, airtime, publicity, sponsorship, or whatever. That strikes me as fundamentally undemocratic and un-American, and no matter how sincerely you feel about the offensiveness or vileness of some art, movie, book, show, or song (or any other creation), I get hung up on the restrictiveness and denial of access—and who makes the decisions in all our behalves. If the progressivists win, then everything is accessible and we get to decide for ourselves if it’s offensive, vile, blasphemous, unpatriotic, obscene, or nasty—and we don’t go see it. And you can preach, write, demonstrate, protest, and persuade against it—but you don’t get to shut it down for me. If the orthodox win, no one gets to see anything someone decides is objectionable. You can opt out under progressivism; you can’t opt in under orthodoxy.
Ironically, Hilton Kramer turned this principle on its head, too. “‘[A]ccess’ often means nothing but censorship in the service of ‘diversity,’” the art critic insisted. It “is now instantly recognized as a signal to ‘dumb down’ the arts in order to make some approved substitute qualify as the real thing,” he declared.
Not coincidentally, the very authorities who legislated the agency intended to support American artists, the NEA, addressed the issue of art as the canary in the mineshaft. In “Establishing a National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities,” the Senate Special Committee on Arts and Humanities, chaired by Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, wrote in a section entitled “Freedom of Expression” of the Senate Report which accompanied the 1965 Arts and Humanities Act:
It is the intent of the committee that in the administration of this act there be given the fullest attention to freedom of artistic and humanistic expression. One of the artist’s and the humanist’s great values to society is the mirror of self-examination which they raise so that society can become aware of its shortcomings as well as its strengths.
Those radicals in the Senate wanted to support art that challenged the status quo, criticized the culture, made us see the wrongs as well as the strengths. They also wanted to support art that was innovative and challenging in style and form as well as content, as they further stated in “Freedom of Expression”:
Therefore, the committee affirms that the intent of this act should be the encouragement of free inquiry and expression. The committee wishes to make clear that conformity for its own sake is not to be encouraged, and that no undue preference should be given to any particular style or school of thought or expression. Nor is innovation for its own sake to be favored. The standard should be artistic and humanistic excellence. While evaluation in terms of such an abstract and subjective standard will necessarily vary, the committee believes such a standard to be sufficiently identifiable to serve the broad purpose of the act and the committee’s concern with the cultural values involved.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the arts that celebrate the status quo, the collective mythology of the nation—the Shavian “ideal,” if you will—will be vastly more popular overall than art that tests the boundaries and challenges the received wisdom of the culture. The one needs less official funding because it attracts support on its own merits. The other, though, needs the midwifery of organizations and foundations because its appeal—though by no means its significance or potential impact—is narrower. Furthermore, as Tom Schaefer, a columnist with the Wichita, Kansas, Eagle-Beacon, wrote in 1989: “. . . [I]f art teaches us anything, particularly religious art, it’s that shocking new images can become, in time, conveyors of meaning for people who are struggling to make sense of life. That’s worth a pause before rushing to judgment.” The same body that called for support of outlier art recognized that history has shown that what one generation dismisses as junk and trash is embraced by a later generation as great and important art, asserting:
Moreover, modes of expression are not static, but are constantly evolving. Countless times in history artists and humanists who were vilified by their contemporaries because of their innovations in style or mode of expression have become prophets to a later age.
Think Ibsen for one example, the production of whose realistic plays was banned in many countries (Ghosts) or caused near riots (Doll House), or van Gogh, whose work was dismissed in his lifetime and now brings millions. Both artists today are highly esteemed in nearly everyone’s estimation.
Unsurprisingly, when those like the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Pat Buchanan worked to subvert and lessen access to government support of the arts, which artists and others deemed a sinister form of censorship, many among the arts community opposed them. “Where do you derive your authority?” asked playwright Mac Wellman of their conservative adversaries. “You’re not mentioned in the Bible, so where do you get your authority?” Stage director Shapiro contested that “because some Buchanan, or whoever the latest loudmouth is, can mobilize some superficial opposition to one or more arts or arts groups, that that means that they are more representing the American people than the artists.” Frequent New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis proclaimed “that this is a grown-up country, that we want no pecksniffs here, that we are not going to let a few self-appointed bluenoses decide what all the rest of us are allowed to read and see.”
The argument over funding and censorship involves both money and motivation. As for the funding, those who want to restrict access to public money for art of which they disapprove say with Richard Bernstein in his New York Times article “Subsidies for Artists: Is Denying a Grant Really Censorship?” that withholding tax money from an artist such as performance artist Karen Finley, one of the so-called NEA Four, isn’t censorship because she’s still able to perform or exhibit where she wants, she just can’t do it on the public’s check. “It would seem to be one thing to deny some artists Federal funds on the ground that what they do is offensive to some taxpayers,” posited Bernstein, “and another to deprive them of their freedom of expression.” In response, director Shapiro, a pacifist, quipped, “I am against the government using my tax money to kill people . . . . And yes, I would also be against the government using my money to fund artists to kill people, no matter how elegantly.” Shapiro pointed out that someone well-known like Finley may be able to find funding and a venue by other means, but what about artists and groups of whom we’ve never heard?
Where are the thousands of Black, Latino, Inuit, Korean, Polish, Native American, Chinese, Arab Karen Finleys? Where are the thousands of multi-cultural groups celebrating the rebirth of their vision in communities across this huge country?
In his defense of freedom of artistic expression, director, teacher, and producer Robert Brustein wrote that government support of art “means acknowledging that, yes, every artist has a First Amendment right to subsidy.” Hilton Kramer, however, voiced the conservatives’ position on such a response, explaining that “‘pluralism’ . . . is now merely a euphemism for multiculturalism and enforced ‘diversity,’” despite the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act’s declaration:
The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.
The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.
It is vital to democracy to honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas . . . .
It heightens the conflict, of course, that the progressivists saw the attempts to silence individual artists or groups as skirmishes in a campaign to decimate the avant-garde and experimental art world entirely. Indeed, Paul Mattick, author of “Arts and the State” in The Nation, warned of a truly devastating potential:
It is the right-wing agenda itself—the call for austerity and the distrust of creativity in all spheres of life other than those of corporate profitability. Opposing this means the effort to explore, in analysis and, where possible, in practice, the complex relations of art to present-day society and to the possibility of changing it.
The atmosphere across the country was poisoned by what Mattick dubbed “Helms and Co.” and other promoters of cultural orthodoxy like Pat Buchanan and Hilton Kramer who’d been condemning public arts funding. Dominating the airwaves and the press with their version of the situation, these spokespeople for the right defined the issue for the public and the “mainstream moved right.” Contrarily, William J. Bennett, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education and President George H. W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, maintained in a 2012 commentary called “Republicans lost the culture war,” “For decades liberals have succeeded in defining the national discourse . . . . They have successfully set the parameters and focus of the national and political dialogue . . . .”
Poet Robert Browning declared, “Art remains the one way possible / Of speaking truth,” and Congress, noting that one of an artist’s responsibilities is to point out society’s shortcomings, addressed this issue. At the establishment of the NEA and the NEH, legislators explicitly directed that grants be made with principal consideration of the freedom of expression and that artistic quality alone be the criterion. Congress affirmed that the NEA’s purpose must be to encourage open inquiry and ordered “that no undue preference should be given to any particular style or school of thought or expression.” Nonetheless, in 1990, the leadership of the NEA succumbed to external pressure from conservative activists and politicians to deny grants to artists who offended orthodox sensitivities, resulting in the infamous “NEA Four” incident.
While Kramer asserted that “the radical Left . . . knew how to exploit liberal sentiment for its own illiberal causes” and “was far more expert than [conservatives] about the many ways in which the resources of both the government and the private sector could be made useful to the cultural revolution,” Shapiro cautioned, “The system has already learned to exclude, efficiently and quietly, art that doesn’t support ruling class ideology and values.” In Bernstein’s Times article, poet Alan Ginsberg announced, “We are in a dead-end totalitarian ecological trap,” and Karen Finley claimed, “A year ago I was in a country of free expression; now I am not.” Though Bernstein himself demurred on whether denial of federal money is censorship, many artists, as he reported, feel not only that it is but saw the efforts to rein in the NEA as the beginning of a conservative offensive against free expression and thought of which they disapprove. The artists feared, furthermore, that the move was an overture to more widespread efforts at suppression. Impresario Joseph Papp cautioned, “There’s no genuine repression yet, but there are little brush fires that are happening at the same time.” Leonardo Shapiro affirmed, “The few tokens” being fought over in the press and in Congress “are significant not only because they show the new boldness of the right in wanting to mop up the left-over freaks and dissidents, but also because they show how few tokens are available to be censored.” Shapiro asked, “If we haven’t censored the creators of our contemporary culture, where are they—on vacation?” The director concluded:
The repression in America has been so successful that we accept it as the way things are, and are not able to identify it as the consequence of deliberate policy decisions made by a ruling class as part of an overall plan to keep and consolidate power and wealth.
After Dennis Barrie, the curator of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, was indicted on 7 April 1990 on obscenity charges for mounting Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, a touring exhibit of the artist’s photographs, producer Papp, who was one of the most prominent arts people to refuse a grant rather than sign an anti-obscenity pledge, issued a direr warning: “It’s a serious thing when people are arrested and charged. This is where the weather vane could be pointing.”
What the arbiters of public taste and culture are looking for, Peter Brook said, isn’t a theater that reveals hidden truths, a “Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible,” but “the tame play where ‘higher’ only means ‘nicer’—being noble only means being decent.” It’s what dramatist Mac Wellman called “the Theater of Good Intentions” and “the theater of the non-event” in contrast to a chaotic and complex poetic theater. Antonin Artaud said that conventional Western theater confuses “aestheticism” with “art,” and that theater’s goal should be “to express objectively certain secret truths, to bring into the light of day . . . certain aspects of truth that have been buried under forms in their encounters with Becoming.” The kind of theater that Artaud envisioned, Wellman writes, and Brook produces has little respect for establishment values, and little patience, Wellman pronounced. “[P]oetic theater,” the playwright avowed, “takes impossible and ridiculous shortcuts; makes a mockery of the Aristotelian, better class of narrative.” Julian Beck, depicting avant-garde artists as those “who took the risk of exploring strange lands and of bringing back the unfamiliar things they had created out of their discoveries for all to see,” perceived that
[b]ecause he makes this voyage, he is mocked as an alien is usually mocked. Because he rejects the popular way of doing things in favor of new forms that may aid him to make his discoveries, he is regarded with hostility.
But the forces of orthodoxy viewed this special mission as a danger—much as Plato saw it in The Republic in which he condemned poets—and Hilton Kramer, who believed “that while winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union abroad, the conservatives in Washington lost the culture war to our own commissars at home,” expressed the consequences:
The cultural revolution, which had its origins in the antiwar movement and counterculture of the 1960s, now presents this country with the gravest domestic crisis it has faced since the end of the Vietnam War. It has already gone a long way toward destroying our institutions of high culture and our institutions of higher learning. It has made every serious artistic pursuit more problematical than it has been in this country within living memory. And because the cultural revolution has turned every aspect of family and sexual life into an arena of political combat and made every problem deriving from race and ethnicity a battle zone, the culture war is also a moral and social crisis of vast dimensions.
The culture war battles which dominated the political landscape of the late 1980s through the middle 1990s, including congressional and presidential campaigns, subsided somewhat, or at least were no longer headline material at the end of the 20th century into the start of the 21st. There were flare-ups, especially over gun laws and abortion, and same-sex marriage laws and court cases became high-profile subjects for action, debate, and commentary in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. The war itself, however, is still in progress in pockets around the country and occasionally on the national field. In 2004, Buchanan declared that “the culture wars have been reignited.” In the same year, Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, warned, “We're in this for the long haul, and the people on the other side had best understand, this is not for dilettantes, not for weekend warriors.” In 2006, Bill O’Reilly published Culture Warrior, in which the conservative TV commentator, assailing the “secular-progressive movement,” pronounced that a culture war “desperately needs to be fought, because today the stakes are as high as they get.”
The Spring 2011 issue of Censorship News, the newsletter of the National Coalition Against Censorship, included an editorial called “Culture Wars Returning? Or Did They Ever Go Away?” which declared: “In the fall of 2010 culture wars rhetoric seemed like a thing of the past . . . . And then the firestorm hit.” And New York magazine seemed to respond in a 2012 article entitled “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen” which found “a pervasive, if not total, liberalism” all over the TV dial. In 2013, the flare-ups included the charges of racism against Paula Deen, host of a popular TV food show, when she confessed to the casual use of the word “Nigger”; Megyn Kelly’s declaration on Fox News that “Santa just is white”; and the firing (and subsequent rehiring) of A&E’s Duck Dynasty’s star, Phil Robertson, after he expressed his anti-gay beliefs in GQ magazine. That same year, Pat Buchanan, himself a Catholic, berated Pope Francis, whom he accused of “moral relativism” for seeking “to move the Catholic Church to a stance of non-belligerence, if not neutrality, in the culture war for the soul of the West.”
This year we’ve already seen the legal battles over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate waged by organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church and former Arkansas governor, and one-time Republican candidate for the party’s presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee chimed in on the alleged “war on women” in the Republican Party at an RNC meeting. Just as I was writing the final version of this article in late January, the New York Times ran a front-page, above-the-fold headline that read, “Parties Seize on Abortion Issues in Midterm Race,” predicting that that conflict would be an important election question in the coming campaign, but it looks more like the continuing controversy over gay marriage, becoming legal in more and more states, will be the paramount culture issue—unless, of course, there’s a new chocolate Jesus in someone’s studio.
While some analysts insist that the culture war isn’t what American voters really care about, being more concerned with issues of leadership and security rather than the moral questions the political elites and media pundits tell us are important (Morris P. Fiorina, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2010) others, like columnist Ross Douthat, point out that while “politics is mostly about jobs and the economy and the state of the public purse,” the pocketbook issues that affect voters’ daily lives, “the arguments that we remember longest, that define what it means to be democratic and American, are often the . . . culture war debates,” possibly because they are fights over symbols embedded deep in our psyches in a way that bread-and-butter issues aren’t. Political observers conclude that the electorate may say it’s fed up with these conflicts, that they’re nothing but tiresome distractions from the important matters, but the activists on both sides see them as truly life-and-death issues that affect every citizen at the most fundamental level. When push comes to shove, inside the voting booth or the caucus room, even the weary voter is loath to give up his or her fervently held social convictions.
[Most of “Culture War” has been devoted to discussing and examining the politics and activism of the 1980s and ’90s, but the cultural struggle has never gone away. It flares up and hits the headlines every few months or even weeks over issues like abortion; evolution; guns; religion in the public square; education policy and curricula; art, literature, and censorship; gender issues and sexuality; and a host of other topics. Elections are catnip to the culture warriors, and so political campaigns, whether presidential, congressional, or local, become fields for new battles and skirmishes. We saw it in 2012 and we will again in 2014.
[Like Hilton Kramer (1928-2012), some of the other main figures of the last big battle of the culture war have departed—Paul Goodman (1911–1972), Paul Mattick (1904-81), Julian Beck (1925-85), Joe Papp (1921-91), Leonardo Shapiro (1946-97), Alan Ginsberg (1926-97), Jerry Falwell (1933-2007), Jesse Helms (1921-2008), Claiborne Pell (1918-2009), Robert Novak (1931-2009), Anthony Lewis (1927-2013), not to forget artists Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89) and David Wojnarowicz (1954-92)—but others are still fighting as new voices, such as Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Rick Santorum, and the Weekly Standard on the right and Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Corey Booker, and the Huffington Post on the left, join them. One thing seems certain: whenever someone declares the culture war over and won, it turns out to have been a short-term cease-fire as the ammo’s restocked and the weapons are cleaned and oiled. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few conscientious objectors in the culture war.]