art matters

how the culture wars changed america

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 1 (Summer 2000)

Edited by Brian Wallis, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine

1999, 316 pages, $22.50 (softcover); New York University Press, New York and London

News of Mayor Guiliani's attack against the Brooklyn Museum of Art erupted on the same day the board of Art Matters Inc. hosted a party to celebrate the publication of art matters, an ironic and dispiriting coincidence noted by all present. The incident underscores how seamlessly the present tense can properly be substituted for the past in the book's subtitle — how the culture wars changed america. While culture wars may ebb and flow, combatants like New York City's mayor are always eager for any opportunity to use demagogic tactics to advance their political agendas.

Art Matters Inc., a private foundation, began awarding fellowships to artists in 1985, creating a notable impact in that arena until it ceased grantmaking approximately ten years later. The book examines the foundation's history within the context of the culture wars of the past two decades. This approach yields a particularly valuable and fascinating read, all the more so since Art Matters Inc. did not watch the culture wars from the sidelines. In fact, the foundation and many of its board members reacted boldly and creatively to attacks on artists that began in the late 1980s. The group not only continued to encourage artists who were experimenting in form and content and who challenged conventions, it also played a key, if not catalytic, role in the formation of front line organizations such as the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression and the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

Philip Yenawine, a founder of Art Matters Inc., writes in his introduction that the book focuses on issues most central to the foundation's mission — art, AIDS, diversity, censorship, and funding. art matters combines previously published work with new essays in approximately equal proportion, providing accounts written both in the heat of the moment and those with a longer view. The editors have chosen well, presenting a wide variety of perspectives from artists and activists to scholars and theorists, among them David Wojnarowicz, Martha Rosler, Lucy Lippard, Michelle Wallace, Kobena Mercer, Carole Vance, Kathleen Sullivan, and Lewis Hyde.

While the book focuses on the recent culture wars, this perspective is enriched immeasurably when considered in the context of history. Lippard provides an insightful and often firsthand account of activist art during the 1960s and 1970s. Hyde's historical view of the debate over arts funding and his ideas about how the nation might collectively foster the arts are delivered with clarity and eloquence. The sections focusing on AIDS and diversity illuminate the complexity of the culture wars and the social divisions they inflame. Where there might well be common cause even among apparent allies, groups facing explicit or even more subtle attack often fail to support one another, and debates over questions such as the primacy of the first versus fourteenth amendments reign.

In a commissioned art project, artist Andrea Fraser weaves the story of the foundation throughout the book, drawing on extensive interviews she conducted with individual board members. It is fitting the board chose an artist to shape the tale, art being the one thing that unites them all. The Art Matters Inc. board possessed vitality and vision and consistently demonstrated a willingness to act on conviction. How much sadder then that in the end Art Matters Inc. was a casualty of the culture wars.

Review by Pamela Clapp, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts