Who would have thought 90’s nostalgia would have resurrected the Culture Wars? Following the Catholic League’s pearl-clutching over Mark Ryden’s perceived “very anti-Christian and anti-Catholic” paintings at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, a group of local Georgia politicians are up in arms over Art AIDS America at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University.
In an all-too-familiar election season story, three Republican Cobb County lawmakers–State Representative Earl Ehrhart, State Senator Lindsey Tippins and State Representative Ed Setzler–took to The Marietta Daily Journal last Friday to express their dismay and make thinly veiled threats to the state university’s funding. Calling Art AIDS America “sickening,” “trash” and “gratuitous, an insult for the sake of making a political statement,” the politicians were a little late in their complaints. The exhibition closed this Sunday after being open since February 20.
This is not the first controversy surrounding Art AIDS America, which is described as “the first exhibition to examine the deep and ongoing influence of the AIDS crisis on American art and culture.” Curated by Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka, the exhibition saw die-in protests by the Tacoma Action Collective in its original incarnation at the Tacoma Art Museum. Calling for the curators and the Museum to “#StopErasingBlackPeople,” the protesters highlighted the lack of diversity in the exhibition, particularly its disparate inclusion of only 5 black artists out of 107 artists in the show.
After tweaking their public programming and exhibition roster, Art AIDS America is now receiving criticism from the other side of the aisle before it arrives at the Bronx Museum of Art on July 13.
As expected, the three Republican lawmakers reflected on Art AIDS America in the Marietta Daily Journal in a level-headed and compassionate fashion. Possibly the loudest and certainly the most descriptive of the three, who admits he didn’t see the exhibition but viewed six photographs provided by The Marietta Daily Journal–Rep. Ehrhart–asserted, “a fully loaded porta-potty would be a better artistic expression.”
Not to be outdone, Senator Tippins, who acts as the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, exclaimed:
“Typically, communities send their garbage to the dump and dispose of their body waste at the local treatment plant…KSU has chosen to celebrate and elevate it to an ‘art’ exhibit. Trash is trash. I think it speaks for itself.”
The trio took particular offense to Jerome Caja’s 1988 nail polish and white-out painting named Bozo Fucks Death, which depicts a clown topping a crucifix-grasping skeleton as a smiley-faced Virgin Mary looks on. In addition to clown sex paintings, the lawmakers did not appreciate the works that criticized conservative idols President Ronald Reagan, Senator Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell for their silence during the onset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s.
“‘Can you imagine if that (exhibit) took’ people liberals honor ‘and put pornographic material around them…There would be a massive outcry, and that would be justified. That’s not art.’”
Even Robert Sherer, a KSU art professor included in the exhibition who works with HIV positive blood, was not exempt from Ehrhart’s hysterics:
“I mean, you could infect somebody and kill them with that. Why don’t we just paint with the Ebola virus?”
Responding in the same article, Sherer expressed his support for Art AIDS America, emphasizing its importance to the KSU community. The exhibition, for Sherer, “put KSU on the national map as far as high cultural arenas are concerned…It’s sad now that there’s a small group of busy bodies who are looking for something to get upset about to have focused their attention on that exhibition.” Even though art-related conservative criticism seems out-of-date, fanned outrage helps keep these lawmakers names in the news, though, which is helpful during election season.
The uproar must seem like a reoccurring nightmare to curator Jonathan David Katz, who was part of the curatorial duo responsible for Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. In December 2010, Hide/Seek saw federal criticism from House Representatives Eric Cantor and John Boehner over David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film “A Fire In My Belly,” which resulted in the removal of the video from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition.