Whenever I hear the word “culture” I reach for my revolver.Friedrich Thiemann
In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms called artist Andres Serrano “a jerk.” Speaking on the floor of the United States Senate, the Republican senator from North Carolina endorsed a letter to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), drafted by Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), which objected to the NEA’s supporting “a so-called ‘work of art’ by Andres Serrano entitled ‘Piss Christ.’” According to Senator Helms, “What this Serrano fellow did, he filled a bottle with his own urine and then stuck a crucifix down there – Jesus Christ on a cross. He set it up on a table and took a picture of it. For that, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him $15,000, to honor him as an artist. I say…he is not an artist. He is a jerk. And he is taunting the American people, just as others are….And I resent it. And I do not hesitate to say so.” The lines of battle could hardly be more starkly drawn: a powerful conservative senator attacking an accomplished artist and defending “the American people” from the alleged taunts of this “jerk” – with a federal arts agency caught in the middle. The so-called culture wars, described by one observer as a “struggle to define America,” had begun.
The American battle over federal arts funding and its less heated counterpart in Canada continued through the 1990s, until the events of September 11, 2001, and a “war on terrorism” diverted cultural warriors to other controversies. Yet the struggle has not ended. One notes, for example, a federal election in Canada during the fall of 2008. Defending his government’s decision to cut $45 million in funding for the arts and culture, Prime Minister Stephen Harper remarked: “I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see…a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.” More politely than Helms, perhaps, yet targeting many artists rather than one, Harper in effect called all of them jerks and asked “ordinary working people” to back him up. An undercurrent of pseudopopulism and resentment runs through the speeches of both politicians, despite the national borders and nearly twenty years that separate them.