The commercial is now experimental, the commercial is now experimental, it is in no way noble,
[The Fall, "stop mithering" from the Album Grotesque]
Beyond the background radiation of shallowness and homophobia, the clearest thing in the Robert Maplethorpe affair is the barefaced lie of "censorship." While rabidly hateful, Jesse Helms' bill represents no more censorship than any other authority's choice between art works. Restrictions on the National Endowment for the Art's (NEA) funding of certain shows is only as much censorship as the Endowment's own experts use when they decide what is real art. While narrowing the public's choices of art works to those acceptable to the senile former talk-show host is clearly miserable, it is part of the same narrowing view that produced Any Warhol and Madonna.
Like anti-fascism or democracy, anti-censorship is simply an ideology of freedom. Beyond a few unexplained despots, this rhetoric assumes some perfectly free society that we can return to. From Reagan's America to Rumania or Chile, ideologies of freedom have shown themselves as capital's best, most invisible defense. By playing good cop/bad cop, they allow one managerial subclass to easily take over once another is discredited.
In this case, the militantly naive rhetoric of anti-censorship hides the entrenched power of gallery directors, high artists and government bureaucrats. It never addresses the factory consumption of banal expression that comes with TV, records, movies, or museums. It simply complains that this system is being taken over by the right. The art establishment, like every liberal bureaucracy, must hide behind the charge of censorship simply because there is no public support for one group of experts to openly fight the power of another. The mutual back scratching, trend mongering, image preening, and class or friend favoritism of the artistic milieu is well known to even the most apathetic worker. If given a choice between Helms and the art gallery managers, most people today would choose neither and might even begin to wonder about this kind of fight.
We can't fight the current phase of social repression by adding to the manipulations of its professional enemies, the liberals. In their incarnation as advocated for artists, the liberal's rhetoric only pleads with the law to protect rights. But you can't defend things that don't exist. To attack the "nails in the coffin of the bill of rights" today is about as realistic as defending every American's right to forty acres and a mule. While the 1950's or the 1920's saw periods of greater explicit repression than today, the communications monopoly of five or ten media corporations is a stronger force than Jesse Helms in keeping 250 million Americans from expressing themselves.
The fragile "rights" that exist today come more from the 1960's partial rebellions than from the rights the founding slave owners gave themselves in 1792. They are merely a relaxation of the ever-present social oppression. When the social rebellion of the 60's had gone far enough out of bounds, it had to be officialized by the state. The rules had to be relaxed to make sure the principle of law remained secure. In the sixties, the government allowed a whole series of partial, ambiguous freedoms in all parts of people's lives. But these freedoms were calculated to be fragile enough that the ebbing social tide would sweep them away. Abortion rights, affirmative actions, gays, funding for the arts etc, were all created in ways that could be ended simply by judges rulings or budget decisions.
Anti-censorship rhetoric appears to demand absolute freedom, while only fighting halfway the anti-gay qualities of Helms' bill. It is only put in terms of "artistic freedom" while ignoring the palpable unfreedom of sexuality and life in general in this society.
The rhetoric of the more "radical" artists seems to imply that society is obligated to pay revolutionaries to break societies taboos. But the this group fails to see the function of art today. It is not just homoerotic photos that evoke hostility in the general population but equally 3' stainless steel cubes and blob paintings. The mediocrity of current expression cannot fight a battle for its own defense and thus cannot expect to be a vanguard of revolutionary upheaval.
To defend the "artistic merits" of eroticism is not just to accept that this eroticism remains the province of a pseudo-privileged group. You also accept that the means of communication remain in the same privileged hands. This rhetoric can also turn back on itself. The justification of one gallery for refusing a piece on AIDS was that it was going to be in public space and not in gallery space. Aesthetic freedom means galleries become the prison houses of expression, distorting the expressions itself.
A flip-side of this is the repression of 2 Live Crew which had its justification in their song lyrics lack of "artistic merit." A further flip-side of the system appears as 2 Live Crew uses their repression to sell albums containing songs glorifying rape and attacks on women. Just as pornography is sold along with the repression of sexuality or Andrew Dice Clay uses public boycott threats to sell his movie and his miserable act. Pornographic consumerism and sexual repression are still the two sides of (dominant male) American character armour. (The great number of pseudo-negations within this "dialogue" shows the inherent falsifying quality of the media beyond anyone's position)
Though it is the dream of every liberal, any reform of stereotypes is impossible. As the San Francisco Weekly claimed, the Mapelthorpe show did "challenge the stereotypes" of the establishment. Black homosexuals are many degrees removed from the television's image of normalcy. But this challenge is still a dialogue with power.
The heights of artistic achievement hide the depths of advertising banality just as the heights of scientific insight hide horrors like Chernobyl. Every artistic proprietor shamelessly plays to the mainstream. It is no secret that most successful artists, of any medium including photography, support themselves via sales to advertising agencies or design shops. This does not speak to their personal corruption but to the present role of "high" art as a pure form of and proving ground for applied conditioning.
Maplethorp, as a classically oriented photographer, preserves all the artistic illusions that incidentally but necessarily support homophobia. The character-armour of the average person is not supported by ignorance but by the simple continuation of daily life as it exists now. Maplethorpe is part of a high stage, an experimental stage part of which will be eventually be blandified for the masses though expanding, only slightly, the viewpoint of mass media.
While homosexuality will very likely remain far removed from the mass ideology of America, the main discussion takes place within the elite, a group that much fewer qualms about either utilizing or exterminating any group, and the main subject of debate here is whether the homoerotic male body will be more directly integrated into the spectacle or whether anti-gay hysteria will instead be used instead to escalate the rate of social exploitation.
Naturally every power group today demands sacrifices and demands that exploitation increase to raise profits. The argument has been between the liberal strategy of getting participation by making everyone feel they have a place and the conservative strategy. The conservative strategy of raising of motivating people with a hysterical hatred of gays, the poor, the blacks, the hippy Earth First! etc. has become mass culture, liberal rhetoric is sold to those too marginalized to fit into the standard model.
The integration of homoeroticism into the large scale management of America is nearly complete. With the same alienation, our oil refinery society distills anti-homosexual attacks as an unstated counter-weight to purely consumer oriented gay male sexuality. Even though the elite would never really accept full membership for this group, the system maintains various token alcoves for certain (mostly male) homosexuals. From ideal consumers to prestigious designers and trend setters, male homosexuals play a strategic role since they dance more competently through the maze of sexual paralyses set up by patriarchal society.
The most laughable force in this mess are the liberals who tell us to put pressure on our congress people. These particular "struggles for freedom" come at an ironic time. This country is quickly moving from pluralistic democracy to cybernetic democracy.
The most naive liberals who plead with the system to move back a few steps are inevitably swept away in this movement. The more sophisticated liberal congresspersons (or congresscomputers) are well programmed for any comprising with power; they are quite willing to stake out claims in the margins of the spectacle (and have a different apology for each group).
The today's civil libertarians are on the scene at just the point when capital reaches its stage of most deadly and most falsified level. What is new today is not the complex of social, economic or sexual repressions but the crisis of capital. It makes every faction fight for their position in a rebuilt cybernetic ark of capitalism. The weakest factions are pushed into the margins of invisibility.
The power struggles of Helms the TV commentator and the art establishment is simply the last in a vast chain of hierarchical exchanges that create public policy in America. Capital's decline fuels the increase in non-market exchange. One of the few new phenomenon in this declining stage of Spectacular Capital is the marginal capitalist, the cadre, those who barely survive as workers but still put in extra labour to sustain the spectacle; they are the Stakanovites of the free market. This group, which is concentrated on college campuses and in the largest urban areas, forms the foot soldiers not only for leftist causes but for the movie industry, political campaigns and every area of intellectual prestige.
When the crisis of capital makes survival by working uncertain, the upper stratum of the working class accumulated multiple items of prestige as insurance. In a city like San Francisco, the "bohemian" typically has a lousy job, goes to school and defines her/himself with the extra role of painter, political activist or etc.
The hierarchy of prestige, of contacts and of skills, that is generated by volunteerists is a kind of negative economy. The basis of the motivation here is survival; in this case social survival within a milieu. Those closer to the bottom trade their activity with those above them for the prestiges situation they are in. If they did not, they would cease to exist within the social circle. What is traded ranges from contacts to gallery space to addresses of parties to styles of clothing. These are often traded en masse to make the operation appear less odious.
The main difference of this system from the official economy is that money doesn't change hands. Certainly the folks at the top get money; the painter in residence, photographer/professor, the broadway or TV actor or others who are beneficiaries of a real entertainment industry that pays real wages. Those at the bottom merely trade their "free time" for a slim chance of "making it" and a place in a social definition. Indeed, if calculated, the expected monetary pay-off of the labour of those on the bottom is on average just pennies a day.
The established artists, incapable of using effective weapons against their enemies are slowly torn apart by the conservative onslaught. Since today their very ability to survive is uncertain, the cadres must unflinchingly obey the unwritten rules. Artists uniformly mouth the rhetoric of anti-censorship without conceiving that they could go on the offensive. The threat of art, that it could show people their own lives more clearly, is virtually gone.
Since they can defend their uncertain position, this group create a threat that will force the right back on the defensive. This present attacks succeed precisely because those who officially oppose the system actually support it. Unless dissent comes from an entirely different direction, we can expect this repression to intensify. In contrast to those who wring their hand over changes in Supreme Court, only the movements in the sixties that threatened to get out of hand were able to force a return to "liberal tolerance."
What is obvious is that the mass of cadre, the mass of volunteerist fighters for freedom can never recognize the real struggle that is going on, a struggle where they lead all those that follow into certain defeat. Jane, the group that systematically performed illegal abortions, forced the supreme court to legalize abortion. In the same way, only the realization and suppression of art can serve as an offense against the present onslaught.