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Art history 101

Legendary arts educator Philip Yenawine talks about the effrontery of art collectors, irresponsible artists and the willful ignorance of the average American male.

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By Danya Ruttenberg

Oct. 25, 1999 | For legendary arts educator Philip Yenawine, witnessing the art world's feeble response to the continuing "Sensations" imbroglio is like enduring a lover's clueless, self-destructive patterns: He's seen it before, he'll see it again; but he cares too much to not try to fix what he can.

Yenawine is co-editor of the new book "Art Matters: How The Culture Wars Changed America" (NYU Press, 1999), which details the ways in which the arts funding crisis of the '80s and early '90s drastically reshaped our culture. With essays by Lucy Lippard, Andrea Fraiser, Lewis Hyde and others, it chronicles a major shift in the role of visual art in public life, and examines how that shift has altered our understanding of censorship, democracy and indeed all of pop culture.

During that pivotal era, Yenawine was director of education at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and one of the most powerful champions of controversial art that few were willing to embrace. As head of the nonprofit Visual AIDS, he helped launch both the now-ubiquitous red ribbon project and "A Day Without Art" (which is still observed by most art institutions each Dec.1). During the censorship/funding crisis of 1989 and '90, Yenawine testified on behalf of the NEA before the House of Representatives, and later was an expert witness for the artist David Wojnarowicz when he sued the American Family Association for wrongfully representing his work as porn.

In a rare interview, Yenawine explains why protecting "freedom of expression" won't save contemporary art, and why it's the art world that has failed the public -- and themselves.

In your forward to "Art Matters," you criticize the "dominant conservatism of the art world" that made "museums, art historians, and critics ... very quiet" during the culture wars of the late '80s/early '90s. Yet the "Sensation" controversy affects museums quite directly; how does the response of these institutions rate this time around?

I think the silence of most museum people -- their refusal to come to support in any way -- indicates the position to which museums have retreated. It was the same story in the late '80s -- there's too much self-concern. This time around, it's particularly egregious when even institutions that have no city funding, like the MoMA and the Whitney, stay silent. [MoMA director] Glen Lowry came up with an article last week, finally, but it's very belated. Originally, he just sent out a statement refusing to comment. Museums are now part of the problem; they're so disinclined to support each other.

[Cultural critic] Lucy Lippard pointed out that socially engaged art is the first to get trashed, and the art world is the first to join in the chorus. Underneath it all, the art world is basically quite conservative. Artists will continue to make their work; they'll never shut up. But it's gotten and will continue to get harder to find venues to show it. Thank God for the effrontery of collectors, who don't care which politicians they piss off -- because they can help preserve this stuff.

The differences are few -- a lot of things haven't changed. Some people in the art world have spoken up more this time than in the past. What should happen is that the people who care about this stuff should stop capitulating to those that don't. It's not like acquiescing has produced great new sources of funding. The NEA got cut way, way back, and its budget is still low. As a result of [the art community's] gutlessness, the pot of money from the government is smaller. If [former NEA chairwoman] Jane Alexander had said, "I want to educate people, not capitulate to them," we might have seen some differences that now aren't there. So the art world continues its outrage against philistinism, but does nothing to change it.

Next page | Thank God for Sister Wendy

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