Carbonneau’s Vision Series Lecture Addresses the War Against Art

Posted: March 10, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Catherine Ferraro

When it was first exhibited 20 years ago, a controversial photograph by American photographer Andres Serrano created a political uproar that had devastating and lasting effects on the arts in America.

Suzanne Carbonneau
Suzanne Carbonneau
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Suzanne Carbonneau, professor in the Department of Art and Visual Technology, will discuss this impact in the next Vision Series lecture, “The War Against Art: Where Are We Now?” The talk takes place on Monday, March 16, at 7 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall on the Fairfax Campus.

Admission is free, but tickets are required. Reserve tickets online or visit the Center for the Arts ticket office, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For information, call 703-993-8888.

Carbonneau’s lecture will focus on the consequences from a 1989 U.S. Senate debate about Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. Politicians were outraged that Serrano, whose work was displayed at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a U.S. government agency that offers support and funding for artistic projects.

The photograph, they argued, was a disgrace and should not be supported with taxpayers’ money.

These politicians, along with political activists, succeeded in transforming public perception of the arts virtually overnight and began the process of defunding the NEA, asserts Carbonneau. Rather than being seen as a public good, the arts came to be seen as a public danger that threatened one’s morals, religion and societal values.

“Before 1989, the public had a positive opinion of the arts in this country even though we never had the kind of support that other major industrialized countries had until the NEA was established in 1965,” says Carbonneau.

“After this attack occurred, all of the arts were smeared with the same brush and came to stand for something particularly virulent. As a result, the door that was opened in 1989 still hasn’t closed.”

As part of the larger culture wars, which can be traced to the 1960s, Carbonneau believes that the assault on the arts has a lot to do with the changing demographics of the country. She notes that many artists targeted by political activists were outside of the mainstream in terms of their race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

“I wanted to give this lecture because the demonization of the arts has taken hold so deeply that I am concerned it will have profound implications on our country.”

According to Carbonneau, the arts provide an outlet whereby individuals can express their highest ideals as well as ask questions about themselves. If this is not allowed to happen, she notes, individuals will be suppressing something very important.

“The attacks on the arts show us that living in a free society and the idea of free speech is a struggle,” says Carbonneau. “While artists feel that it is their job to ask the kinds of questions that make us think about ourselves, there is still tension between free speech and how much our values can be challenged in the public sphere.”

Carbonneau hopes that the country will progress to a time when individuals are not discouraged from asking questions about themselves and the society in which they live, and she looks forward to a time when the arts can reclaim its rightful place.

Carbonneau is a performance critic and historian whose writings have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times and other publications. She directs the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival and has served as critic-in-residence at the Joyce Theater in New York and scholar-in-residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Bates Dance Festival.

Carbonneau lectures and writes about dance for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She is a dance consultant to the NEA, where she has also served as a panelist. Carbonneau holds a PhD in performance studies from New York University.

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