Un-Circled Wagons: Art World Fragmentation and NEA Reauthorization

under construction

Katherine Giuffre

The Colorado College Fail 1997 Approximately 4000 words Un-Circled Wagons
Since it's inception in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has undergone yearly budget approval by Congress and congressional reauthorization every five years. In his first term as a United States senator, Jesse Helms (R- NC) took issue with funding decisions made by the NEA. That was 1972 and the work in question was Erica Jong's Fear of Flying. Seventeen years later, Helms played a key role in the pornography/censorship controversy that began with an outcry over the NEA funding of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Despite his fairly constant criticisms, it wasn't until 1989 that Helms had any large-scale success. What took so long? Had something changed not only in the country at large but also in the art world itself that made it:finally vulnerable to Helms attacks?
In this article, I will show that social network fragmentation among the members of the photography world had reached a peak at the same time as this most successful attack on the art world occurred. I will further propose that this fragmentation left the whole art world vulnerable to Helms' criticisms. Following the 1989 controversy, there was indeed a circling of the wagons, not only critically, but socially as well, which has helped the art world remain somewhat resistant to attacks during the 1990's. I will use social network analysis to look at the structure of one segment of the art world - fine art photographers. I will plot the web of relations that existed among these photographers and chart the changes in the overall structure of that web across the years 1981-1992, showing an increasingly fragmented network in the years leading up to the 1989 controversy.

The art world of the 1980's was in upheaval on both stylistic and economic fronts. Stylistically, the rise of postmodernism was problematisizing criticism, calling into question the formal criteria so long accepted as the basis for the evaluation of art work. Competing schemes of evaluation (tied to competing and contradictory philosophies) led to vitriolic exchanges among art critics and art world thinkers. The tenor of the debate is captured in Hughes' 1991 diatribe:

By the mid-eighties, twenty-one-year-old art-history majors would be writing papers on twenty-six-year-old graffitists. The modernist ethos was no longer a side issue in art history; it had become an industry... For every ounce of fresh thinking, this overload produced a ton of incantatory jargon, art writing in which a fear of missing the bus mingled with the desire to find historical heroes and heroines under every shrub. (Hughes 1991: 372)

Part of this upheaval, which Hughes' finds so distressing, but which others found liberating, was occasioned by the "mainstream" emergence of artwork by traditionally marginalized groups. Feminist art was only one of a number of different kinds of art which asserted a special view of reality. Other special interest groups which evolved their own art-forms were ethnic ... and gay .... Such work defiantly negates the hermetic tradition associated with classic modernism. Perhaps, indeed, it contains the seeds of a new modernism, of a very different kind. (Lucie-Smith 1984: 276)
This emergence carried socio-political ramifications and helped create ideological divisions within the artworld.
By the late 1970's, a reaction against pluralism, and a backlash against women and minorities, could be observed within the dominant institutions and discourses of the art world. (Chadwick 1990: 347)
Beginning in the late 1970's, art in general and photography in particular increasing found that the relationship of image to socio-political context was a relevant factor in valuation. Photographs as social statements pushed aesthetic boundaries ever more blatantly into the realms of homophobia, sexism, racism, and capitalist exploitation. For the past century, virtually every major artist had received initial opprobrium for the most important avant-garde work (replaced eventually by esteem and acclaim). The avant-garde artists of the 1970's and 80's courted controversy with works in which message often outweighed such concerns as craftsmanship or beauty. Although artists from many different media contributed to the "culture wars", photography--perhaps because of its relationship to reality--played a pivotal role in touching off the most intensive of these debates. (Dubin, 1992)
Economically, moreover, an infusion of money from Japanese collectors took the art market took on a rollercoaster ride of boom followed by bust. (Watson 1992) 1989 was not only the year of the Mapplethorpe controversy, but was also the year of the record setting price ($88 million) for a painting sold at auction (van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet) - the culmination of a decade of astronomically rising prices (Watson, 1992). In this overheated economic atmosphere, art galleries were nevertheless having a difficult time staying afloat. The average life span for an art gallery during the decade of the 1980's was only one year. Even though there was a net increase in the total number of art galleries over the decade, the fortunes of individual galleries were very precarious. It is in this milieu that the NEA funding controversy occurred, with the photography world (represented by Jock Sturges, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Barbara Kruger and David Wojnarowicz among others) at its center. The most controversial works were the photographs of Andres Serrano and of Robert Mapplethorpe.
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ--a color photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in yellow liquid (the artist's urine) -- was the first photograph to attract the ire of Helms and of Reverend Donald Wildmon, Methodist preacher from Tupelo, Mississippi, founder of the National Federation of Decency, and head of a pro-censorship advocacy group called the American Family Association (AFA). Helms sharply criticized the NEA for providing funds to The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, NC. SECCA had, through its Awards in the Visual Arts program, given Serrano a $15,000 grant for a body of work that included Piss Christ. Serrano was a well-regarded but relatively minor figure on the photography landscape prior to the uproar over the use of public funds to support his work, much of which relates to his feeling regarding his Catholic upbringing and to the commercialization of religion in general. Wildmon (and through him, Helms) became aware of Serrano's work in early 1989, just weeks before Wildmon's AFA discovered the work of Mapplethorpe in a traveling show that had begun at the Institute for Contemporary Art (lCA) at the University of Philadelphia, which also receives operating money from the NEA.
Mapplethorpe, although a well-known photographer, didn't become truly infamous to most of America until June 1989 when this posthumous retrospective of his work, entitled "The Perfect Moment", scheduled for the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. was pulled amidst charges of pornography and alleged concern from the Corcoran staff that mounting the show could endanger the mandatory Congressional reauthorization of the NEA scheduled for 1990 (Dubin, 1992). Mapplethorpe's images (especially those depicting homoerotic sado~masochism) provided Helms with a cause celebre by which to advance a conservative moral agenda in the government. (Dubin, 1992) Helms spearheaded efforts in Congress to eliminate the NEA as a government agency and, barring that, to prohibit any government sponsorship of artists whose work was morally questionable. Those efforts were somewhat successful--at least for a time. Under the Helms amendment attached to the annual appropriation for the Department of the Interior, all artists applying for grams from the NEA were required to sign affidavits agreeing not to produce obscene or offensive work in order to be eligible for funding (Bolton, 1992). The NEA budget was reduced by $45,000 (the amount of money that could be associated with the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits). The ICA (which had originally put together the travelling Mapplethorpe retrospective) and SECCA (which had awarded Serrano grant money) were placed on probation for a year each. An outside panel was also set up to evaluate the NEA decision process in the future. When John Frohnmeyer, who had been appointed to head the NEA by then-President George Bush in October 1988, refused to be, in his own words "the decency czar" (Bolton, 1992: 363) by requiting artists to sign the anti-obscenity oath, Bush forced him to resign from his position.
Although only a minute portion of the NEA budget had previously gone to support avant-garde work of any kind, scores of artists and art organizations (including
Joseph Papp, the Paris Review, and Leonard Bernstein, who refused to accept the National Medal of Arts from President Bush) protested the censorship measures by rejecting or returning government funding (Bolton, 1992; Dubin, 1992). Mapplethorpe, who had died of AIDS in March 1989 -- three months before the furor over his work erupted--gained household name status, and the retrospective, picked up by the Washington Project for the Arts, became an instant smash success with over 50,000 visitors during its twenty-five day run in Washington. Eventually, a jury in Cincinnati would acquit Dennis Barrie, the director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), of pandering obscenity in a suit brought against him and the CAC for showing "The Perfect Moment". Over 80,000 people (a record in Cincinnati) had turned out to see the Mapplethorpe show during its seven week run at the CAC, standing in line for hours to see the controversial pictures from the X Portfolio. The publicity quintupled prices for Mapplethorpe's work so that in the fail of 1989, a self-portrait sold for $38,000. By 1991, Mapplethorpe's works were being shown in an astonishing 23 galleries in the United States alone, more galleries than any other contemporary photographer, with the single exception of William Wegman.
In 1988, Serrano's photographs (depicting body fluids such as milk, blood, semen and urine intermingled with Catholic iconography) were being shown in only two relatively minor galleries. By 1990, he was represented by three galleries in New York, including the prestigious Blum-Helman Gallery, and by four others across the country. Piss Christ, which had been printed in a limited edition of ten, carried a price tag of $18,000. Clearly, the controversy surrounding the work of these artists engendered enormous cachet in the art world. Disapproval from Helms and Wildmort assured an artist of success much as being "Banned in Boston" had done for other artists in decades past. (Dubin, 1992; Bolton, 1992)
As important as the notoriety these artists achieved on the outside, however, was the reaction inside the artworld. Artists boycotted the Corcoran, pulling out of planned exhibitions, in protest over the decision to cancel "The Perfect Moment". Dr. Christina Orr-Cahall, director of the Corcoran at the time of the Mapplethorpe decision, resigned from her position there and moved out of the limelight. Aesthetic judgments of controversial works were abandoned as those works and their makers became symbols in the censorship battles. As photography critic Andy Grundberg noted, the increased attention these artists and performers have gained makes it nearly impossible to evaluate their work. The prevailing critical response has been to circle the wagons .... To argue about the merits of artists who have been attacked is, in certain circles, tantamount to heresy, no matter how mediocre their work. (quoted in Bolton 1992: 292)
The careers of those artists whose work could most effectively serve the artworld as weapons in the culture wars were, Grundberg noted, "given a rocket-powered boost." (quoted in Bolton 1992: 291)
The battles surrounding the Mapplethorpe and Serrano pictures were the culmination of years of wrangling over censorship and arts funding. Helms had been criticizing NEA sponsorship of controversial work for almost two decades. Wildmon had sponsored increasingly virulent boycotts against sponsors of television shows he found offensive throughout the 1980's, beginning in 1981 with a successful effort against
Proctor and Gamble, who, under the threat of a National Federation of Decency boycott, withdrew advertising from more than 50 televisions shows. (Dubin, 1992)
The data consist of 159 contemporary fine art photographers, the complete enumeration of those photographers born after 1940 who received NEA photography grants in 1986 and 1988 plus the complete enumeration of photographers born after 1940 having solo shows at galleries in New York City during 1988. Each of these photographers had achieved a certain degree of success (national grants or major gallery representation) in order to be included in the study. By choosing artists from the 1986-88 period, I hope to have at least partially avoided the overtly political funding decisions spawned by the NEA reauthorization controversy of 1989. Although some of the photographers in the sample were subsequently affected by the pornography/censorship debates of 1989-90, they had achieved their success prior to that time.
There are two reasons to concentrate on this population of artists. First is the position of photographers at the center of the controversy. Second, restricting the dataset to contemporary fine art photographers allows me to define a complete subculture which throughout the time period of the study (1981-1992) maintained relatively clear cut boundaries between themselves and other artists, but who nevertheless functioned under the gallery-critic system (White and White 1993) which was in operation for the larger artworld.
Gallery ties are very important to the economic survival of professional artists. Moulin 1987, Greenfeld 1989, Bystryn 1978, de Copprt and Jones 1974) Gallery representation is usually a necessary part of making money through art. It is usually through galleries that artists come to the attention of museums, collectors and critics. Moreover, galleries are also loci of art world connections. Artists are tied to each other through shared gallery representation. Since artists may be represented by more than one gallery and those galleries may be widely geographically dispersed, galleries are the linking pins of national and even international webs of artists. This study will use the links that shared gallery representation makes between photographers in order to analyze art world cohesiveness.

Some Basic Network Concepts

In this section, I will define and illustrate some basic network concepts which will be used in the analysis, beginning with the idea of social network itself and continuing through nodes, ties, indirect ties, sociograms, density and structurally equivalent blocks. These concepts should provide an adequate background for understanding the analysis that follows.
A "social network" is a set of relations between a group of actors. Those actors are called "nodes" and may be either individuals (such as the individual workers in a company) or groups of individuals (such as companies in a marketplace). The nodes chosen for study usually form some coherent population, although the coherence might be quite minimal (e.g., "people in the United States"--Travers and Milgram, 1969.)
The nodes have relationships with each other. These relationships are called "ties". The different possible contents of the ties to be studied are also quite broadranging, from kinship and family ties (e.g., Bott 1956) to professional associations (e.g., Coleman, Katz, and Menzel 1966) or shared group memberships (e.g., Breiger 1974) to even avoidance or dislike (e.g., White et al. 1976.)
The ties in this paper are all ties of shared group memberships, specifically shared gallery representation. These are "indirect ties". Although the nodes in these networks may have direct ties with each other (shared friendship, for example), I am examining only the indirect tie of shared gallery memberships. The idea, from Breiger's (1974) seminal article (itself indebted to the theories of Simmel), is that shared group memberships are an important component in social life. Just as groups are composed of their members, actors are socially composed of the groups to which they belong, that is, of the social circles of which they are a part and which have their intersection in that particular individual (or set of individuals.) The work done on corporate interlocking directories (for example, Useem 1978) is based on precisely these ideas--corporations are indirectly tied together when their boards of directors share members. Individuals are tied together when they sit on the same boards.>br>
A useful way to look at social networks is by using a "sociogram". A sociogram is a drawing of the network using circles to represent the nodes and lines to represent the ties. An example of a sociogram is given in Figure 1.
Density" is a characteristic of the network as a whole. Density is "the proportion of actual ties made as a function of the number which could have been formed." (Berkowitz 1982:46) or: 2a/N(N-1) where "a" is the actual number of ties made and "N" is the number of nodes. This gives us some idea of the degree of interconnectedness of the network as a whole.
For this study, another important attribute of actors in the network is their membership in "structurally equivalent blocks". Structural equivalence is concerned with an actor's position within the network, that is, with the actor's pattern of relations with others in the population. Actors are structurally equivalent if they have the same ties to the same others. Figure 1 shows three structurally equivalent actors - A, B and C---each of whom is tied to D. Figure 2 is the collapsed sociogram of Figure 1. Those actors who are structurally equivalent - A, B, and C - have all been placed together into one block. We will call that node Block 1 and note that Block 1 has three members - A, B and C.
For the purposes of this study, this is a way of simplifying the sociogram. Collapsing the nodes in such a small network as Figure 1 seems trivial. However, once the networks become very large, reducing the actors into structurally equivalent blocks allows us to picture the social structure of the network more analytically than would be possible with only the massive, unordered sociogram. Because the structurally equivalent actors share the same patterns of ties, we do not lose any information about the shape of the total network with the collapsed picture. Instead, we gain information about the individual actors involved--specifically, the actors acquire a categorical attribute, block membership. That is, we know which actors in the network share the same pattern of ties. Analysis
Using the annual indices of gallery representation compiled by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers and by the journal Art in America, as well as notices and advertisements in the three major artworld joumals, ArtForum, ArtNews and Art in America, I traced the gallery histories of the 159 contemporary photographers from 1981 through 1992. That is, I have for each photographer a listing for each year of all of the galleries in which s/he showed work or which claimed representation for that artist. These data were used to construct for each year a sociogram of artists with shared gallery memberships as the ties between them. I calculated the density of each of these yearly networks and then collapsed the networks into networks of structurally equivalent blocks using the CONCOR algorithm in UCINET.
Figures 3 through 14 are these collapsed sociograms for 1981-1992. The circles represent blocks of structurally equivalent actors, those actors who shared ties to the same others (such as Block 1 in Figure 2). The lines between the circles represent ties between blocks of actors (such as the line between Block 1 and node D in Figure 2). The overall density of the network for that year is also reported. Note the progression of the pattern of overall relations that emerges. Although in each year between 1981 and 1984 there are either two or three groups of isolated photographers, the systems as a whole are still largely connected webs. In 1985 and 1986, that pattern begins to break down and there emerge two main groupings of actors, with one or two isolated cliques. In 1987 and 1988, there are three groups and one or two isolated cliques. And in 1989, the year of the Mapplethorpe/Serrano controversy, there are two small three-cluster groupings, and six isolated cliques. The connectedness within the photography world had fallen to a low point. The picture of the 1989 art world stands in stark contrast to the pictures of 19811984. In 1990, the pattern has begun to reverse itself, as the circling of the wagons set in and, by 1991, the picture is of a unified and coherent whole. Finally, the 1992 sociogram is remarkably similar to the 1981-84 pictures.
The overall yearly densities also show an interesting pattern. From a steady 0.06 in 1981-84, the overall density falls to half of that - 0.03 - in 1985 and hits this low point again in 1987 and in the critical year of 1989. The densities then climb up to their highest points - 0.07 in 1990, 0.08 in 1991, and 0.11 in 1992 - indicating an increasing degree of network interconnectedness. Discussion
Social networks are pathways of information diffusion. Coleman et al. (1966) document the importance that the network position of physicians plays in the timing of their adoption of innovative medicines. Granovetter (1974) shows how informal social networks are critical for passing employment information among professional, technical, and managerial workers. The ability to disseminate information quickly and effectively throughout a population certainly may be an essential key to mobilizing that population.
Social networks are also pathways of social support. Wellman and Wortley (1990) document the many different types of support provided by informal social networks even in urban areas presumably filled with mostly isolated individuals and nuclear families.
Allen (1984) shows how catastrophic effects can occur when the social networks within a community break apart. In his study of the Nazi take over of a single German town, Allen found that Nazi success was based in part on exploiting existing class-based cleavages within the population in order to fragment the lines of social support. As they became increasingly "atomized"- isolated from each other- the citizens of the town were unable to show any agency in actively resisting the Nazis.
There are many examples of a split or fragmented opposition making an easier target for attack. The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was in part owing to the lack of cohesiveness among the white opposition. Splits among whites along gender lines, with white women driving their black housekeepers to work, facilitated the success of the boycott. (Williams 1987: 85) The political and economic divisions of the white ante-bellum South were one component in the defeat of the Confederacy. (Scott 1985:30, Giuffre 1997)
Likewise, the art world of the 1980's was increasingly atomized. Ideological cohesion was low and social networks were becoming ever more fragmented. The numbers of others to whom photographers were connected was dropping (as measured by the total network density.) The web of relationships had been transformed into a picture of isolated cliques with very few ties among them. At the moment when art world cohesion was at its lowest point, the attacks on that world were most effective.
Following the 1989 controversy, photographers' social networks began to change form. Ties were formed which reached across the gulfs between cliques. The ideological wagon circling to which Grundberg referred was accompanied by re-establishing network connections that mitigated the fragmentation. This should not be seen as implying causality. The ideological fragmentation did not cause Helms' attacks. It seems plausible, however, that the fragmentation facilitated the success of those attacks. Certainly, many factors were involved, but the split forces of the art world were one element that made it vulnerable to the 1989 attacks.

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The Journal of The Sociology of Art

Frostburg State University