Inside the Culture Wars Maelstrom of the 1990s
In 1994 while working at Walker Art Center, I presented Ron Athey’s Four Scenes in a Harsh Life. The work opened with a campy burlesque dance by an African-American man, Divinity Fudge, covered in balloons. Ron burst the balloons with a cigar, and then transitioned to a scene in which he raised the tattoos on Divinity’s back by cutting stylized marks, patting with paper towels and sending these blood-marked prints along pulleys toward the audience. Operative words to note: “blood-marked prints” and “toward the audience.”
In another section, Ron inserted needles into his own arm as his voice-over talked about overcoming addiction and suicide attempts. The iconography of Jesus’ Passion was then evoked with a crown of thorns pierced into Ron’s scalp with acupuncture-like needles. The evening culminated with two women being pierced and ecstatically dancing in a queer wedding ceremony officiated by Ron, now clothed in a business suit, exhorting in a booming revivalist voice, “There are so many ways to say ‘Hallelujah!’”
The sold-out performance was well received by an audience of about 100. Post-show discussions with the artist, attended by eighty people, were thoughtful and engaging. Theatre and dance critics had been invited—none chose to attend.
Three weeks after the event, a visual art critic from the Minneapolis StarTribune called, wanting to verify someone’s distorted, fantastical version of the performance. She did not want to meet in person, and warned me to look for her lead story on the front page the next morning. Here are some choice quotes from that initial article: “Knife-wielding performer is known to be HIV-positive” and that the audience “knocked over the chairs to get out from under the clotheslines.”
This was the first of more than twenty articles the newspaper published about a performance its critic had not seen. Vituperative argument about Athey’s work escalated into that summer’s fodder in the NEA’s reappropriation battle, since the Walker had received a grant to subsidize the full season of performances, including Athey’s.
When Jane Alexander, the head of the NEA at that time, defended the Walker from the “erroneously reported” and “inaccurate coverage,” the disgruntled local critic fueled the fires by writing directly to Alexander and to Congress, “Your attempts to blame the press for criticism of your agency merely trivializes the issue and obscures the facts.” By advocating, she inserted herself into the narrative, and still the newspaper let her continue her coverage.
That local critic also wrote an op-ed piece. Admitting that “State health officials agreed there was little risk of audience members contracting the AIDS virus from the performance,” she fired off that presenting this work was “akin to adding blowfish to the buffet of a Japanese restaurant without warning the clientele … potentially poisonous fish whose flesh is said to deliver a peculiar high.”
Walker Director Kathy Halbreich was quoted as saying, “I find the negative responses to this troubling, not because of the artistic issues, but because they’re suggestive of the fear we have of people with AIDS.” The critic’s response was, “Given the complexity of the issues that’s a disturbingly facile response. Somewhere in the background I hear an echo of Clarence Thomas accusing his critics of racism.”
Sen. Jesse Helms called Athey “a cockroach” on the Senate floor. Rep. Bob Dornan termed him a “porno jerk” and Sen. Clifford Stearns ranted about how Athey endangered the audience’s life by the “slopping around of AIDS-infected blood.” Minnesota’s Sen. David Durenberger criticized the “highly inflammatory reporting … less to do with the Walker—or any single performance—than with the fundamental differences over whether and how the federal government should be funding the arts.”
Televangelist Pat Robertson tarnished the Walker’s good name, and the American Family Association’s fundraising exploited Athey for financial gain. My mother telephoned after watching Rush Limbaugh. “Buckets of AIDS-tainted blood were intentionally thrown at the audience,” he snidely commented, and “the audience ran for their lives.” When I told my mother Limbaugh was a liar, she responded, “But it was on television.”
Through it all, Walker director Kathy Halbreich was extraordinary. Leaders do not always get to choose their battles. Halbreich was gracious and supportive under intense pressure, as were the Walker board and staff.
Excerpted from a lecture given at the John Nichols Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University, October 4, 2016. For the full transcript with context and reflections, visit HowlRound.