Conservatives Called Her Artwork ‘Obscene.’ She’s Back for More.

Conservatives Called Her Artwork ‘Obscene.’ She’s Back for More.

Since the passage of what critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, more than 40 similar policies have gone into effect in 22 states, according to the free-speech advocacy group PEN America. The American Library Association reported that attempts to ban books are up 20 percent this year nationwide, the highest level since the organization started collecting data more than 20 years ago.

When “Go Figure” was first staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1997, it included a reflecting pool on which Finley projected the audience’s responses to the question, “What is offensive to you?” Although the pool will not appear when the New York gallery Freight+Volume presents the work in Miami, the question remains a potent one. Tom Healy, Finley’s former art dealer and a trustee of PEN America, said he would have been “shocked” to learn 25 years ago that today’s left-leaning activists believe free speech should be balanced carefully against concerns about the care and safety of students before speakers with provocative ideas are invited to campus. “There is a different sense of decency operative today in deciding what kind of speech should be free,” Healy said.

And in the last months, a new front in the culture war has also opened up, on campuses with demonstrations over the Israel-Hamas war, and at some art institutions as they remove artworks or postpone shows of artists who have been critical of Israel.

The 1998 ruling did not go so far as to restrict the National Endowment for the Arts’ ability to fund “indecent” art, noted Amy Adler, a professor specializing in art law at New York University. In the end, the language was vague enough that it “didn’t mean much.” But the firestorm nevertheless had an effect. In the years after Finley filed her lawsuit, the endowment stopped awarding fellowships to individual artists in all genres except literature. It shifted more money to state arts agencies, which critics said diminished its influence in Washington, and focused attention on community-based initiatives in lieu of avant-garde art.

Before the controversy, “the N.E.A. was actually very progressive, supporting all kinds of edgy stuff,” said David Joselit, a professor of art, film, and visual studies at Harvard University. Even modest grants “were a seal of legitimation that made it easier to fund-raise.” The agency’s political opponents “managed to more or less end all that,” Joselit said, ushering in an era of privatized arts funding.

The case also had a major effect on Finley, who became a somewhat reluctant poster child for free speech. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gave away one of her works. A Chicago concert venue canceled her appearance because management worried the establishment might lose its liquor license. The Whitney Museum of American Art called off a planned show that would have prominently featured “Go Figure,” citing budget constraints.

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