Racism Photo

Manhattan, 1992
Women's Action Coalition (WAC) demonstrators take over Grand Central Station the Friday prior to Mother's Day.

Sandra Lee Phipps

culture wars

The culture wars were ignited by the Religious Right’s backlash against feminism and gay and lesbian rights. This coalition of evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics argued that the expression of sexuality outside of heterosexual marriage and the erosion of traditional gender roles were weakening the nation, and opposed abortion, homosexuality, and sex education in public schools. More broadly, the culture wars pitted traditionalists against progressives in areas including secularization, environmentalism and animal rights.

In the late 1980s, censorship of the arts became a hot issue in the culture wars, as Conservative Christians attacked representations of gay and lesbian sexuality, which they argued were obscene and unfit for public viewing. In 1989 Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) initiated a campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts for its support of exhibitions featuring the work of artists Andrews Serrano, whose “Piss Christ” was intended as a protest against the commercialization of sacred imagery, and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs included men having sex with men. Helms got Congress to pass a ban on funding for “obscene” art which resulted in the NEA withdrawing funding from several New York City-based shows that focused on AIDS in 1989 and 1990.

In 1999, Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to withdraw City funding for and evict the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition of the “Sensation” exhibit, which included The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, a black Madonna decorated with resin-covered elephant dung and surrounded by cuts outs from pornographic pictures, which Giuliani and Cardinal John O’Connor claimed was an attack on Catholicism. A federal judge ordered the City to restore the Museum’s funding and cease eviction proceedings.

Feminists responded to the Religious Right’s backlash with counter-demonstrations but also mounted their own campaigns. In the 1980s and 1990s, direct action feminist groups, including the Guerilla Girls, so named for the masks they wore to remain anonymous, and Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) staged theatrical demonstrations at New York museums and designed eye-catching graphic posters to call attention to the paucity of work by women and artists of color in major collections. Feminists picketed outside rape and sexual assault trials, calling for an end to sexual violence. In 1992, WAC staged a Mother’s Day demonstration at Grand Central Station to draw attention to the feminization of poverty, as divorce and low wages for women left single mothers and their children the poorest groups of Americans.

Racism Photo

Queens, 1992
A coalition of women’s groups gathered outside the Queens County Courthouse during the St. John's College rape trial.

Meryl Levin

Racism Photo

Manhattan, June, 1992
Members of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) demonstrating in favor of the election of female candidates to Congress during the "Year of the Woman" on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the Museum Mile celebration.

lisa kahane

Racism Photo

Manhattan, June 6, 1992
A Women's Action Coalition (WAC) protest at an opening at the Guggenheim Museum. The Guerrilla Girls called attention to the exclusion of women and people of color in mainstream art institutions.

Ricky Flores

Culture Photo

Manhattan, June 25, 1992.
Members of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) demonstrate at the opening of the Guggenheim Soho to protest the lack of women artists in the inaurgural exhibition

Lisa Kahane

Racism Photo

Manhattan, 1985
The Guerrilla Girls, feminist activists who targeted sexism and racism in the art world and who wore gorilla masks to remain anonymous, wheat-paste posters throughout the city after midnight.

Lori Grinker | contact press

Racism Photo

Manhattan, Oct 02, 1999
Supporters of the art exhibit “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), show their support of freedom of speech during a counter-demonstration against the exposition. A tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, a bust made from nine pints of blood, and a collage of a black Virgin Mary incorporating elephant dung are among the art displayed at the controversial exposition. The staging of the exhibition enraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York City officials who engaged the museum in a high-profile court battle on freedom of speech.

Les Stone

Racism Photo

Manhattan, 1989
Anti-censorship rally.

TL Litt

Racism Photo

Manhattan, Oct 02, 1999
Supporters of the art exhibit “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), show their support of freedom of speech during a counter-demonstration against the exposition. A tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, a bust made from nine pints of blood, and a collage of a black Virgin Mary incorporating elephant dung are among the art displayed at the controversial exposition. The staging of the exhibition enraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York City officials who engaged the museum in a high-profile court battle on freedom of speech.

Les Stone

Racism Photo

Manhattan, Oct 02, 1999
Supporters of the art exhibit “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA), show their support of freedom of speech during a counter-demonstration against the exposition. A tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde, a bust made from nine pints of blood, and a collage of a black Virgin Mary incorporating elephant dung are among the art displayed at the controversial exposition. The staging of the exhibition enraged Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New York City officials who engaged the museum in a high-profile court battle on freedom of speech.

Les Stone

Racism Photo

Manhattan, 1989
A woman wearing a fur coat walks past anti-fur protesters on 5th Avenue, across the street from Trump Tower.

Gabe Kirchheimer