Culture wars

Before our culture wars, the “cultural cold war” (a term coined by George Orwell in 1945) was raging: Moscow was the winner after Socialist Realism defeatedthe rival Nazi Realism. The arch-opponent, the USA, was a new country with a reputation of poor culture. In between, the international École de Paris stood for the free interplay of cultures – at the time, the State had turned away from supervising art, and did not care much for geostrategy. It was largely a semantic affair: the Soviets’ slogan “for peace against fascism” was answered by the USA’s “for the freedom of culture”, a more consensual and positive slogan that will win and endure.

Picasso’s dove vs. Pollock’s dripping

The USA applied, with some lag, the communist strategy, with their own publications, colloquia, and not-so-independent institutions, such as the Congress for the Freedom of Culture, founded in 1950 in Paris under the aegis of the CIA, which more generally financed, and worked with, private foundations and museums, such as the MoMA, organising travelling exhibitions of US modern art from 1952 onwards all over Europe. The choice vector was Abstract Expressionism (although born in Europe): no narration or figuration, no reference to a national past, adoptable by all because it purported to express universal inner states. Pollock’s formats and his energy are in tune with modernity. Ironically, the American painters thus promoted were radical activists (like their supporting art critics Greenberg and Rosenberg) ; McCarthyism suspected them of being communists, but abroad the CIA used them to divert the European left from communism. Discouraging artists from travelling to Moscow was easy: Socialist Realism, accused of academicism, had few emulators in the Western avant-garde, especially not Picasso, who was nevertheless a member of the CIA. To dissuade them from travelling to Paris, they relied on a mixture of Pop art and art stemming from Duchamp, as practised by Rauschenberg, the (not very loyal) winner of the Venice Biennale in 1964, so that New York “stole the idea of modern art from Paris”. Duchampian art, from ready-mades to performances, has a conceptual content: idea, intention and discourse prevail over form. Art expressing meaning through craft, aiming at Beauty, becomes archaic or even laughable: undermining by un-trending is a staple of a culture war. Progressive discourses will be able to spread via the Duchampian movement, whose inherent transgression gets along with the American preoccupation with pushing back frontiers: conquest of the West, of the moon, and then transgression of the limits of sex and human gender (LGBT, speciesism etc) as part of a protest against Western civilisation dominated by White males, ignited on Californian campuses (Berkeley, Stanford) and continued and dignified by French Theory, the matrix of gender studies and a whole array of other ‘studies’. Culture reviewed (‘problematised’) in terms of class, ethnicity or gender is transformed into multiculturalism, along with the end of modernity (Lyotard and, differently, Fukuyama) and the advent of the post-modern era: the mythical ‘grand narratives’ (the Revolution, progress, etc.) are replaced by a storytelling that shapes voters, buyers and viewers. Identity is tolerated only as folklore or Disneylandised for the benefit of cultural tourism. It was precisely in the mid-1970s that the term ‘contemporary art’ was coined, a catch-all that was more alluring than the military or activist term ‘avant-garde’. Its tutelary figure is Marcel Duchamp, a Frenchman who emigrated to the United States, an apolitical and joking dandy, the inventor of the ‘ready-made’, a pioneer of performances (where, disguised as a woman, he ‘questions’ gender), and an ace at chess and word games (and remarkably, culture war draws heavily on semantic strategies). His principles of diversion, appropriation, and re-contextualisation of word meaning make his practice a Trojan horse designed to unsettle. The Urinoir is a pioneering piece. Duchamp no longer creates art but decrees it ; he substitutes know-how (savoir-faire) with a make-it-known (faire-savoir) that constructs the belief that “it is really art” – a motto of the world of Contemporary Art – AC[1]1 .

New fights

While the CIA is in charge of influence abroad, within the USA the promotion is handled by NEA, created in 1965, State-subsidised but relatively independent. It gave priority neither to high culture (threatened by mass culture and entertainment) nor to avant-garde, which was prone to duchampism, but to a more democratic and popular culture (folklore, then in the 1970s, graffiti, Hip Hop, Rap, etc.), and supports outreach to prisons, schools and ghettos. In 1980, the US Congress imposed ‘cultural diversity’: the promotion of the arts and ways of ethnic and social minorities (especially Blacks, Latinos and Natives). Feminists, gays and lesbians quickly identified themselves as communities and “sexual minorities”: with them, CA in its transgressive Duchampian component, in a vigorous and virulent comeback. Culture wars proper began when the word ‘culture’ was considered to refer less to intellectual or artistic excellence than to an attitude and a way of life.

The crisis broke out in May 1989 when religious associations protested against a picture by Andres Serrano, a crucifix dipped in a aesthetic-looking orange light – in fact a jar of urine, Piss Christ. The Cultural originates in cult; Christianity, especially Catholicism with 2000 years of images to divert, is a playground for this artistic movement. Senators and members of the House of Representatives protested to the NEA, which had financed the work. In June 1989, an exhibition of the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe also subsidised by the NEA was cancelled for fear of unrest, but as the photographer had died of AIDS in March: emotion-boosted artists and intellectuals mobilised and even boycotted the museum. Other works devoted to AIDS patients would turn the NEA director around, and the grieving director ended up trapped in the infernal subversion/subsidy cycle: each scandal enhanced the profile of transgressive artists. This ambiguous game of institutions paying transgressive art to (try to) contain it, served as a model for many cultural policies throughout the world. Serrano denied any blasphemy, and sued a pastor who had distributed copies to raise awareness against it, without paying copyright fees. Culture wars spread from Washington to the entire USA, including numerous institutions, universities, libraries, foundations, etc.: 10 years of demonstrations (and a lot of money) were spent on the subject. 10 years of demonstrations (and counter-demonstrations), petitions (and counter-petitions) and numerous trials. The “NEA4” (4 queer artists-activists defunded due to strident obscenity) sued the NEA, won a first trial, but lost after escalation to the Supreme Court in 1998 – an indication that decency and respect for the beliefs and values of the American public can matter for the allocation of public money. While the use of private money in this domain is virtually unrestricted, the State must be able to accommodate the susceptibility of its citizens, especially in a multicultural society.

With the help of globalisation, societies are becoming americanised, and migration is creating a ‘diversity’ whose hub is New York City: taggers, rappers, dancers etc. are multiplying their tours abroad thanks to the embassies. This soft power led to a blending of cultures into a mosaic where the protean CA (from McCarthy’s in-your-face scatology to Koons’ garish kitsch) is a reference, with a visibility reloaded with each scandal or financial record of the high-end market (while masses are targeted through derivative products). Parisians now know more about New York artists than about local ones.

Officially, diversity is a factor of creativity, of attenuation of identities suspected of nationalism and therefore of war. In fact, non-Duchampian art is an impediment to globalisation because it carries meaning, values, identity, and friction that are harmful to a mercantile logic that strives to eliminate all obstacles to the mobility of persons and products. When Wim Delvoye tattooed a pig’s back with the intent of cutting it out and exhibit it, then tattoos the back of a man with the same idea (contractually), he means that man is just another commodity.

This global, mainstream culture, an inexorable trend of History, dismantles all tradition: the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions in Paris closed in 2005, abandoned by the Ministry of Culture, for which an ethnological museum dedicated to past rural and artisanal France can only be populist and regressive, even reactionary. Today the buildings are owned by Fondation Vuitton, run by a major international CA collector: quite a symbol. By supporting CA, international commercial-financial-media networks have taken over from US agents. The cross-border economy functions in interconnected rhizomes infused with money, with no central ‘conductor’. Cultural wars, once cold, are now gaseous ; their periphery is everywhere, and their centre, nowhere. Portland, a communication company, produces the Soft Power 30 index ranking 30 countries according to their alignment with globalist ideals. In 2019 the bad pupils were China (27th) and Russia (30th): they rely on the local to resist the global, or play a double game, keeping their culture while adopting CA only to a point. Poland ranked 23rd, and France… 1st 2[2].

A prominent career in CA is necessarily supported by networks: postcolonial (Kader Attia), feminist (Kiki Smith) etc. Commitment is more important than the work, or it is itself the work. Activism is no longer political but “societal”: feminism, racism, discrimination, gender studies, climate, migration crisis, etc., grab all the attention at the expense of vital emergencies (the alarming state of public hospitals in France was never really showcased before Covid). In addition to the content, culture wars are dangerous because of their recurrent targets: religion (at the 2015 Venice Biennale a Swiss artist transformed a church into a mosque), and heritage. These wars are retroactive: CA artists love to ‘dialogue’ with art of the past. Matthew Barney (born in 1967), plays with sexual ambiguity, and is so keen on projecting interpretation to other periods as to have us believe that Girodet’s sweetly sensual Endymion is less a token of romanticism than a clue of Girodet (totally unevidenced) homosexuality or bisexuality). The notion of memory, in a modern sociological sense, mostly emotional and community-centred, supplants that of history, a rational discipline based on universally admissible evidence. In a society plagued by culture wars, truth is replaced by consensus or ‘alternative truth’. One can only talk about trivial matters or celebrate: hence the success of the term ‘arty’, for artsy and sexy; culture wars are festive, they attract young people, their third favourite target. Schoolchildren are sent to exhibitions that introduce them, in a cool, enticing setting, to relativism, the deconstruction of values, and the pleasures of inversion: Infamilles (FRAC Lorraine, a public institution) combined, as its title suggests, infamy and family; parents sued, but the justice system was petrified at the idea of being accused of infringing the freedom of expression in art. For a long time, the latter protected artists for whom paedophilia was a praiseworthy rebellion against the moral order, such as the CA star Claude Lévêque, recently accused of raping minors.

What should be done?

Never attack head-on: indignation will be turned into censorship, an attack on the dignity of the artist and of art itself. When The Queen’s Vagina was vandalised in Versailles, Kapoor abundantly cashed in on his victim’s posture. In a cultural war, concepts and slogans are weapons that social networks are fond of. But first, to avoid simply exchanging one alienation for another, we must deconstruct deconstruction, by catching it in its own traps, unspoken words and contradictions3. CA prides itself on feminism: while women are over half of the enrolment in art schools, why are women only 7 of the 100 most popular artists in 2020? Why, after #metoo and Duchamp’s quip “On n’a que: pour femelle la pissotière et on en vit” (sic) (approximately: The only female within reach is the urinal and we live on it”, plus two obscene puns), how come his phallocratic Urinoir is still a worldwide icon? When activists bring tons of blocks of sea ice to Paris for climate advocacy, maybe we should ask about the carbon footprint. The floundered trawler where 800 migrants drowned, refloated at a high cost, was displayed at the 58th Venice Biennale as a guilt-inducing symbol of “a failing Europe”, but in front of the wreck, visitors drank spritz – are migrant aid associations not sceptical of the cocktail of art, entertainment, finance and human rights? Eduardo Kac fights genetic manipulation by creating a fluorescent rabbit; CA loves to practice what it denounces: does it implyl that evil is best fought through evil? Orlan models his face with frontal bumps implanted by a surgeon, declaring “Je suis un femme et une homme“. Faced with the current malaise of the masculine/feminine, the more art flirts with the clone, the augmented man and the cyborg, the less the responsibility of endocrine disrupting effects of industrial chemicals will be pointed out (despite the evidence provided by the surge of excessively early puberty): this is because the results are already culturally internalised, and transgenderism, ‘genderfluid’ attitude, transhumanism, are presented as a manifest advance of mankind.

Finally, denouncing ‘cultural appropriation’ as the spoliation of another culture (forbidding Whites from discussing slavery etc.) blows up the notion of [socio]culture (kultur), which is as much a borrowing as a heritage. The “cancel culture”, the ‘culture’ (attitude) of obliteration of the non-aligned, beside ruining careers on account of a few words said or posted years ago, and other trick of the same ilk, sends hysterical mobs toppling statues of personalities who allegedly do not ‘respect’ ‘our’ ‘values’ (ours, really?). This anachronic iconoclasm, leveraging intimidation and emotion, manages to make people accept a move of occultation and take it for one of liberation. These developments of culture wars are leading to a Kafkaesque world, and possibly civil wars.


Christine Sourgins Art historian

1 Ideally, ‘contemporary art’ should refer to the art of all contemporary artists, but generally, it is about conceptual art à la Duchamp (here called CA to avoid confusion). It is dominant, and largely financial.

2 Trump’s US ranked 5th.

3 Christine Sourgins, Les Mirages de l’Art contemporain, La Table Ronde, 2018.

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