A U.S. art gallery, associated with the venerable Smithsonian Institute, buckles under pressure from The Catholic League, and pulls a filmic meditation on AIDS and its victims, by David Wojnarowicz. Followed by hysterical calls for funding cuts from a US politician. The creator of the soundtrack used in the censored film responded pithily…

“What the Catholic League and certain members of the House [Parliament] presumably wish to remove from their consciousness is thirty years of death sentences handed down to their parishioners and citizenry, who were told not to wear condoms, and the mistreatment of those stigmatized as miscreants and sinners…”

The 13-minute film is now available online. John Coulthart notes in an addendum on the news…

“The Institute is learning now that these people are never satisfied with small victories, they always want more. … Given the current climate we can expect to hear a lot more about taxpayers’ money funding “obscenity”.”

Are there signs of similar stirrings here in the UK? Ringing alarm bell for me is the seemingly minor ‘invisible art’ flurry of tabloid fury of recent days. The conditions would seem right for something similar to the lurch that happened in the late 1970s / early 1980s, when the UK saw the emergence of Mary Whitehouse, fronting ‘family values’ moral-minority organisations that then became symbiotic with a hysterical press and (later on) with ideological police chiefs. Mrs Thatcher’s government, temperamentally non-interventionist in terms of state control of anything, found itself being led by the nose into a wave of ever more regressive new censorship laws and pronouncements on morals. Radical feminists fumed on the sidelines, while they saw their pro-censorship agenda codified into law after law by the religious right, and then pursued with zeal by ‘born-again’ Christian police chiefs such as James Anderton who raided galleries and cultural bookshops with impunity. The HIV/AIDS panic also threw petrol on the fire after 1983/4.

In the 1980s the hysteria of the ‘culture wars’ also had a potent side-effect, especially in the USA — it was found to be very useful in the political justification of massive arts funding cuts.

History doesn’t repeat itself, despite the fact that many parallels can be easily drawn between 1980 and 2010. But, in the current febrile conditions (incipient arts cuts, a senile national press, the coming ‘community control’ of policing, domain takedowns, etc), I’d certainly be looking out for the emergence of a ‘new Mary Whitehouse’, and maybe even from outside of the usual constituency of religious bigots.