Art, Health, Sex and Politics by Juan David Acosta
In the current political climate, art can and must become a powerful tool for raising an awareness of what is at stake domestically and globally. Artists always have been at the forefront of social change and cultural revolution. The role of art is central to fostering a dialogue on where we’ve been, where we are and where we want to go.

Recent attacks by right wing factions of the Republican Party (with tacit support from the White House) on a series of grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a peer review panel process bear an eerie resemblance to similar attacks in the1990s on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Interestingly enough, sex and sexuality are once again at the center of the NIH controversy as they were during the attacks on the NEA in the 1990s.

The NEA controversy began with an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs titled The Perfect Moment at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Funded in part by an NEA grant, The Perfect Moment explored interconnections between sexuality, desire, and disease at the height of the AIDS pandemic in the United States. The explicit nature of the exhibit’s photographs caught the attention of the then conservative Republican Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. In the ensuing months and years, Helms was able to effectively attack the NEA for funding other artists whose work explored sex, sexuality, disease, and other interconnections between the individual self and the body politic. It was a relatively conservative time in American culture and politics. Today, the NEA survives as a shadow of its former self, funding only those things which are deemed safe from political controversy.

The recent NIH grants under question, 200 to be exact, are mostly human sexuality studies that seek to shed light on sexual behavior and drug use among teens, sex workers, and other marginalized populations. Such studies are critical to developing effective prevention programs and sound public health policy. NIH grants, like those awarded by the NEA, are selected by peers who review, debate, and discuss the merits of the work in question. By questioning the peer review panel process, conservative politicians and the Bush administration are injecting politics into science.

The philosopher George Santayana said that “those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.” In the current political climate, attacks on the scientific research conducted by the NIH, if left unchallenged, will damage that institution much as the cultural wars of the 1990s damaged the NEA.

As if that was enough, the new war on terror has given the current administration the ability to curtail civil liberties in a way unprecedented in American history. Just 45 days after the September 11 attacks, with virtually no debate, and with the country’s attention still reeling from the pain and loss of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Congress passed the U.S. Patriot Act. Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect. For example, without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, your student records and can, in fact, prevent anyone from telling you it was done.

Artists and the cultural institutions which support them must redefine their roles in the shadows of a “new world order” -- one which uses the empty rhetoric of patriotism to create an environment where the curtailment of civil liberties is fast eroding under the Patriot Act and other dangerous legislation. We ignore the signs posted everywhere at our own peril. As the war on terrorism becomes an excuse for enforcing some of the most frightening surveillance tactics on average citizens, artists must engage the public in a debate about the uses and abuses of power, about freedom and democracy. The NEA never really recovered from the assault upon it. Let’s hope the NIH fares better. Remember to vote as if your freedom depended on it. It does!

Juan David Acosta’s work as a poet, writer, activist, and cultural worker has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Among the most notable are Mayrea, The Evergreen Chronicles, The Americas Review, American Poetry Confronts the 1990s (Black Tie Press 1990). The Limits of Silence (Asterion Press 1991), Poesida (Ollantay Press, 1995), and Floating Borderlands: Twenty Five Years of Latin American Poetry in The United States (University of Washington Press, 1998). Acosta is the co-founder of the Working Fund for Artists with AIDS, and has taught poetry and creative writing across the curriculum in schools throughout Philadelphia.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).