I’m sure Jesse Helms leaves behind some people somewhere, who will mourn his passing. But to those of us with open minds and hearts, who abhor racism and discrimination, we who cherish equality, liberty, freedom of expression, and yes, ART in all its forms, his death is one reminder why human mortality is, after all, a good thing for the world.
The man who almost singlehandedly eviscerated the National Endowment for the Arts is done and gone. And gone still is funding for individual visual artists.
Here are some highlights from his ignominious life history (from Helm’s obit in today’s NY Times):
“The self-proclaimed, self-anointed art experts would scoff and say, ‘Oooh, terrible,’ but I like beautiful things, not modern art,” he told The New York Times in 1989, during a pitched battle over federal subsidies to the arts. “I can’t even figure out that sculpture in the Hart Building.” He was referring to an Alexander Calder mobile.
In the 1980’s he took on the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing art that he found offensive, chiefly that of the homosexual photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and of the artist Andres Serrano over his depiction of a crucifix submerged in urine. He later led an ill-fated attempt to take over CBS, exhorting conservatives to buy up stock in order to stop what he saw as a liberal bias in its news reporting.
He fought bitterly against Federal aid for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from “unnatural” and “disgusting” homosexual behavior.
Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, Mr. Helms unveiled a nakedly racial campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified member of a minority. Mr. Helms went on to victory.
“Look carefully into the faces of the people participating,” he said in a 1968 editorial against anti-Vietnam war protests. “What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often crude young men and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way.”
On this country’s birthday, maybe there’s hope that we can collectively learn a lesson, name that kind of thinking for what it really is, and actively refuse to tolerate it in our government and our lives.
[Above: It’s for You, Jesse, ©Sky Pape, 1990, oilstick, pastel and graphite on paper. Private Collection, Brooklyn, NY]
[More examples of Helms’ unabashed bigotry.]