The brouhaha began over some paper towels.

The towels were tinged with human blood, used in a live act by a radical HIV-positive artist in 1994, a time when AIDS hysteria was peaking all over America.

It didn't matter that the $150 of the federal budget that went toward funding the show was an infinitesimal amount. That any federal money was used to support Ron Athey's "Four Scenes From a Harsh Life," presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, was enough to outrage conservatives. Sen. Jesse Helms pushed to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Rush Limbaugh incited listeners to hysteria by claiming that buckets of AIDS-tainted blood had been thrown at audience members who were running for their lives. (In fact, the artist whose blood was on the paper towels was not HIV-positive.)

What became known as "the culture wars" — a heated polarity between supporters of provocative art and conservative leaders who didn't want public money used to fund it — didn't begin in Minneapolis. But Athey's notable performance wound up being one of its primary flash points, and tossed the Walker into the middle of the fire.

The brouhaha will be remembered and discussed at events in Minneapolis this week, including a panel discussion at the Walker featuring Athey, a symposium at the University of Minnesota and two nights of performances by local artists at Patrick's Cabaret.

Targeting the NEA

Athey, described as a body-modification artist, was presented in 1994 by one of the city's largest cultural institutions, the Walker, at one of its smallest, an avant-garde indie space across town called Patrick's Cabaret.

At one point, Athey, who is HIV-positive, cut incisions into the back of another artist, daubed paper towels with his blood and clipped the towels to lines circling above the audiences' heads. The scene was meant to evoke a "human printing press."

After receiving a tip about a complaint by one audience member to public health officials, the Star Tribune ran a front-page story, which was followed up by news media across the country. Outraged, Helms called Athey a "cockroach" on the Senate floor, citing him as a reason to defund or cut back on the NEA's then $171 million annual budget. Religious leader Pat Robertson denounced the Walker, and Limbaugh threw gasoline on the fire with his comments.

A few months after Athey's show, the NEA's budget was cut by 2 percent — a blow, but nowhere near the more drastic cuts its critics had called for. Like the NEA Four, a group of controversial artists including Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, who also had appeared at the Walker, Athey became a symbol of the fight — even though he himself had never applied for NEA money.

Athey moves on

Athey, now 53, has lived in London the past six years, but said he is moving back to Los Angeles soon. "I never assimilated; I miss the desert, and my visa runs out in May," he said by phone recently.

He performs six to eight times a year, mostly outside the United States, and supplements his income by doing deep-tissue massage.

The culture wars' hailstorm of negative publicity incidentally branded Athey's career. It also made his name and work much more prominently known than they might have been otherwise. He is circumspect about its effect on his legacy, and the current climate toward challenging art.

"I think the world has changed," he said. "The opposition may be loud, but they're not as great in number."

On the other hand, "so much of our lives is represented online now. If I don't self-censor at all, someone erases my Facebook page and I end up in a triple-X Tumblr ghetto.

"Art that addresses issues beyond commerce should be as important as the news of the day. Sometimes art should be about more than art's sake. Do we want to live in a cartoon world where everything is safe for 8-year-olds? That doesn't evolve the culture."

Issues in visual arts, too

Arts administrators with front-row seats to the culture wars included the Walker's performing arts director at the time, John Killacky, whose decision it was to use that $150 as part of the Athey show's budget. Killacky now heads the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt.

"The effect on the zeitgeist then was chilling," he said. "A lot of states followed suit with their own funding, and corporations didn't want to support politicized artists. It's coming back, but this time it is around race and class issues that artists are dealing with. That's the explosive material right now."

Citing similar furor over the sexually charged photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe; Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a tiny Jesus on a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine, and Chris Ofili's portrait of the Madonna made in part with elephant dung, Killacky sees highly publicized objections as opportunistic.

"Every time the NEA is up for reappropriations, things get decontextualized and ignited by people who want to use artists for sound bites in the media and for political fundraising," he said.

Before Athey

Killacky noted that the Walker's relationship to the culture wars actually began in 1990, when the vice squad showed up on opening night for performance artist Karen Finley (who, it was widely and erroneously reported, inserted a yam into her anus as part of her act; she did smear her naked body with chocolate).

The cops, who had come following a complaint from a concerned citizen, left after seeing nothing illegal. But Helms saw a review, which prompted his drafting of the Decency Clause, which the NEA Four sued over.

Patrick Scully, then impresario of Patrick's Cabaret, has created and performed his own share of jaw-dropping work. Since the culture wars erupted, he sees a lasting ripple effect.

"Part of it is how resources are allocated," he said. "But I think it's also made other funders more cautious. Programmers, too, including the Walker. Not to say that's always the case, but the general tone is less adventurous."

Eleanor Savage, a program officer at the Jerome Foundation, said she feels that culture war censorship toward art that pushes boundaries is still around but that the focus has shifted from the AIDS crisis and sexual identity to other themes, including racism, immigration, climate change and the growing economic divide.

Savage, who as a former Walker staffer produced the Athey show and is a co-curator of the coming weekend's homage cabaret, said that a key development since the culture wars has been a move by individual artists away from depending on public money.

"They're crowdsourcing, doing their own fundraising, circumventing the regular channels," she said. "But just because artists can't rely on public funding doesn't mean we should do away with it. Minnesota's arts and culture are part of what puts us on the map."

Why isn't Athey performing?

The burning question that remains: Why is Athey not performing — at the Culture Wars Cabaret or through the Walker — even though he plans to stick around for at least the first night at Patrick's?

It's tempting to conclude that such a glaring omission on the bill is Exhibit A in that "less adventurous" trend Scully sees, due to presenter apprehension about roiling the waters again.

"I would have liked to; it's been 21 years since the last time," Athey said. "I was told Patrick's tried to raise the money."

Scott Artley, Patrick's performing arts curator, said an attempt was made beginning a year ago to raise money to pay Athey to be a part of the show, but costs related to travel and the performance were too high. Typically the expense outlay on a Patrick's show is about $1,000, and whatever ticket proceeds the cabaret clears all go to the artists.

As for the Walker, with its far larger budget, performing arts senior curator Philip Bither (who succeeded Killacky in 1997) said that he doesn't tend to book work that he hasn't seen live, but that because Athey's Minneapolis appearance is an important part of Walker history, the museum's role could be to host a dialogue including him (and to help with his travel costs, using non-NEA dollars).

Such explanations might be perfectly legit, or artful sidesteps, or a bit of both. They do seem like a great launchpad for some kind of … performance piece.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046