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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Bring the pain: Bob Flanagan, Sheree Rose and masochistic art during the NEA controversies Macdonald, Laura


Poet, performance/installation artist, self-proclaimed "supermasochist" and life-long Cystic Fibrosis sufferer, Bob Flanagan and his partner, dominatrix and fellow artist Sheree Rose created art derived from their personal explorations of sadomasochistic sex acts and relationships. This work used the lens of S/M practice to deal with issues of illness, death, gender and sex. Throughout most of their 15 year collaboration (late 1980- early 1996) Flanagan and Rose lived and worked in relative obscurity, their work being circulated mainly in small subcultural circles. It was during the years of controversies surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), roughly 1989 to 1997, that Flanagan and Rose experienced unforeseen professional success and fame, propelling them from underground distribution in L.A. to the international art scene. These controversies arose from objections by various rightwing Christian politicians, individuals and groups who felt that the NEA had misused American tax dollars by awarding grants to artists who created and agencies that displayed "obscene" art. Flanagan and Rose were two such artists. This is a case study of the situation of Flanagan and Rose within these controversies, a situation in which there was opportunity, experimentation and heightened awareness despite (or perhaps because of) heated conflicts between opposing sets of ethics, aesthetics and lifestyle. Areas covered include: How the NEA controversies evolved and affected cultural production and dissemination in the United States. The strategies, motivations and moralities of both pro- and anti- NEA activists. How S/M practice is a sexual practice of resistance and how this practice can be perceived as a threat to the status quo. The strategies and circumstances which allowed Flanagan and Rose to attain success rather than ruination during NEA controversies. What sort of effect the work of Flanagan and Rose had upon the climate of the mid-1990s art world. How the life and work of Flanagan and Rose is integrated into the larger socio-political and historical circumstances in which it was produced.

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