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Artistic Freedom or Poor Taste?

By J. William Haas

Once again the country is enthralled with another art funding controversy, this time at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. This one centers around a display of a painting of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung and genitalia on it, not to mention that she is depicted as being black, a factor to few but more of a factor to some "good old boys" than I suspect even they are willing to admit.

Even the most naive amongst us should know that the museum's board members are either stupid or that they were keenly aware that this would offend the religious, anger and divide the city, make tons of money for the exhibition's owners, and turn the museum's staff into the heroes of free expression within their own set.

They also knew, or should have, that a hotly contested political race was in progress with New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani involved. It is no stretch at all to have assumed that in the atmosphere of an election year, any controversy of this sort would automatically be used to further the career of a politician. Giuliani did not disappoint; he announced that he would cut off public funding for the museum and encourage the Senate to do likewise with the National Endowment. An act, should it come to pass, that would likely end the existence of the museum as more than a third of their funds are derived in this manner.

The other candidate in the political race, Hillary Rodam Clinton, seems to have taken a page from her Presidential husband and moved smartly to the center, announcing that while she is adamantly opposed to any art that offends a religion, she nonetheless, opposes any kind of censorship of artistic expression, thereby firmly planting a foot in each camp.

As an artist, I prefer to think that I may have some degree of insight into this matter that the learned candidates might lack. And, since it is generally accepted that all artists would be bound to come to the defense of a fellow artist, let me begin my remarks by saying that I hardly see this exhibit as an artist wonderkind. The pursuit of our craft is hardly advanced by these constant barrages of indecent displays and shocking art for the sake of shock alone. I have examined this piece of work, although not in person, and from a mechanical and technical aspect, I find nothing remarkable about the painting at all. It's merit, or lack of same, lies not in it's perfection but in it's content. The artist must have been keenly aware of the shock value it would have in a display for public consumption, thus "shock for shock value alone."

This is but one of the various devices used by this artist to shock our senses. Among the exhibit is a cow cut into sections and displayed as art. One can only assume that the artist possessed a good deal more prowess with a chain saw than with a brush. One might assume that this particular display was, of course, created as a display piece alone as the potential market for such a work would surely be limited to the entranceway to a meat packing plant.

Thus we have arrived at the somewhat sorry state of the "arts" this sort of thing represents. This artist is now a "made" commodity. Like Robert Mapplethorpe, he will be saleable, not because of his talent, but instead because of this controversy. Artists have become so beleaguered in their attempts to sell that many have resorted to the tired old practice of shocking for the sake of shock in order to get their names before the public. This is a cowardly and destructive avenue. It belittles those of us who labor in conventional methods and does little to further the arts. In fact, it has the opposite effect of enabling those who are intent upon squelching artistic expression to yell "foul". The Jesse Helm's of this world must be salivating over this opportunity. As fellow artists are we to rally around this type of artistic expression? I think not!

However, this attempt at censorship will surely fail. It may garner votes for Giuliani among the faithful but as a matter of law it has little merit. Is the painting meant to shock? Yes. Is it meant to be an assault on the Catholic religion? I doubt it. The artist, a Catholic himself, says not and I believe him. He presents the virgin as a goddess of fertility. History is replete with examples of her being depicted in this manner. In Italy everyone is accustomed to seeing pictures of the pregnant virgin. It is called the Parturition Madonna.

Women there who wish to have a safe and healthy pregnancy often pray to these pictures or statues. They light candles to the pictures and touch the swelling stomachs of the statues. This does not seem to me to be anti-Catholic. The painter who is of African decent portrays the virgin as African herself - again, not the least bit unusual, as many cultures depict both Jesus and Mary as a member of their own race. As for the elephant dung, he claims that it was a symbol of fertility in his ancestors culture and surely genitalia is that too.

The point here is not whether the painting represents an assault on religion but instead whether the actions of the mayor represents an attack upon freedom of expression. It does indeed. Lawyers that I know and respect, say that the mayor will loose this one because the Supreme Court frowns on any penalty on disfavoring viewpoints. This is what makes our country strong. Nonconformist art is by it's very definition anti-something. I see no reason why anti-church should be excluded.

As for the public funding of such works I find it strange that funding should be extended then withdrawn on the basis of what Mr. Giuliani decides is or is not offensive. The general public has always supported unfavorable ideas even when they deplored them. The religious right may bay at the moon all they wish, but even their existence depends upon a free and open society. And in such a society, we must bear even that which we find offensive. It is the price we pay for freedom.