Saturday, February 20, 2010

Four Views on Offense

A radio show recently posed the question:  how should public art be funded during a recession?  It was framed in terms of prods to fund the "hits", until there is money for the risky exhibits. 

After commercial break a new question swept the topic away, because no one called in.  But maybe that's not surprising -- recall some "art controversies" from the last two decades:  Robert Mapplethorpe, The Last Temptation of ChristThe Holy Virgin Mary, and My Sweet Lord.   One thing they all share is the offending of people enough to care, not just about funding but the very existence of art.


I have no answer as to whether anyone should view, let alone fund bullwhips in asses, or alternative takes on Saviors and kin.   How could I, when I have no sense of the "utility vs. danger" of such art? 

It is, of course, possible that no one should be making such things, that they represent some kind of abomination, perhaps with the capability of spreading.  But how is an organizer or funding agent supposed to know?   Even after an event has already been seen, is it possible to seperate what has merely offended versus what has caused actual harm?

Could an artist be doing his job to suggest that Jesus had (sex), or that an icon could be fashioned from porn and elephant shmear?  I think so, inasmuch as you are being challenged to view something against contrast.  You may not like the chocolate Jesus, even less idea of a savior mounting his good lady wife, but who says an artist's job is to make something you like?

The subject of a 1913 scandal, in New York.

A recent exhibit at a library featured twenty or so framed white rectangles, a description of a famous event in the center of each.  According to the artist's statement, he is trying to get people to see how images of events are conjured in one's mind despite not being at an event.

The exhibit is annoying (like I'm not at an event) and so I would veto it if something else were available.  And guess what, most people I ask about the exhibit don't much care, which I take to mean the exhibit is not "offensive" or otherwise radiant enough.

So, should it have been funded?  Should it exist?  One way you might find out is by measuring the exhibit's ripples through culture.  You could poll exhibit viewers to get some idea, and some of the offended will offer their views, but how can you really know what havoc or good your art has wrought?  

Art funding is (hopefully inspired) guesswork, exhibit design an art all its own. 

The artist behind the library exhibit is a successful advertising man.  His field, more than art funding or curatorship, believes it must steer clear of offending people to accomplish it's ends.  Yet advertising is (IMHO) usually ugly, and in full public view.

(Not to say the installation was ugly -- it wasn't so much an ad as an attempt to question perception.)

Does anyone really believe a steady diet of advertising is harmless?  Can chronic glorification of competitiveness via manipulative emptiness possibly be a bad thing?  

Of course it isn't just advertising that makes public spaces a jumble of nonsense.  Those ugly billboards stand near bland, even malformed architecture, and commercials only add to the insult of much radio, TV, and Internet content.  We are assaulted daily by vacuousness, ugliness, and stupidity from many sources, even if we try to avoid it.

Yet some people are worried about a rendering of Mary, cloistered in a gallery, or a Jesus made from chocolate?   It always gets me that such things upset people more than, say, war, starvation, and disease.  Maybe this is testament to the power of "the arts", but it seems more like a certain Creator's twisted sense of humor. 

Consistently, the "offended" in art scandals appear to lack the capacity for self-reflection, and the "offenders" appear to believe that what they put out into the world is somehow selectively, magically interactive, producing only good or neutral effects.  Wow, "the arts" really are special!

I think (hope) most people, not completely self-absorbed, believe art is neither harmless nor The Antichrist. 

So, I sympathize with everyone involved in art scandals, but believe nothing approaches the destructiveness of what is outside the galleries.  Complain and bitch as you will about "the arts", and I certainly do enough of it,  but I think we are trying to control things that are much larger and/or more personal.

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