In Which Our Hero Observes Art, Politics and 3 Card Monte on a Grand Scale

I have been reading about the Art controversy in New York City for almost two months now, and was kind of surprised to find out that the offending exhibit just did open a couple of weeks ago. From the way it was being talked about, I thought it was already being viewed by the general public. In fact, one of the speeches made by someone who is against the exhibit made it seem like school children were being bussed in and forced to look at the art at gunpoint. Then again, on the other side, I thought that the art was being blocked from view and no one was being allowed to see it. Odd that people were allowed in and the only thing keeping them from seeing the art was an admission charge.

As always, the truth lies between the two extremes, but that doesn't make for good drama, now does it? In a world where our news is to entertain us, we must have our drama. Each side needs a villain to hiss at, and each side needs a hero riding to their rescue. The problem is that we've been through all of this before, and it isn't getting any different. In fact, it seems as if both sides are reading from scripts written during the Mapplethorpe controversy, which was a revised version of the controversy before that which dates back to an episode of "All In The Family" where Meathead brought home a statue of two naked people kissing.

In fact, the research I have done in the vast Solitaire Rose Compound's library shows that the first instance of this sort of thing was when Oog drew an unflattering portrait of the tribe's chief on the cave wall.

The first point I want to make is that art is supposed to offend. Not always, and not in every instance, but art is supposed to be a way of communicating ideas, and some ideas offend. I remember walking out of the theater after seeing "Clockwork Orange" the first time, and while it was a brilliant work, it offended me on a number of levels, and it was supposed to. It made a person think, and art that doesn't make you think is a product, no different than a can of pressurized cheese and deserving of the same regard and respect. It may be good pressurized cheese in a can, it might even be the best damn pressurized cheese in a can you've ever had is your misbegotten life, but it doesn't change the fact that they are just cheese in a can.

Just because something is a painting, or a book, or a play, or a cave drawing doesn't mean that it is worthwhile art. Let's be honest, is the pabulum that Norman Rockwell was able to sell anything more than a nice cover for a magazine? OK, maybe he was trying to say something about the America he saw, but for the most part, he was an assembly line manufacturer, pushing the idea of instant nostalgia. Honestly, though, can you say that you got any message out of his paintings other than, "How cute. How unbelievably, cloyingly, stomach-churningly, God how I need a drink CUUUUUUUute"? It may be art, but it isn't Art, because it's not saying anything. It's just another can of cheese.

The second point I would like to make is that I don't think that this is so much a "big controversy" as much as a dance by the two sides to whip up interest in their specific needs. Rudy Guilliani seems a little too eager to pick up the banner of the morally outraged. In fact, I could see him playing a part in a bad remake of "Casablanca" reciting the line, "I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to learn that there is art not fit for children here!" The museum, for its part, seems all to willing to wave the First Amendment banner like a matador in front of the old liberal guard which only seems to have that issue as one they can get public support on.

That being said, the exhibit in New York went out of its way to be in your face. They whipped up a publicity campaign about how this was art that was "cutting edge" and "daring". The name of the exhibit itself was "Sensation" and I'm sure they weren't thinking of the word the same way as that song from "Chorus Line." They wanted controversy. It's free publicity. And it worked for them. People all over the country now know about an art exhibit in a New York museum. There are art museums that would kill to be mentioned on national TV, let alone mentioned repeatedly on National TV. For Free, no less.

The other side is no better. Mayor Rudy is running for the Senate, and if he wants to grab free publicity, he has to do something to make sure he gets free coverage. There are a lot of ways to get free coverage, but if you also want to appeal to the hard-core conservative base of his political party, and quick and easy way to do it is to condemn something that is either profane or anti-religious. "Sensation" with its religious imagery was a gift delivered on a silver platter. "Look at this dirty painting of the Virgin Mary, we must stop this sort of thing!" is the political equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded movie theater. It gets everyone to take notice and freak out on both sides. In less than a day, Rudy is on every news program and mentioned on CNN more often than anyone other than Wolf Blitzer. For Free, no less.

Imagine that. Both sides get free coverage. Both sides reach their target audience. If I was just a bit more paranoid, I would think of it as what the Disney people call "synergy." Wait, the news shows get a ready-made controversy to fill up time with a lot of people who are used to talking in public, which makes for even more synergy. Odd, isn't it?

Not really. It's the same circus, with slightly different clowns. This whole thing smacks of Cats, a touring show that replaces actors as they get sick of playing their parts, but with the same tag line, "Now and forever." Not that I have a solution to the whole thing, you know. I've given up on most of humanity and feel it's my part to point at things. At this point, I either laugh or stare incredulously as the audience listens to someone in a cat costume sings "Memory" again thinking it's never been like this before.

In the end, however, nothing is going to happen. The exhibit will run for its allotted time and make a lot of money. Rudy will run ads about how he has protected the decent people of New York from the heathen artists and how he'll do the same in the Senate. Then, in a few years, it will all happen again when some artist does a painting on black velvet of Jesus and the 12 Apostles playing poker, smoking cigars and drinking fine malt whiskey. It'll give news shows something to report that has clear, defined opponents (since we need to have that sort of thing or the news is too confusing for a 25 second story). It'll give that museum a lot of advertising, pulling all the old liberals out to see the art as their cultural duty. It'll give some right wing Republican a bad guy who is causing the downfall of civilization. And, since we have such short memories, we'll be amazed yet again that some paint on some canvas can get people so worked up.

Oddly enough, however, in all the times this little controversy has sprung up, civilization has endured, and artists can still paint. Well, except for Oog, who just got clubbed to death by the chief in his sleep. But then again, what do you expect with a name like Oog?

Back to the Main Page